Guests got close-up of Canadian sailors battling blaze on ship; vessel being towed to Hawaii

The Associated Press

American naval destroyer USS Michael Murphy escorts passengers from a Canadian navy vessel to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. A U.S. Navy ocean tug was towing the Canadian ship after an engine fire left 20 sailors with minor injuries. (AP Photo/Oskar Garcia)

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By OSKAR GARCIA, Associated Press

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) — Guests aboard a naval refueling ship thought they were going to see some drills and learn more about life as a Canadian sailor on the Pacific. Instead, they got a firsthand view of their loved ones in action as the sailors battled an engine fire.

"We didn't know if it was a drill or if it's for real. We realized quickly it's for real," said Wade Kehler, whose son Sam is a combat information officer aboard the HMCS Protecteur. "We stood there in amazement and watched the crew get organized and go."

A U.S. Navy ocean tug on Tuesday was towing the Canadian ship with nearly 300 crew members on board to Hawaii's Pearl Harbor after the fire left 20 sailors with minor injuries.

The Protecteur was in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii when the fire broke out last week, the Canadian navy said.

Its passengers included some of the crew's family who had been traveling with the Protecteur on its return leg to Esquimalt, British Columbia. It is common for family to join crew members returning from long missions.

The U.S. Navy dispatched guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy to help the disabled vessel. The Michael Murphy returned to Pearl Harbor on Tuesday carrying 19 of the family members and one Canadian sailor who cut his hand, Canadian navy officials said.

"We signed on for an adventure, and we got one," Arlene Veenhof, a family member, told reporters after stepping off the destroyer. After walking onto the dock, Veenhof and the other passengers gave three cheers to the American crew who had escorted them.

Veenhof said she was in a wardroom playing cards when the lights went off, and she heard a fire alarm a few minutes later.

Kehler and Veenhof said they were impressed by how quickly the crew shifted gears to deal with the unexpected situation.

"I don't think we ever felt in danger or in peril," Kehler said. "We watched them. They were well-organized, well-coordinated — you could tell they'd been practicing the drill for a long time."

The Canadian navy said a doctor on board treated sailors suffering from dehydration, exhaustion and smoke inhalation. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

Cmdr. Al Harrigan of Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters said the Canadian ship was a refueling vessel on its way home from a three- to four-week deployment.

Harrigan said the details of the fire investigation were still being worked out, along with the logistics of getting the ship back to a dock.

"We're going to look after the crew. That's our Number 1 priority. Once the ship is safely alongside then we'll start looking at what the actual damage was," Harrigan said. "We'll bring in our experts, they'll look at the situation, and that'll start the slow process of getting our ship ready to head back to Canada."

Harrigan said the American ship also helped by providing essential supplies, like water, to those on the Canadian vessel.

Kehler said the non-crew passengers were well cared for while they waited, despite being unable to sleep in their bunks because of smoke.

"I don't think any of us lost too much weight on the ship," he said.

The 44-year-old Canadian vessel was expected to arrive at Pearl Harbor on Thursday. The effort to tow the aging vessel was complicated by rough seas, which caused the tow line to break Sunday, the Canadian navy said.

"Towing operations are hard enough but you've got these big war ships, and they're being tossed around in the water, pushed left, pushed right, up, down, back and forth," said Lt. Cmdr. Desmond James at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, Canada's Pacific Coast naval base. "That really puts a strain on the tow line."

The USS Sioux, a deep-water ocean tug, took over towing duties for the slow return to Pearl Harbor, James said.