Nobody was injured after a fire broke out on the ferry between Nova Scotia and P.E.I. late Friday morning.
In a release, Northumberland Ferries Limited vice-president Don Cormier said the incident happened while MV Holiday Island was making a scheduled 10 a.m. crossing from Caribou, N.S., to Wood Islands, P.E.I.
Shortly after 11 a.m., as it neared the approach into Wood Islands, a fire broke out in the ship’s engine room, said Cormier.
“Ship’s crew and safety systems contained the fire. Captain took necessary precautions and dropped both anchors and directed the ship onto a soft shoal outside the harbour entrance to Wood Islands,” he said, adding there were no reported injuries to customers or crew.
In the release issued just after 1 p.m., Cormier said the company is suspending the rest of the ferry crossings for the day “out of an abundance of caution and to focus on safely getting the passengers ashore.”
“We apologize for the inconvenience to our customers and our focus at this time is the safety of our passengers, ensuring our passengers are safely evacuated ashore and the safety of our crew,” he said.
In a tweet just before noon, the P.E.I. RCMP said officers are assisting with an “incident offshore near the Wood Island Ferry Terminal” and said the terminal is currently closed. It asked members of the public to avoid the area.
200 people rescued
In a series of tweets, the Halifax Joint Rescue Coordination Centre said it responded to a distress call at 11:17 a.m. indicating the Holiday Island “suffered a fire in their engine room and subsequently ran aground.”
It said search and rescue aircraft from 14 Wing Greenwood, as well as Canadian Coast Guard vessels, responded to the scene and safely disembarked 182 passengers and 18 crew members. Seven local firefighters remain on board to fight the fire.
“Local fire, police & paramedics are on scene,” JRCC said at 1:15 p.m. “As all passengers have been taken ashore, local authorities and the ferry operators are responsible for any updates.”
‘A lot of smoke coming out of there’
John Kenny, who is from P.E.I. originally but now lives in Nova Scotia, was on the ferry when the fire broke out.
Kenny, who said he travels back and forth on the ferry “quite often,” said he was inside the ship’s cafeteria when fire alarms went off and staff began instructing passengers to move outside.
“I really give the staff credit for trying to calm people down and ask if everybody was OK, and doing the best job they could do,” said Kenny.
He said passengers were moved outside, lined up against the rail and issued life jackets.
“And then that’s when we could see all the smoke coming out of the tower, the smokestacks, and it was significant. There was a lot of smoke coming out of there,” he said.
“That’s when we kinda started to say, ‘OK, this is kind of serious.’ But at the same time, you’re looking at the shore, you’re pretty close.”
He said some of the kids on the vessel appeared a “little anxious” and people appeared concerned, but some of the fear was alleviated due to the fact that they were so close to land.
“I’m really glad it didn’t happen in the middle of the (Northumberland) Strait, we would have had a different story completely,” said Kenny.
Kenny said the emergency slide was deployed with a “big pop” and passengers were quickly evacuated to a life raft. The process was “quite fast,” he said, lasting about 15 minutes.
He said some people took their pets down the slide too.
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“Dogs, cats, there was a lady who had a cage … there was like three birds in it,” he said.
They were then greeted on land by paramedics to ensure everyone was OK and driven to the nearby tourism centre in a school bus.
Kenny said he’s glad the rescue was successful, though he added passengers haven’t yet gotten their vehicles back.
“That’s the next thing for most of the passengers, because it’s not much of a vacation when everything you own is stuck on the boat, right?”
‘Everybody pitched in’
Shaun MacLaughlin, a Nova Scotian who had spent the week travelling on P.E.I., showed up at the Wood Islands terminal to get the ferry back home shortly after 11 a.m.
“When we pulled up to the terminal to check in for our reservation, you could see a lot of heavy black and brown smoke, which was clearly coming from the ferry,” he said.
“The guy at the terminal said that things didn’t look good and we should be prepared to turn around and leave,” he said.
From the parking lot, MacLaughlin reported seeing staff unloading lifeboats and inflating the emergency slide to get passengers off the boat. He has since left to try his luck at the Confederation Bridge.
Trish Carter, who lives in Wood Islands close to the ferry terminal, said she was outside her home Friday morning when she saw a “large amount of black smoke” coming from the ferry.
Carter, who used to be a volunteer firefighter in B.C., rushed to the scene to see if she could help. When she got there, emergency personnel began arriving at the scene and getting lifeboats into the water.
She said with the help of a nearby lobster boat and other fishing vessels, passengers were escorted off the ferry and taken to shore.
Carter said she is “thrilled” that the rescue was successful and nobody was injured.
“All the personnel on the ferries are trained to deal with something like this – you hope that it never happens, but clearly their training was put into full use and they were able to get the passengers safely,” she said.
“I’m just thankful that there was no injuries and everybody pitched in and responded to probably one of the largest emergencies in this area for many years, I’m sure.”
Aiming to restore service ‘as soon as possible’
In a statement, P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said it was a “scary day for those passengers and staff on board the MV Holiday Island, their families, and their loved ones.”
He thanked everyone who “responded quickly to support the passengers in evacuating the vessel and getting to shore.” He also thanked Health PEI “for quickly preparing our health system for the possibility of a large number of patients needing care.”
“Luckily that was not the case as there is no injuries reported at this time, but it’s comforting to know that our health system was ready, willing, and able to respond in such short notice,” he said.
King said crews from the fire marshal’s office, the Emergency Measures Organization, Red Cross and other provincial staff are supporting the affected people with anything they need, including accommodations, supplies and transportation.
He added that he had a phone call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday afternoon, where he provided an update and “reiterated the important transportation link that the Ferry provides for our province and our region.”
“Prime Minister Trudeau offered Prince Edward Island any support needed in the days to come and committed to restoring the service as soon as possible,” King said.
Trudeau, who happened to be on P.E.I. Friday, confirmed to reporters in the afternoon that he assured King there would be “full federal co-operation on anything that’s necessary.”
“People have obviously been through a harrowing experience,” he said, adding that they will try to resume ferry service “as quickly as possible, given the importance of these ferries to the tourist season here in P.E.I.”