A SPECIALISED fire and rescue service, which was recently launched to deal with incidents at sea, had its first major operation following a fire on a cruise liner.

The new multi-agency Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) sprang into action after reports that the vessel Calypso, carrying more than 700 people on board, had caught fire 14 miles south of Beachy Head.

RNLI crews from Eastbourne, Newhaven, Hastings and Shoreham joined theh group following an emergency call at approximately 4am on Saturday morning (May 6).

Crew and passengers — the majority of them Dutch — waited on deck in lifejackets waiting for orders to abandon ship after the starboard engine of the cruise liner caught fire.

Len Richards, deputy chief fire officer for East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, said, "This was the first maritime incident to occur since the formation of the Maritime Incident Response Group and I commend all the services involved for bringing this potentially serious incident to a successful conclusion.

"We had a call at 4am to the motor vessel Calypso, which was in distress with an excess of 700 passengers on board.

"We have had a maritime team for a number of years, but just recently it has collaborated with maritime coastguard agency, 15 fire and rescue services across the UK and seven ambulance services.

"We had two teams of nine personnel under the command of group commander John Ticehurst winched onto the ship by helicopter.

"There was a severe fire in the starboard engine. The crew discharged all the carbon dioxide to stop the flames.

"They had the main fire out but there was a number of small fires we dealt with."

The team stayed on board to monitor the situation while the cruise liner was taken to Southampton by the tug Anglian Monarch.

It docked at approximately 6pm.

None of the people on board the 11,000-ton Calypso, which had been making its way from Tilbury, Essex to St Peter's Port in Guernsey, were injured, but some were treated for shock.

Mark Sawyer, coxswain for Eastbourne Lifeboat station, said, "We were paged at 3.57am and asked to launch by Dover coastguard.

"The cruise liner was in a position approximately 14 miles south of Beachy Head in process of abandoning because of an engine room fire.

"All the lifeboats were made ready on the side of the boat for abandoning ship and all passengers were in life jackets.

"We positioned ourselves on either side of the casualty vessel in case the fire reignited and they had to abandon."

The team then checked blisterings on the hull of the casualty vessel and the Eastbourne crew stayed at the scene until 10.15am.

A specially trained team of Sussex Ambulance Service paramedics, which formed part of the Maritime Incident Response Group — made up of four paramedics from Chicester, Brighton and Hove area, plus a paramedic officer — also attended the scene and were winched to the Calypso by helicopter.

Ambulance control was initially made aware of the incident at 4.22am and had the off-shore team on active stand-by since 5.30am.

Andy Parr, Sussex Ambulance officer in charge of the incident, said, "The off-shore team, made up of 15 paramedics in total, are well-trained in attending incidents such as this.

"Although incidents such as this are fortunately rare, experience worldwide during recent years has shown how dangerous maritime incidents can be.

"Once on board, the team carry out a full assessment of the situation and treat any patients as necessary."

The MIRG consists of 15 fire and rescue services and maritime rescue agencies.