Ship Fire Cut A Link Between Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A busy commercial link between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic has been severed by the fire last week aboard the only passenger ferry serving the route.

The fire that started Aug. 17 in the engine room of the Caribbean Fantasy apparently did not do any structural damage to the vessel, though it forced more than 500 passengers and crew to abandon the ship about a mile off the northern coast of Puerto Rico. But Joey Jimenez, a spokesman for ferry operator American Cruise Ferries said Wednesday that the company would no longer use the ship because of the bad public image created by the incident, in which more than two dozen people were hospitalized but no one was killed.

Jimenez said the company is trying to find a new ship to lease, but that it will likely take at least 90 days before it can resume normal passenger service between the U.S. island territory and the Dominican Republic. “We are in a hurry to solve it,” he said. “The ferry did a very important job.”

American Cruise Ferries began operating the 561-foot (171-meter) ferry in 2011. It made six trips a week between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, transporting 100,000 passengers a year, according to general manager Nestor Cidras.

The passengers include tourists, people visiting relatives and owners and employees of small businesses shipping commercial merchandise. The 13-hour overnight cruise was often less expensive than the short plane flight or preferred by those who don’t like to fly. The Caribbean Fantasy also could take cars and cargo containers, so people could carry goods that are cheaper in the U.S. territory than in the Dominican Republic, including TV sets, refrigerators and used clothes.

“You can buy whatever you want there,” said Elizabeth Marte, a 61-year-old Dominican who lives in an upscale neighborhood of Santo Domingo and takes the ferry on annual shopping trips to Puerto Rico. The loss of the ship, she said, is “a very great loss.”

Dominicans, who make up an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 of the 3.5 million people in Puerto Rico, often use the ferry as an alternative to sending money to family back home, said Gheidy de la Cruz, who runs an online Dominican news site in Puerto Rico.

“Given our country’s poverty level, many live solely on what family members send them,” de la Cruz said. “A lot of families over there will be affected.”

Around the Christmas holidays, about 80 percent of the passengers are Dominicans heading home to visit family. In the summer, Cidras said, it’s mostly Puerto Rican tourists.

The ship, built in 1989 and owned by Baja Ferries, has 148 cabins and offered a discotheque, a piano bar, two restaurants, a casino, a beauty salon, a spa, a jewelry store and a duty-free shop, Cidras said.

“It was practically a cruise,” he said. “Not only was it more affordable (than a flight), but it was much more fun.”

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, Eric Woodall, said the most recent inspection of the ship on Aug. 9 found some minor deficiencies but none are believed to have led to the fire and the vessel was authorized to sail. Jimenez said the company has not calculated the total damage loss to the ship or the cargo, which included 36 vehicles.

In the meantime, it’s a loss to thousands of people who relied on the ferry, said Gretel Santana, who lives in western Puerto Rico and took the ship often to visit family in the Dominican Republic and bring supplies to several aid organizations.

“Everyone is calling me now saying, ‘Gretel, what are we going to do? What are we going to do?'” she said. “I told them, ‘We just have to wait.'” (AP)

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