- Associated Press - Thursday, September 15, 2011

OSLO (AP) — An “intense” fire in a cruise ship’s engine room killed two crewmen Thursday, injured nine others and forced more than 200 passengers to evacuate a popular cruise off Norway’s craggy western coast. Police suspect an on-board explosion.

Thick black smoke billowed from the stern of the boat, the MS Nordlys, of Norway’s Hurtigruten line even before it pulled into the dock at Aalesund, 230 miles northwest of the capital of Oslo. Police sealed off parts of the town as the smoke engulfed nearby buildings.

Hours after the fire began, the ship was taking on water and listing dangerously at the dock.

The ship’s emergency evacuation began after the fire started at 9 a.m. (3 a.m. EDT), with more than 100 passengers piling into lifeboats in the frigid waters before the ship reached port. The rest of the ship’s 207 passengers and 55 crew were evacuated at the dock at Aalesund, with some crew staying on board to fight the fire.

Aalesund Hospital said nine people had been admitted, two with serious burns and smoke injuries. Police said all the injured and dead were members of the crew.

“It’s incredibly sad to receive news that we have lost two people,” Olav Fjell, Hurtigruten’s administrative manager, told the Norwegian news agency NTB. “Even one is too many.”

Police said an explosion likely caused the fire.

“Our suspicion is that there was an explosion in the engine room,” acting police Chief Yngve Skovly of the Sunnmoere Police District told reporters.

Passengers said the cruise ship, which was traveling north from the city of Bergen, had organized an orderly evacuation.

“We were sent up on deck and given our life vests,” Danielle Passebois-Paya, a French tourist, told the Norwegian daily Aftenposten. “It took only a few minutes after the alarm and we were in the lifeboats.”

“It was a well-organized evacuation,” she added. “The crew did a really good job. Everything was calm and went smoothly. There was no panic.”

Harald Sundberg, 33, from Bergen said he smelled strange odors while eating breakfast in the dining hall.

“I turned around and saw smoke coming from the kitchen,” Mr. Sundberg told NTB. “First I thought something had burned in the kitchen, but the smell was in no way a smell of burned food.”

The chief of Aalesund’s fire brigade, Geir Thorsen, described the fire as “big and intense.” He could not confirm reports that the ship’s fire-extinguishing system did not work but said its electricity system was knocked out.

“There are no indications that the fire had spread to other rooms in the ship,” he said.

More than six hours after the fire began, Mr. Thorsen said firefighters were in control of it. Still, the ship was taking on water and listing 10 degrees.

“Our main challenge now is the stability of the ship,” he said. Two units of firefighters specializing in offshore fires were involved in the operation.

The 400-foot German-built ship sailed on its maiden voyage in 1994.

It is one of 12 Hurtigruten ships that ply Norway’s western coast on the popular 1,500-mile cruise between the southwestern city of Bergen and the northeastern town of Kirkenes, high above the Arctic Circle near the Russian border.

The route, which stops in 34 ports and features spectacular fjords, mountains, islands and Arctic wildlife, carries both tourists eager to see the scenery and locals and cargo from coastal cities and hamlets.

Aalesund, with a population of 42,000, is an art nouveau town once voted the prettiest in Norway.

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