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Hundreds escape overboard from burning ship in Caribbean

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US coast guard rescues more than 500 people who fled down emergency slides from Caribbean Fantasy off Puerto Rico coast after blaze erupted in engine room

More than 500 passengers and crew have been evacuated from a burning ship about a mile off Puerto Ricos north coast.

The fire burned as hundreds slid down emergency slides from the Caribbean Fantasy, a combination cruise and ferry ship.

US Coast Guard boats then carried passengers into San Juans harbour as helicopters flew overhead. Other agencies and private vessels joined in the effort on Wednesday as firefighters were ordered to abandon the ship for their own safety.

It was like something out of a movie, said Maria Prensa, a 64-year-old Dominican passenger as she wiped away tears. You panic when you see that. Youre in the middle of the ocean and theres a fire. Imagine that.

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Coast guard crew catch people as they escape down a slide from the Caribbean Fantasy. Photograph: US coast guard/EPA

The mostly Dominican passengers included dozens of school-age athletes headed to competitions in Puerto Rico including a cycling team, a girls volleyball team and a boys baseball team. The ship runs several times weekly between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

The fire erupted in the engine room and apparently had been burning for some time before the alarm was sounded.

Gyno Funes said he was one of two mechanics in the control room when a fuel hose burst open and fire erupted.

We were trying to extinguish it for two hours but couldnt, another mechanic, Marlon Doblado, said after the two reached shore.

Prensa said she had been collecting her luggage when she smelled smoke. I asked and they told me it was nothing, that it was under control, she said.

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A woman is taken away on a stretcher as evacuees from the burning Caribbean Fantasy are brought ashore. Photograph: Thais Llorca/EPA

Officials with American Cruise Ferries, which operates the Panamanian-flagged ship built in 1989, did not return messages for comment about the fire. Federal authorities were interviewing the captain, said Angel Crespo, director of Puerto Ricos emergency management agency.

Ricardo Castrodad, a coast guard spokesman, said the agency had started an investigation into the fire, although it was too early to say what would happen to the ship, which remained grounded.

A ProPublica investigation found that the US coast guard had discovered 107 deficiencies during 61 inspections of the ship since 2010. The most recent inspections found no major faults but a January 2015 inspection stated that oil fuel lines should be screened or protected to avoid any spray or leakage on to ignition sources.

Crespo said 105 people were treated at the scene, mostly for heat stroke, shock and dehydration, and 24 others had been hospitalised. Among them were three women who dislocated their ankles and a man who broke his leg while going down the emergency slide.

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 crying baby clad only in a diaper.

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Smoke billows from the Caribbean Fantasy after a burst fuel line caused a fire in the engine room. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The injured were followed by a small group of children who held hands as they disembarked from coast guard boats. Passengers were still arriving more than five hours after the fire was reported.

Passengers found to be in good health were loaded on to city buses to be taken to the ships original destination, where they went through customs.

They included Fiordalise Pitchard, who travelled to Puerto Rico on vacation.

I feel nervous, she said, her hands trembling. I was in the restaurant when I saw the smoke. Im giving all the glory to the Lord today.

With the Associated Press in San Juan

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/18/hundreds-escape-overboard-from-burning-ship-in-caribbean

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