More than 500 evacuated as cruise ship burns off Puerto Rico


A cruise ship carrying cars, cargo and more than 500 people caught fire near San Juan, Puerto Rico, and continued to burn for almost four days.

The Panama-flagged Caribbean Fantasy was sailing between Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and San Juan when the fire was reported at 0742 on Aug. 17. The ship was roughly 2 nautical miles from San Juan Harbor at the time. The fire reportedly started in the ship’s engine room and spread to other compartments, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

All 511 passengers and crew made it off the 561-foot vessel, although some reported injuries after returning to shore, said Ricardo Castrodad, a spokesman with Coast Guard Sector San Juan.

“It’s not clear yet what specifically caused the fire,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Eric Woodall. “The whole incident is under investigation, from the cause of the fire to the evacuation plan and everything else.”

Joey Jimenez, a spokesman for Caribbean Fantasy operator America Cruise Ferries and vessel owner Baja Ferries, declined to comment due to the ongoing investigation.

Caribbean Fantasy is a 27-year-old ro-ro passenger and cargo ferry that operated several scheduled round trips per week between Santo Domingo and San Juan. On its last voyage, the vessel had passengers’ vehicles and luggage and containerized cargo loaded with vegetables, construction materials and other items on board.

After departing Santo Domingo the night before the fire, Caribbean Fantasy returned to port to allow a sick passenger to disembark. The ship resumed its voyage soon afterward and the overnight voyage to San Juan was nearly complete when the engine room fire was reported. The vessel ran aground about two hours later, roughly a mile west of the entrance to San Juan Harbor.

The Coast Guard oversaw the ship’s evacuation with help from Puerto Rican authorities, local tugboat, pilot and patrol boats, Puerto Rico police marine units and U.S. Customs and Border Protection marine units, as well as good Samaritan vessels. Passengers escaped down inflatable slides from a hatch several stories above the water and were ferried back to Pier 6 in San Juan.

A Coast Guard crewman monitors passengers as they evacuate Caribbean Fantasy using inflatable emergency slides.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

“It went the best that it could have,” Woodall said of the evacuation. He described it as the Coast Guard’s largest at-sea rescue in 36 years in U.S. waters.

Medics assessed passengers as they arrived on shore. Some reported ankle injuries suffered during the evacuation, smoke inhalation and stress-related symptoms, Castrodad said. Nobody was burned in the fire, but at least two pets died.

The Coast Guard has not detailed the severity of the fire damage, which remains under investigation. “There was a very large fire inside the vessel and obviously as the fire continued to grow throughout the next three days, the damage was extensive,” Castrodad said.

Firefighting and salvage teams from the international firm Ardent Global responded to the stricken ship. Its crews first boarded the vessel on Aug. 18, a day after the fire began. The next day, they determined the fire was still active but confined to the engine room.

The ship refloated with the tide late on Aug. 19, and tugboat crews attached a towline early on Aug. 20. The 4,000-hp Brooklyn McAllister, the 3,000-hp Beth M. McAllister and the 3,600-hp Triton towed the vessel to a pier at the Port of San Juan. Local authorities and Ardent crews extinguished the fire that night using 3,000 gallons of seawater, the Coast Guard said.

Crews laid 2,500 feet of containment boom around the ship once it was back in port. The Coast Guard said minor sheening around the vessel was contained.

As of mid-September, the ship’s cargo — some of which was damaged — had been removed in coordination with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Castrodad said. Additional “expert assessments” are required to confirm the vessel’s condition, he said. Once those are complete, he said the owners must decide whether to repair or scrap the ship.

By Professional Mariner Staff