(There seems no relief for poor, storm-tossed Cunard. A linen-room fire aboard Vistafjord the night after she left Fort Lauderdale last spring for a repositioning crossing to Europe serves as yet another case in point.

Your Editor received two separate accounts of the events of that night from two passengers, presumably unknown to each other. Both articles are reproduced below and each offers certain insights that the other does not.

As it was, the vessel's officers and crew extinguished the blaze so promptly that the vessel was saved and no passenger injuries were sustained. One heroic crewman tragically lost his life.)

by Susan Buchenham

Martha Glass suggested you'd be interested in learning about the April 6th fire aboard Vistafjord. Enclosed are newspaper articles. I've learned there was another fire on the ship on or about May 5th while she was docked in Malta. No passengers were aboard and all crew members were safe. This cruise was also canceled and passengers flew home. Poor beleaguered Cunard!

My April 5th cruise started happily. The weather in Fort Lauderdale was ideal. After a delicious dinner, we scurried aft for the sailaway party at 9:OO p.m. Later, we sipped coffee on deck and watched the shore lights grow smaller. I retired and dutifully unpacked every last item in my suitcase. At 1:OO a.m., I collapsed on my bed and noted: manicure 1O:OO a.m., lifeboat drill 11:30 a.m.

Not 30 minutes later, the unthinkable happened. There was yelling, running and banging in the hall. It culminated outside my door (I was in the last passenger cabin forward on the port side). I was sleepy but remember thinking that noise did not sound like merry-making. Before I reached the door, I smelled acrid smoke. The racket was caused by the Filipinos frantically donning fire gear stowed in the fire locker opposite my door. Smoke was pouring out of this locker and filling the darkened and eerily quiet corridor. I ran aft towards the stairwell and couldn't find it as it was already shrouded in smoke. I ran back to my cabin to grab a long parka. Instinct told me to get out of that smoke PRONTO. I fled, leaving valuables and life jacket in my closet. I heard neither alarm nor announcement, nor did I see other passengers or crew members. For all I knew, I was all by myself. I groped my way aft and finally found the steps on the starboard side (the staircase is only accessible on the starboard side) . I flew up two decks before meeting a crew member. She sent me up two more decks to Promenade Deck. Once there, I scampered forward and hauled a life jacket out of a chest bolted to the teak.

Slowly, other passengers (apparently roused by stewards) and crew assembled on deck. Roll was taken. Lifeboats were lowered and manned. Announcements were made by our captain. The ship's doctor made rounds and introduced himself. All very civilized. Lights remained on and there was no panic (except inside my body!). At one point, angry red cinders boiled out of the stack! At another point, I noticed we had developed a list.

Coast Guard Appears

I cheered when a Coast Guard jet arrived and commenced circling us. Forgive me, but my dad and brother served in the U.S. Coast Guard. My alma mater is located across from the Coast Guard Academy (New London) so I'm a believer in the USCG! I think I yelled "We're Saved!" and several passengers marked me as a crazy. Several tall men reported seeing mast lights of ships standing by. I confess I was vastly relieved to hear the captain announce that we were 18 nautical miles from Freeport and headed for the harbor.

We docked about dawn. Bahamian fire trucks and Coast Guard cutters greeted Vistafjord. I collapsed on a chaise out on the stern and remembered I'd wanted to sleep outside on deck at sea once in my life; I came close. Breakfast was served and we were allowed in the ballroom. It was dreadfully smoky and so I remained on deck.

Very few passengers knew how bad things were forward. I was scared that my cabin was gutted. Around noon, I heard the rumor that a steward had died of smoke inhalation. I was in no mood to party when all the bars were opened and all available bartenders summoned. Nor could I eat in the hot and smoky dining room. I prevailed upon a crewman to let me fetch my clothes and toothbrush from my cabin #502, clouded by smoke but otherwise secure! It was nearly 5 p.m. when Immigration officials let us ashore. Happiness was checking into a non-smoking hotel room.

Cruise Over

Monday morning, we met with Cunard officials. They informed us the damage was extensive and the cruise was canceled. Many of us returned to Vistafjord to attend the memorial service at noon for the young steward. He was an only child and his father was en route from Germany. Many officers and crew were visibly upset. The passengers were dazed and frazzled.

I decided I'd fly back to Atlanta Tuesday morning. Cunard arranged charter flights. I felt sorry for all the European clientele who flew over Saturday afternoon and now were headed back early Tuesday morning. I hurriedly packed up all my stuff, dined on board and left for good at about 1O:3O p.m. and returned to my hotel. By teatime Tuesday, I was home.

Was it a bad dream? My clothes and luggage reeked of that acrid smoke. I left it all in my garage. Fire specialists recommended certain cleaners. I'm happy to report that all traces of smoke are gone now, even from my suitcases. I can't even bear to smell burnt toast now.

Cunard has been wonderful. A representative called my travel agent to verify I arrived home safely, then credited my American Express account four days after my return. Antti Panhakoski, Chairman and CEO, sent 12 gorgeous roses and a nice note of apology. He answered a letter I wrote to him. I praised his captain, officers and crew and thanked Cunard for their assistance.

Chapter VIII, Dark Nights, of your book Liners to the Sun, should be required reading for all who cross or cruise. I confess I never read the safety notice on the back of my door. I did know the location of my lifejacket. I hadn't remembered (that the) stairwell nearest my cabin wasn't accessible on the port side.

