SINGAPORE - It seemed surreal - the most often repeated word the evening that we limped in the harbor in Sandakan Town in North Borneo.
Our ship, the Azamara Quest, had suffered an engine room fire, leaving us adrift late last week in the South China Sea, less than a third of the way into a 17-day cruise. Nearly all of the 1,000 people aboard, including 10 of us from Bemidji, were safe, although a crew member was seriously injured.
Lights were flashing on the tugs, motors were revved up and we were extras in the epic movie of the voyage of the Azamara Quest. Friendships were started or smashed, significant others either became more significant or less and all coped with the heat in their way; but the important facet was that everyone tried to stay calm, pay attention to the latest announcements and prepare to leave the ship.
We had to wait for immigration officials to come on board and stamp every passport, the injured crew member was already on a red crescent ambulance headed toward a hospital and we waited for the crew to make the final arrangements at local hotels.
Our color is called and we need to pick up our passports upon exiting, use our key card to show that we are really who we know we are and step out into the heavy midnight air.
The captain is waiting at the base of the gangway. Some shake his hand, others slap his back in an "atta' boy" and others kiss his cheek and thank him for the gift of our lives.
All are glad - the passengers and crew wish each other goodbye and we promise to come back to this ship again on date yet undetermined. It is joyous, exuberant and we still feel like extras in a movie with a script that none of us have the experience to understand or enjoy. When we board our bus, the guide tells us that our hotel is only six minutes away so please try to relax. What does he see in our faces or recognize in our behavior that prompted that remark?
At last, we step off the bus to enter a hotel near the waterfront; asked how many people in a room and given a key. We finally reach our rooms after 1 a.m. to find clean sheets and towels, warm water for showers in a hotel that is undergoing a massive overhaul, and a television.
There are signs on the one elevator: Please be aware that we are remodeling and the work will begin at 9 a.m. and continue all day.
We don't really care because the rooms are air conditioned, a luxury we have not had in a climate that is hot, hotter and hottest; hottest is just beginning. It is not really a hotel for tourists and the management has had to scramble to get so many rooms ready for us, so we are mostly grateful.
We visit a couple of animal sanctuaries the following day, have dinner at a local seafood restaurant and get ready to get our flight to Singapore the following day.
We board our bus to the airport and asked to stay on board for just a few minutes. The Azamara Club Cruises chief executive addresses the passengers and apologizes profusely for the upset plans. He promises that Azamara will do everything possible to make up for our disappointment. He assures us that everything possible is being done to save the life of the crew man, to alleviate the discomfort we have had to endure the past few days and promises that Azamara Quest will sail again.
He waits at the bottom of the exit stairs to shake our hands and thank us for being such patient, cooperative passengers.
The fact was: the passengers and the crew were experienced travelers who knew how to cope in an emergency and not panic - yes the key was not to panic. Larry, as he chooses to be called, also assures us that the captain and crew will be commended for carrying out emergency procedures and making on the spot decisions to ensure safety.
Upstairs in the lounge, Russ Grieve, the cruise director, circulates among the passengers while they enjoy lunch or a snack taking and answering questions: yes, the crew acted admirably, they are so professional; we are awaiting the assessments from Lloyds (of London) before we can begin repairs; the fire started in the electric system and it only took 30 seconds before the alarm was sounded.
"The important thing here is rumor control," said Bemidji passenger Jeff Thompson. "One does everything to protect the image and reputation of a business. Look how they have flown executives here from the head office, they circulate among us and answer questions. They are very good at what they do."
Jeff's wife, Evi, agreed and added her own thoughts," I have taken over 60 cruises and have never seen any cruise line extend so many courtesies and be so generous to its passengers. I am amazed and know that Azamara will become a line that we will use again."
Others in our group, including frequent cruise passengers Kevin and Susan Lind, said the adventure was none like any other they had experienced. Dianne Patnode Seyler said the cruise line showed exemplary concern for the safety of the passengers and the crew.
"We were safe, and Azamara could not have been more for us," said Dianne. "The captain and crew were remarkable and I am so impressed and grateful."
June Buenger quipped, "As long as they kept the beer cold, I was OK." Her friend, Sue Sandell, agreed but added, "Wow! What a ride."
We get on a plane and fly to Brunei and then onto Singapore on a Boeing 747.
The airport at Sandakan is too small to accommodate the large planes needed for passengers from the ship. The 30-minute trip ended, we go though security and immigration quickly and board the waiting plane with passengers who have been waiting at the airport for hours.
We settle back to enjoy the flight and enjoy lunch, but our calm is superficial at best for when the plane experiences some flickering lights, there is a gasp throughout.