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Passengers tell of liner panic

Hot and tired passengers disembarking from a disabled cruise ship in the Seychelles said they had prepared to abandon ship when fire broke out in the engine room three days ago.

They described how smoke billowed from the vessel that was suddenly adrift in waters prowled by pirates.

Lifeboats were lowered, passengers said. Austrian Thomas Foaller said some passengers began to panic. Couples that were separated were calling out to each other.

Among them were American couple Gordon and Eleanor Bradwell. They were separated when Eleanor went to the couple's room to get a life jacket. A crew member had handed the 72-year-old Gordon his own as dark smoke rose from the ship. "Those were the worst moments," he said.

But the fire that broke out on Monday was brought under control and the more than 1,000 passengers and crew wound up staying aboard the Costa Allegra, which suddenly had no engine power, no air conditioning and no running water for showers or toilets.

Eleanor Bradwell said that the initial response to the alarm seemed to be disorganised but overall she and her husband felt the shipping line had handled the emergency well. "It could have been worse than it was," said Gordon. "It could have been disastrous ... we're here, we're alive."

The couple ate cold sandwiches for three days and moved their bedding onto the deck to escape the stifling heat after the fire left the Costa Allegra without power. "The toilets were running over, there was no electricity. It was very hot," said Eleanor.

The fire came only six weeks after the Costa Concordia, owned by the same company, hit a reef and capsized off Italy, killing 25 people and leaving seven missing and presumed dead.

The crew of the Costa Allegra formed up and clapped as passengers disembarked and were taken to buses. The Seychelles Red Cross set up tents to assist any passengers needing medical help and embassy and consular officials were at the port to receive their citizens. Tour operators lined up dozens of buses to take passengers to either the airport or a Seychelles resort.

The Allegra left northern Madagascar, off Africa's south-east coast, on Saturday. It was carrying 413 crew members and 627 passengers, including 212 Italians, 31 Britons and eight Americans. About 375 people are taking advantage of the company's offer of a free 15-day holiday in the Seychelles.

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