MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — A fire apparently started by a cigarette broke out aboard a giant cruise ship early Thursday as it sailed through the moonlit Caribbean, leaving one passenger dead, 11 people injured and at least 100 rooms scorched.
The Star Princess, carrying 2,690 passengers and 1,123 crew members, bore evidence of the nighttime drama as it pulled into Montego Bay’s port. About 85 exterior cabins were blackened from the fire, a stark contrast to the otherwise gleaming white exterior of the ship. Metal was twisted, evidence of the heat of the blaze.
“We consider ourselves very lucky,” Klemens Fass, of Toronto, Canada, told The Associated Press after he and his wife were evacuated with other some passengers. “When we got out of our stateroom ... there was someone lying in the hallway passed out. He was being attended to but it was very, very scary.”
A smoldering cigarette is suspected as the cause of the blaze, said Horace Peterkin, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association, who toured the ship after it docked here.
According to MSNBC.com’s Susan Lim, who was vacationing on the Star Princess, passengers were told late Thursday afternoon that the cruise had been terminated.
Full fare to be reimbursed
Lim also reported that Princess Cruises had sent letters to passengers stating that full cruise fares and air transportation will be reimbursed. Passengers who booked air transportation separately were advised to fill out a form and state their destination cities. Princess will arrange flights for Friday and Saturday, Lim reported.
Also, two charter flights have been arranged for Friday morning, with 138 seats from Montego Bay to Fort Lauderdale, and an additional 250 seats for passengers traveling from Montego Bay to Atlanta. People living in those areas will likely be assigned to those flights.
Passengers grabbed life jackets and raced to “muster stations” after the fire started about 3 a.m., said Julie Benson, spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, which is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp. The crew put out the fire, then did a cabin-by-cabin search to check for victims and make sure everyone else was safe, she said.
Richard Liffidge, 75, of Georgia, collapsed and died on deck, said Karl Angell, communications director for the Jamaican police. Benson said the passenger died after suffering cardiac arrest. But Peterkin said an autopsy would be performed to determine the cause of death.
Liffidge’s wife was taken to a hospital in Montego Bay, Angell said. There was no immediate word on what she was being treated for or her condition.
A company statement said two passengers suffered “significant smoke inhalation injuries” and nine others had “minor complications.”
Benson said the company has reached no conclusions about the cause of the blaze.
She said about 100 cabins were affected by the fire, though Peterkin put the number at around 150.
The Star Princess was sailing from Grand Cayman to Jamaica when the blaze started. Reportedly built at a cost of over $430 million, it has four swimming pools, a half-dozen restaurants and dining rooms, a casino, two theaters, and several nightclubs. It stretches about three football fields long.
Running out in nightgowns
Zach Bramlage, 19, of Columbus, Ohio, was having a late-night meal when word spread that there was a fire.
“Some people just ran in where we were eating and told us the ship is on fire and we got our life vests real quick and headed downstairs,” Bramlage said. “I was pretty scared initially but the captain came over the (intercom) and told us everything was going to be all right.”
Hours after the ship arrived in Montego Bay before noon, passengers boarded buses that took them to hotels in the nearby resort towns of Negril and Ocho Rios. Other passengers remained on board.
David Haltom was on his honeymoon when he and his bride awoke in their cabin, smelling smoke and hearing people running in the halls yelling fire.
“Everybody ran. There were people in nightgowns and robes because it happened so fast,” Haltom said by phone from his Negril hotel. The crew lowered lifeboats to the ship deck and instructed passengers to grab their life vests, he said.
After the blaze was extinguished, passengers were allowed to retrieve belongings from their cabins, some blackened from smoke.
“You saw people bringing out clothes in bags and they were black, their hands and their faces were black,” he said.
The fire melted locks on some of the cabins and burned some passengers’ luggage, Lim reported from the ship.
Investigation in progress
The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched investigators and fire engineers to help determine the fire’s cause and whether the ship was seaworthy, Coast Guard Petty Officer James Judge said in Miami. Teams were expected to arrive Thursday afternoon.
“Our No. 1 concern right now is safety,” Judge said.
The ship was not seriously damaged and would sail back to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Friday, Peterkin said. There was no immediate confirmation from officials at the cruise line.
The Star Princess sailed from Fort Lauderdale on March 19.
MSNBC.com's Susan Lim and The Associated Press contributed to this report.