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World - Asia/Pacific

More than 1,000 saved after luxury liner sinks near Malaysia

rescue boat
The Sun Vista burns -- survivors photographed it from lifeboats

See video of the ship on fire, described by CNN's Glenn Van Zutphen
Windows Media 28K 80K

Some survivors sang theme from 'Titanic'

May 21, 1999
Web posted at: 3:27 a.m. EDT (0727 GMT)

In this story:

Investigations begin

Panic and chaos

Captain questioned

Passenger: Never again


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- Ferry boats, naval vessels and at least one cargo boat rushed to a sinking luxury liner early Friday and rescued more than 1,100 terrified passengers and crew. No fatalities were reported.

Some rescuers said the site looked like a scene from the film "Titanic", with the liner on fire, smoke belching out, and passengers frantically climbing into life boats.

"It was a true nightmare, I thought we all were going to die," Indian businessman Ram Yalamanchi, 32, told the Australian Associated Press from his hotel room in Penang.

Yalamanchi said he would never forget the screams of his fellow passengers.

"We were on one of the last lifeboats, we watched her just slip under the water," he said. "People were screaming, praying, it was awful, the most terrifying experience of my life."

Investigations begin

Metro Holdings Ltd, which owns just under 70 percent of cruise ship operator Sun Cruises, said on Friday it was starting investigations into the sinking of the Sun Vista luxury liner.

Registered in the Bahamas, the Sun Vista sank about 60 nautical miles south of Penang Island and 50 nautical miles west of Port Weld in the Strait of Malacca dividing peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra -- one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

The liner, on a six-day cruise from Singapore to the Malaysian ports of Malacca and Penang, then the Thai resort island of Phuket and back, developed a power failure at approximately 3:15 p.m. (0715 GMT) on Thursday.

A spokesman of the Kampung Acheh Marine Police in Lumut said the incident occurred in international waters.

"When our boat arrived at the scene at 12:15 a.m., the cruise liner was still on fire," said the spokesman. "Some said that it looked like a scene from the film `Titanic."'

A total of 1,104 passengers and crew members of 26 nationalities were picked up. All arrived safely on Penang island in northwestern Malaysia, according a statement from Sun Cruises, operators of the ship.

The Marine Rescue and Coordination Center in Port Klang said officials believed all passengers and crew were rescued.

The first distress signal went out at about 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Marine police said the ship sank about seven hours later, at 1:20 a.m., in the Strait of Malacca, about 27 miles off the central state of Perak.

The passengers were moved onto 18 lifeboats and four lift rafts.

Panic and chaos

Sun Cruises said all passengers would be accommodated at hotels until they could be flown home. They would be given full refunds "for the inconvenience."

Rescued passengers included Australians, Americans, Britons and Japanese. Some in Penang spoke of panic and chaos.

A number of Australians faced the trauma by singing the theme song from the movie, "Titanic," according to Australian passenger Greg Haywood, 30.

"We were singing the Celine Dion song, `My Heart Will Go On,' trying to keep everyone's spirits up," said Haywood, adding that people mostly remained calm.

"A few people were crying and panicking, but everyone behaved themselves."

"What actually happened is lack of information because the captain did not tell us about the fire. All the crew members looked panicky," passenger Thomas Bonnard, 62, of England, told the Malaysian news agency Bernama.

Captain questioned

Ten passengers were sent to Penang Hospital for treatment. A hospital spokesman said the conditions were not yet known.

The Bernama news agency reported that the ship's captain was taken to a local police station to report on the incident.

Sun Cruises Sydney-based spokesman David Baker said most of the Australian and New Zealand passengers were expected to depart Singapore Friday afternoon.

Baker said the company, with a head office in Singapore and one Australian branch in Perth, had been in operation about 18 months.

Sun Cruises in its statement said there were 472 passengers and 632 crew members on board.

The 700-foot-long Sun Vista can hold more than 1,600 passengers and crew in its 547 cabins. It has eight decks, five whirlpool baths, a swimming pool, beauty salon, bars and casinos.

The ship's journey originated in Singapore, stopped to pick up more passengers in the Malaysian city of Malacca and then sailed on to the resort island of Phuket off the southern coast of Thailand. The Sun Vista was on its way back to its base in Singapore when it sank on the last leg of its six-day cruise.

Passenger: Never again

Georgean Stewart, who survived the sinking and was plucked from the Strait of Malacca in the dark on Friday morning said she was terrified.

"I'm never going to go on another cruise liner," she said.

"It was frightening, very frightening," the 39-year-old nurse from Scotland told Reuters from a hotel on Penang Island where she and the other survivors were taken.

Georgean and her barber husband Ian, 43, had joined the cruise on Phuket island off Thailand's western coast.

"The smoke was really belching out of the left side. The colour of the smoke kept changing," Ian Stewart said.

"We were told not to go to our room. We have lost everything. We are fortunate that we had shoes on," Georgean said. "Some people had no shoes on, no tops because they were in the pool."

Her husband said people were sick in the life boats. They bobbed on the sea in a life boat for more than five hours with 66 others before they were rescued.

"It was pitch black," Ian Stewart said. "The children were sick and wetting their pants. Some elderly people were fainting, dehydrated."

The passengers were put up in three hotels in Penang.

Martin Turner, a 53-year-old builder from England, said the fire had appeared under control when the alarm bells went off.

"They were chopping the ropes with an axe," he said. "We lost everything, jewelery, money." He pointed to his T-shirt, trousers and shoes. "This is all we got."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Cruise ship sinks off Malaysia, all on board believed rescued
May 20, 1999

Star Clippers, Sun Cruises, Sun Vista cruises from Phuket, Thailand, home to Pacific Leisure
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