Not On Our Passage!
1,167 passengers and 172 crew were safely evacuated from Color Line’s Prinsesse Ragnhild when it suffered an engine room fire at 0200 (0000 GMT) on 8 July whilst on her 19-hour trip from Kiel, Germany to Oslo, Norway.
Rescue crews said that excellent weather conditions had seriously helped avert a major disaster. There were no injuries, though some of the passengers were taken to hospital for shock and light smoke inhalation. A police spokesman said at the time of the hospital admissions:
"Most are just in for observation and none of them is in a serious condition."
However, a 73-year-old Norwegian woman, who suffered heart problems during the dramatic pre-dawn blaze and rescue, died in hospital with her husband by her side some eight hours after being rescued.
As soon as the flames erupted in the engine room, a distress call went out and the decision was made to abandon ship. Very shortly afterwards the Stena Danica pulled alongside the Prinsesse Ragnhild and took more than 500 passengers from the stricken vessel. It is also known that Queen Of Scandinavia assisted in the rescue.
The accident happened about 11 miles off the west coast of Sweden, near the town of Vinga in the Gothenburg archipelago. Being in a busy shipping lane there was a fast response to the distress call. Passengers were loaded into inflatable lifeboats and transferred to some ten rescue helicopters, twenty commercial ships and fishing boats and three other ferries that rushed to the scene in response to the Ragnhild’s distress signal.
Within about four hours, the fire was under control by which stage all passengers (mostly Norwegian tourists) and non-essential crew had been taken off the Prinsesse Ragnhild. By 0600, the first evacuees were arriving in Gothenburg, where hospitals and clinics had been put on alert. Tourist Anders Oestberg told local news reporters:
"Passengers don't seem shocked from what I can see. I don't know what happened but the seas were clear and calm, and almost still."
Rescuers and passengers praised the crew for their calm and efficient handling of the emergency. Unni Soerensen, on a trip with her family to celebrate her parents’' 46th wedding anniversary, told Norwegian news agency NTB:
"The crew deserve all possible praise. They managed to keep people calm. Not even the children were crying."
Birger Knutsson of the Swedish National Maritime Administration told Reuters:
"The calm weather was a major factor in the rescue operation going so well. The ship and crew also worked perfectly for a smooth evacuation. But it has been quite traumatic for the people out there."
Norwegian Rune Hukhelderg, a fisherman from Trondheim, said many passengers at first thought the alarm was a safety drill telling NTB:
"We were first woken up by the alarm on the funnel, but we thought it was only an exercise."
Another passenger told the press that:
"When the main alarm went off and we just had to run, without our watches or our passports. There was a very strong smell of smoke. We were given wet cloths to put in front of our mouths."
From television pictures the Prinsesse Ragnhild looked unscathed apart from the tell-tale spots of soot on the funnel and an orange escape chute dangling in the water.
The vessel was later towed to Gothenburg, arriving mid afternoon. Passengers were initially taken to a military base at Gothenburg but after the ferry reached port they were taken by bus to collect their cars and belongings, which were not damaged. Buses were arranged to drive passengers without cars on to Oslo, six hours away. Meanwhile Color Line has rescheduled its ferry fleet to minimise disruptions for travellers stranded by the fire.
The German-built Prinsesse Ragnhild, which can carry up to 1,875 passengers and 770 cars, was launched in 1981 and underwent a major refit and lengthening in 1992. Color Line is a subsidiary of the Color Group, mostly owned by Norwegian investor Olav Nils Sunde. The firm said insurance would cover the costs of the blaze and lost income from cancelled sailings for up to 60 days. London insurance sources said the vessel was insured for $66 million. It was reported that the ferry was expected to be out of service for up to 10 days. There were no early indications as to the cause of the fire. However, North German Radio said the ship had experienced engine problems in recent years. Color Line stated that the engine room had recently been repaired after problems with ball-bearings but added that:
"It was a minor incident. It has no connection with what happened."
The emergency brought back memories of the fire aboard the ferry, Scandinavian Star on 7 April 1990, when 158 people died. The fire on the Danish-owned Scandinavian Star occurred in the Skagerrak Strait as the vessel travelled enroute from Fredrikshavn to Oslo. That fire is believed to have been started deliberately by a passenger who died in the blaze. The Color incident is also bound to have reminded people of the Estonia tragedy in September 1994 when 852 people died.