A disabled cruise ship will have spent an extra 10 to 12 hours at sea without electricity, air conditioning or toilet facilities because the French fishing vessel that was first to respond to the ship refused to give way to faster tugboats, a Seychelles government official said Wednesday.
Joel Morgan, the government minister from the Seychelles, told The Associated Press that the cruise ship likely would have arrived in port Wednesday night local time if the tugs had been allowed to take over. Instead, the ship is not scheduled to reach port until mid-morning Thursday.
A spokesman for the cruise line denied the tow would have been faster with the tugs and said the Costa Allegra was always scheduled to reach the Seychelles' main port on Thursday, three days after the ship lost power and began drifting in the Indian Ocean.
The head of the France-based company that owns the tuna boat pulling the ship said the cruise line was the sole decision-maker.
Holiday option for passengers
Costa said that 378 of the 600-plus guests took Costa up on its offer of a paid two-week holiday in the Seychelles after arriving in port. Others will be given flights to Europe within hours of their arrival in port.
Three planes with a seating capacity of at least 580 were lined up to fly the cruise passengers back to Rome, Gilbert Faure, the chief executive of the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority, said Wednesday. The Costa official said passengers could choose to be flown to Italy, Germany or France.
Costa said soft drinks, fruit, cold cuts, cheeses and fresh bread have been available to passengers, along with mineral water for personal hygiene needs. The line said the weather is good.
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The Genoa, Italy-based Costa said the Allegra would arrive at about 9 a.m. local time Thursday, but the 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.
No toilets, showers
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 when fire hit the Costa Allegra generator and knocked out the power, but passengers have been without communications and air conditioning.
"The sanitary facilities are not working, so there's no toilets, no showers," said Morgan, Seychelles minister of home affairs, environment, transport and energy. "It's not very convenient right now."
Morgan said that when the Seychelles tugs met up with the Costa Allegra on Tuesday, a "conversation" took place to see the fishing vessel Trevignon step aside and the faster tugs move in, but it was "to no avail."
"The Seychelles authorities are not happy about this situation and we would have wished to get the ship into port as soon as possible in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the passengers," said Morgan.
He accused the French vessel of putting financial objectives ahead of passengers. He said the vessel was towing at four nautical miles, whereas the tugs could have travelled at six or seven nautical miles.
Davide Barbano, a Costa spokesman, said the fishing vessel was travelling at around six nautical miles, depending on the sea conditions.
"It was decided to continue with (the fishing vessel) because it guaranteed the smoothest voyage for those on board."
Maritimes rules satisified
The director of France's Regional Operational Center for Surveillance and Rescue, or CROSS, said maritime rules allowed the French fishing vessel to continue with the towing job.
"We were in a rescue operation, the tuna boat arrived first. Then there are negotiations as one can imagine," said Nicolas Le Bianic, in the French department of Reunion. Any assistance to people is free, he said. "Assistance to the boat, in contrast, is paid. That's the rule of principle set by maritime texts."
Le Bianic estimated the towing journey at some 500 kilometres.
Jean-Yves Labbe, the director-general of the French Company of Ocean Tuna, based in the Breton port of Concarneau, said the Trevignon and a second tuna boat, the Talenduic, were the closest vessels in a region of little maritime traffic. They were called in by CROSS, handling the rescue alert.
The company signed a technical assistance contract with the Costa, Labbe said, refusing to divulge its value. While the Trevignon pulled the cruise liner, the Talenduic accompanied the convoy.
"The decision-maker is the Costa company," Labbe stressed numerous times during a telephone interview. "We didn't insist on anything."
He noted that all contracts have a termination clause.
Italy's Coast Guard said a team from the Infrastructure and Transport Ministry's investigative unit has gone to the Seychelles capital island of Mahe with the Italian Coast Guard to begin looking at how the fire started.
"This is a first assessment," Cmdr. Filippo Marini said. "It is not an active investigation."
A representative of the cruise ship company said an investigation is needed before it's determined whether the fire was an accident or set deliberately. The International Maritime Authority may also investigate.
Although the investigation is still under way, Barbano said "arson is very unlikely."