Why, Mr Panhakoski, is smoking allowed at sea? Fire is the ultimate peril. I also suggested Cunard conduct lifeboat drills as soon as possible after embarkation; our drill on Vistafjord was scheduled about 1O hours too late. Two fires within a month on the same ship is cause for alarm.

I've asked Antti for some information about the second fire and some reassurance.

I'm booked on Vistafjord in April of 1998; she is loved by many and I hope will sail for Cunard for many more years.

I'll be in New York City June 1Oth through June 19th. I've not decided whether I want to see Titanic! I will try to see QE2 sail on June 12th for Southampton. I shall always love my first Cunarder. Love your Gazette. I hope all's well with you and Mary.

by Steward Manville

When Vistafjord's transatlantic cruise passengers were awakened around 2:OO a.m. (Sunday, April 6th, 1997) by alarm bells and by stewards and stewardesses knocking on cabin doors, we were asked to don life jackets and proceed immediately to our lifeboat stations while they tucked hand towels around each cabin door handle to signify that the occupant(s) had been checked.

Thoughts of the Titanic must have occurred to more than a few of us. Seas were calm, the atmosphere this first night out of Fort Lauderdale pleasantly temperate--but an acrid odor permeated the corridors. The voice of Captain Terje Sorensen on the public address system informed us of a fire below decks in a dry storage area containing paper, linen, and clean staff uniforms.

All Out on Deck

So, as fire doors were being closed, we all clambered up the stairs into the open air, I from Main Deck single #366 amidships. It wasn't long before all 12 lifeboats had been lowered into position, some labeled "Capacity 11O "and others "Capacity 7O," ample for everyone aboard this comparatively modest-sized vessel originally operated by the Norwegian American Line and now part of the Cunard fleet. Some settled into deck chairs, sharing the leg rest with another one or two. Personnel brought mats and cushions for additional sitting. As time passed, cups of water were served, accompanied by Vistafjord cocktail napkins.

Further announcements informed us that other ships were nearby,that the heavy smoke was caused by extinguishing activity (the main reason for our evacuation) and that we had stopped momentarily to minimize drafting. Meanwhile, a U.S. Coast Guard airplane had begun circling overhead and the lights of Freeport twinkled on the eastern horizon.

All in all, an aura of reassurance prevailed. The hours until dawn passed in quiet conversation or snoozing. When the ship began moving again, the captain kept us informed of our progress--now 18 miles to port, now 10 and ultimately a mere 3; at one point, he also mentioned that the blaze was under control but still too smoky to permit our going inside. In Freeport harbor, we were joined by a spouting fireboat.

At the dock, the local fire brigade came aboard with yards and yards of fire hose to finish the conflagration once and for all and they remained through that day and the following night to make absolutely certain that all was back to normal. Later in the morning, I observed exhausted crewmen who had been fighting the fire asleep on the carpet of the A Deck forward vestibule, barefoot on account of soaking wet shoes. Towards evening, dumpsters were brought to the dock so that discarding of the charred debris could begin. Meals in the dining room were soon available, a modified daily program was offered and shuttle busses were available for shopping and trips to one to the island resorts, lending passengers use of their beach and swimming pool.

As the day wore on, we learned of the death by smoke inhalation of waiter Stefan Moeller, a 27-year-old from Germany popular with passengers and crew alike, who had gone back to the crew quarters on his own to make certain that everyone was safely out. A bilingual memorial service took place Monday at 12 on Verandah Deck aft--music, prayers, sermon, final commendation--with nearly everyone in attendance.

Efforts to enable resumption of the voyage continued, until finally, just before lunch on Tuesday, the captain announced that, with deepest regret, he must cancel the crossing, as it would not be possible to have things in shape at the level expected of Cunard soon enough. We would remain another night, then receive transportation at company expense either to our intended destination or home again--fares refunded in full and with a $1,000 credit towards any future booking.

A Lavish Breakfast

But all sad experiences have their compensating lighter sides. A quarter of an hour before breakfast service was ended on Wednesday, the final morning, a hilariously inebriated (senior) couple entered the nearly vacant dining room and demanded seating (It was like a scene in a play.) I asked myself whether they were still having a late night, or whether early morning cocktails were their customary "early morning tea." The lady was somewhat belligerent at first, and it was enlightening how the staff gathered around and smothered them with solicitous attention, at the same time really enjoying themselves, without a trace of "attitude." Here, they must have thought, was where we can practice our tact and decorum. The couple had never been down for breakfast before and, they averred, "Wouldn't it be lovely to have some omelets, and some bagels with cream cheese, and some Belgian waffles, and bacon, and ham, and sausage, and heaping bowls of Granola would be so healthy, and some fresh fruit, and perhaps a little yogurt and--and--" (yes, the entire menu!) I couldn't stay, I had to pack. I hope they brought the couple doggie bags.

Later that day, I joined my shipboard acquaintances Mr & Mrs Getty on the Dawn Discovery for Miami; and thence via Amtrak's Silver Star to New York, where I now await an April 27 sailing of Royal Viking Sun.

(Your editor is most grateful to Ms Buchenham and Mr Manville for their cogent and well-written accounts.

Two irresistible comments. Both passengers independently mention Titanic when news of the fire occurred, indicating that that notorious White Star liner remains a haunting benchmark for all potential disasters at sea.

Then again, it is interesting to learn that the fireboat greeting inbound Vistafjord at Freeport was "spouting," according to Mr Manville. Customarily, fireboats spout to welcome a new ship into a port for the first time. But in this event, the fireboat captain was doubtless reassuring passengers on board the damaged Cunarder that he was ready and able to render assistance.)


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