Italian crew to assess cause of cruise ship fire

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In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012 by Zil Air and released by the Seychelles Office of the President, the Costa Allegra cruise ship is seen at sea near the Seychelles. Disabled by an engine fire, the cruise ship is being towed and should reach land Thursday, according to a spokesman for Costa Cruises. (AP Photo/Zil Air via Seychelles Office of the President)

VICTORIA, Seychelles (AP) — Italian investigators will assess the cause of the fire that disabled a cruise ship in the Indian Ocean for days, stranding more than 1,000 passengers and crew, Italy's Coast Guard said. The ship was expected to arrive in the Seychelles' main port Thursday.

The Genoa, Italy-based Costa said the cruise ship Allegra would arrive at about 9 a.m. local time Thursday (0500 GMT, midnight EST) — three days after the ship lost power and began drifting in the Indian Ocean. However, the ship's estimated arrival at port has been pushed back repeatedly, and the spokeswoman for the Seychelles president said late Wednesday that the Costa may not arrive until noon local time.

The Allegra began drifting in the Indian Ocean after a fire broke out in its generator room on Monday. Italy's Coast Guard said that a team from the Infrastructure and Transport Ministry's investigative unit has traveled to the island of Mahe with the Italian Coast Guard to do "the first assessment" of how the fire started.

Cmdr. Filippo Marini, however, said it was not a full-fledged investigation.

"This is a first assessment," Marini said. "It is not an active investigation."

A representative of the cruise ship company Costa Crociere said Wednesday that an investigation needs to be carried out before a determination is made as to whether the fire was an accident or set deliberately. The official said that investigators from the International Maritime Authority could also investigate. The official said he was not authorized to be identified.

Three planes with a seating capacity of at least 580 passengers were lined up to fly the passengers of the cruise ship Costa Allegra back to Rome, Gilbert Faure, the chief executive of the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority said Wednesday. He said the first plane is tentatively scheduled to leave Thursday afternoon.

"It could all depend because they have been at sea for three days. They may want to take a shower, we are not sure," Faure said, adding later: "I can assure you that we are doing our best to ensure that they have a nice few hours in the Seychelles."

The Costa official said passengers could choose to be flown to Italy, Germany or France. Passengers could also choose to stay in the Seychelles for up to two weeks, about the length the cruise was initially supposed to last. Costa would pay for the Seychelles stay, he said.

Costa said soft drinks and cold food such as fruit, cold cuts, cheeses and fresh bread are available to passengers, along with mineral water for personal hygiene needs. They said the situation is "regular" and the weather is good.

The Costa Allegra lost power Monday after a fire broke out in its generator room, setting the Italian cruise ship adrift in a region where Somali pirates have long been active. A French fishing vessel began towing the Costa Allegra, at first to a small, nearby island, but later to the Seychelles main port — Victoria. Two Seychelles tug boats are escorting the cruise ship.

Officials indicated that the more than 1,000 passengers and crew are on board the Costa Allegra would have overwhelmed the resources on the tiny resort island Desroches.

Monday's fire came only six weeks after the Costa Concordia hit a reef and capsized off Italy, killing 25 people and leaving seven missing and presumed dead. No one was injured in the fire Monday, but passengers have been without power, communications and air conditioning since the accident.

The ship's operator, Costa Crociere SpA, said it expected a helicopter to deliver 400 flashlights and fresh bread to the passengers on Wednesday. The operator said the ship has sufficient food and that a small generator delivered by a navy ship — it did not specify from which country — could help restore basic services and "to make the situation on board more comfortable."

Two tug boats arrived alongside the cruise ship on Tuesday but the slower French fishing vessel continued to tow it. A Costa Concordia official in the Seychelles said he did not know enough about the situation to comment. Alan St. Ange, the chief executive of the Seychelles Tourism Board, said the tugs were helping push the Costa Allegra and that "everybody is working together."

The Allegra, whose Italian name means "merry," or "happy," left northern Madagascar, off Africa's southeast coast, on Saturday and was cruising toward Port Victoria when the fire erupted. Costa said the Allegra had been due in Port Victoria on Tuesday.

The liner is carrying 413 crew members and 636 passengers, including 212 Italians, 31 Britons and eight Americans. Four passengers are children ages 3 or younger.

The Seychelles is a chain of resort islands that attract celebrities and royalty. The islands have a population of only 87,000 people.

President James A. Michel gave his annual state of the nation speech on Thursday, in which he said that the country needs to open itself to new tourist markets, especially in emerging markets. Reflecting the island's relaxed atmosphere, the president delivered the speech without a tie or jacket on.

Michel said he anticipates 5 percent growth in the tourism sector this year but that it must overcome issues like an economic downturn in Europe as well as Somali piracy, which Michel labeled a "serious threat" to the island nation's tourism industry.


Associated Press writers Victor L. Simpson and Colleen Barry contributed to this report from Rome.