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Bay area residents on ill-fated ship

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board began their inquiry Sunday into the cause of a fire aboard a cruise ship off the Alaskan coastline that killed five and injured 76 people.

And despite four major accidents involving cruise ships around Alaska over the last two summers, Coast Guard and industry officials said Sunday ocean liners have good safety records.

Still, some passengers evacuated Saturday from the Universe Explorer, a 617-foot ship operated by World Explorer Cruises of San Francisco, gave frightening accounts of the fire: Before dawn, passengers smelled smoke as they crept through the ship's corridors to lifeboat stations on deck.

Afraid that they might soon be afloat in lifeboats, many grabbed extra clothing as they left their cabins. Others did not, however, and stood hours later, some in curlers and nightgowns, shivering in the cool morning air and waiting to be evacuated.

"There was this sense of disbelief," said Shirley Linde of Tierra Verde, a science and travel writer who was on the cruise with her friend, Marion Probeck, also of Tierra Verde. "It was kind of a dream-like thing, like you were watching a movie and then you realized it was really happening."

Linde and Probeck, a retired real estate agent, were two of the 730 passengers who were evacuated several hours after the fire started in a laundry room at 3:11 a.m. The fire began as the ship sailed near Admiralty Island, 15 miles west of Juneau.

The crew put out the fire and the ship anchored just north of Juneau, where passengers spent a long night in a Red Cross shelter before they were offered flights home. The ship was never in any danger of sinking, said Coast Guard Lt. John Fitzgerald.

But when the first alarms sounded over the ship's public address system in Cabin 124, Probeck and Linde said they weren't sure what to think.

Was it a drill? thought Probeck, who was on her 34th cruise. Then, she quickly realized it couldn't be _ not at that hour. "The first thing I thought is that I was going to be out in one of those lifeboats and it was going to be cold," Probeck said. She put on a warmup suit; Linde slipped on a pair of jeans over her pajamas.

Then, a member of the ship's crew banged on the door. "He said, "This is an emergency. This is serious. Get dressed and get to your lifeboat stations.' "

The women said they quickly hurried outside and down several flights to the deck where the lifeboats were kept. "One of the impressive things was that of the 700 passengers and several hundred crew members, I saw no panic whatsoever," Linde said. "Everyone was calm, cool and followed directions."

On deck, the passengers stood for as long as three hours while firefighters battled the blaze and the Coast Guard organized the evacuation. Probeck said the fear quickly subsided as help arrived.

Seventy-three people were hospitalized, mostly for smoke inhalation.

The vessel's operator canceled the rest of the one-week cruise, which started last Tuesday in Vancouver, British Columbia. It also canceled a trip scheduled to begin Tuesday.

The Panamanian-flagged Universe Explorer had passed its quarterly fire inspection last week, Coast Guard officials said.

"This is still a safe industry," said Dennis Myrick, vice president of World Explorer Cruises. "Loss of life on a cruise ship is extremely rare."

Some passengers said their experience didn't put them off to ocean travel.

"I'd get back aboard that same boat this minute, as long as they get the smoky smell out of it," said Jim Sisson of Santa Rosa, Calif.

And the Tierra Verde women, who were staying in a hotel in Seattle, said they were not going to let the tragedy deter them from their next adventure: a cruise down the Columbia River, following the trail of Louis and Clark.

_ Information from Times staff writer Julia Campbell and the AP was used in this report.