SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — More than 500 passengers and crew were evacuated on Wednesday from a burning ship about a mile off Puerto Rico’s north coast, and many required medical care, though there were no reported fatalities.
The fire continued to burn aboard the Caribbean Fantasy, a combination cruise and ferry ship, as the U.S. Coast Guard brought passengers into the San Juan harbor while helicopters whirred overheard. Other agencies and even private vessels joined in the effort before firefighters were ordered to abandon the ship.
“The boat’s systems have collapsed. It’s not safe anymore to work inside the boat,” said Angel Crespo, director of Puerto Rico’s Emergency Management Agency.
The Coast Guard said all passengers and crew were evacuated. Federal authorities were interviewing the captain, Crespo added.
The fire apparently had been burning for some time before the alarm was sounded.
Gyno Funes told The Associated Press he was one of two mechanics in the control room when a hose carrying fuel burst open and caught on fire.
“We were trying to extinguish it for two hours, but couldn’t,” said the other mechanic, Marlon Doblado, after the two reached shore.
Dominican passenger Maria Prensa said she was collecting her luggage when she smelled smoke. “I asked and they told me it was nothing, that it was under control,” she said.
Officials with American Cruise Ferries, which operates the ship, did not return messages for comment about the fire.
Crespo said 105 people were treated at the scene, mostly for heat stroke, shock and dehydration, and another 24 remained hospitalized. Among these were three women who dislocated their ankles and a man who broke his leg while going down the emergency slide, he said.
On the docks, several dozen people were carried in on stretchers, one of which held a man hooked to an IV line who was cradling a bawling newborn baby clad only in a diaper.
The injured were followed by a small group of children who held hands as they disembarked the Coast Guard boats.
The mostly Dominican passengers included dozens of school-age athletes headed to competitions in Puerto Rico, including a 22-member cycling team, a girls’ volleyball team and a boys’ baseball team.
Passengers found to be in good health were loaded onto city buses to be taken to the ship’s original destination, where they went through customs.
They included Fiordalise Pitchard, who traveled to Puerto Rico on vacation.
“I feel nervous,” she said, her hands trembling. “I was in the restaurant when I saw the smoke. I’m giving all the glory to the Lord today.”
Anguished relatives of passengers, including Hilda Pereira, pushed their way onto the scene. Her daughter, whom she has not seen for 14 years, was aboard the boat.
Pereira said she was at the beauty salon when her sister called to notify her.
“She said, ‘You need to be strong,'” Pereira said. “The ferry has caught on fire.”
The fire erupted in the engine room and was spreading to the rest of the ship, Miami-based Coast Guard spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo said by phone.
The ship runs several times weekly between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.