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We drift in the waters south of the Philippines

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SOUTH CHINA SEA - It's now 8 a.m. Saturday here.

Leif Karlsson, captain of the stricken Azamara Quest cruise ship, speaks into the microphone as we drift in the waters south of the Philippines.

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"Ladies and gentlemen, and this is for the crew as well, good morning," Karlsson says. "We are slowly getting our power back, the toilets are now working, the showers are on but there is no hot water.

"We are not in a traffic lane and far from any land. We are coordinating with Miami and I want you to know that you are absolutely safe."

Cheering comes from the 1,000 passengers on the paralyzed ship, which sustained a fire in the engine room.

The passengers, who boarded the ship last Monday for a 17-day voyage through the South China Sea, had come to appreciate the captain's Finnish accent and trusted him after navigating through a monsoon.

Once we were on board, there was a call to muster. Passengers went to their stations carrying the standard orange life vest with a whistle on the side and a light that starts to blink when it hits water.

After a safety lecture and demonstrations, the captain had a piece of information for us.

"Starting this evening and until tomorrow night, we will be sailing through a monsoon with gales and high seas," Karlsson said. "But I have decided that we will continue our journey slowly and get to our next port a bit late but safe."

Karlsson advised us take sea sick pills (motion sickness) and stay calm.

A quick jaunt - passengers struggled to walk in rough seas which bounced the ship around - past the "sick bay" the following day showed people in line waiting to get their allotment from the ship's doctor. Many older passengers on the cruise chose to stay put.

After the monsoon, we arrived in Manila, the first stop on this ship's voyage, to find a busy city, crowded with city buses, cars and jeepneys, a hold over from the end of WWII when Willys Jeep sold or gave their inventory to the Philippines. The jeeps are retrofitted to accommodate up to 12 passengers and fancifully decorated.

The next stop was Sandakan, Malaysia, but roads in Borneo were destroyed, changing the itinerary.

Passengers received instructions to report to designated muster stations about 8:10 p.m. Friday (local time).

Some were outside on the deck waiting for the cabaret to open for a classical concert by pianist Tomono Kawamura. People in the main dining room were still eating: women in stiletto heels with cocktail dresses, men with ties and jackets, some with the robe supplied by the ship, others in casual clothes.

Passengers shared deck chairs, up to three per chair, and listened to the announcements by the crew.

No one appeared to panic, or spoke in highly pitched voices, and instead stayed calm while waiting for more information.

Then came the news there was a fire in one of the main propulsion engines. Fire crew members rushed to extinguish the blaze. The smoke damage was so extensive that the engine room crew could not get in to assess the damage, which turned out to be extensive.

Passengers waited on the fifth deck with life preservers while the crew distributed life vests, water, ice cups, soda and instructions to hydrate because of the extreme heat.

Dave and Marlys Nelson of Arizona spoke of the professional, well-trained staff.

"The ship's captain was so professional and kept up well informed - every 10 to 15 minutes and the crew was also professional and very helpful," said Marlys Nelson. "We would like to give our thanks to them."

"The crew is fabulous," Sandra and Daryl Rogers, a couple from Australia, said. "We sat up on the top deck until 3:30 a.m. And they kept coming back and asking if they could help us in any way."

The couple said they were disconcerted since they were eating dinner when the alarm rang.

"We have been on seven or eight cruises and this time I did not bring my stateroom key with me, which is unusual," Sandra Rogers said. "Next cruise I'm going to bring a torch (flashlight) with me. We are lucky that we're in still water and not the monsoon."

Passengers spent an unpleasantly hot evening waiting for permission to return to dark cabins.

The crew accounted for each passenger and their safety.

One of the crew was seriously hurt and needed to be hospitalized.

At 10:10 a.m. Saturday, the ship still is adrift. The captain said he hoped to start a propulsion engine soon. Passengers' families had been contacted, along with major media outlets.

And then the captain shared his thoughts to those aboard.

"I want to thank you (the passengers) for the way you assisted our crew," an emotional Karlsson said. "I always tell them that they are the best crew in the world and I really know it now."

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Pioneer staff reports
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