They joined in bucket brigades in a futile attempt to put out the fire aboard the luxury liner. They fashioned makeshift slings out of life rings and ropes and lowered each other into rafts.
Some elderly passengers scaled rope ladders over the side of the burning ship.The first shipload of survivors of the Achille Lauro fire reached shore Saturday with stories of terror and courage.
"We were just pensioned. This was our holiday of a lifetime," said Esme Stratfold, a retiree from South Africa.
A fire erupted in the Achille Lauro's engine room Wednesday and consumed the Italian liner, already notorious for a 1985 hijacking.
Two elderly men died and eight other people were injured when lifeboats and life rafts were launched. One man died of an apparent heart attack. The other died of injuries after a falling raft hit him on the head.
Sixty-nine of the nearly 1,000 passengers and crew reached Djibouti in northeast Africa on Saturday aboard the Liberian-registered bulk carrier Bardu. They wore white sweatsuits donated by the ship owners. Most escaped the fire with only the clothes on their backs.
Many passengers said they never heard an alarm. Some smelled smoke while watching a movie, "Basic Instinct," or from in their cabins.
A few were awakened by members of the crew banging on their doors hours after others had gathered on deck.
"When the fire was going, I thought the ship could last. But then there was no water. They were using buckets. The auxiliary pumps were dead. We had no power and no water to fight the fire so they used buckets," said Peter Lategan of South Africa.
"It was so hopeless. The buckets were so small," Stratfold said.
Throughout the night, passengers waited calmly as they were told over and over that the fire was being brought under control. Even when the order to abandon ship came 11 hours after the fire began, passengers said they were told it was just a precaution.
"At one stage they told us the fire was out," said Jacobus Van Wijk, 75, of South Africa, a dance instructor on the ship. "However, apparently the heat from the engine room set some of the lower decks alight."
Lifeboats were lowered into the water. But one jammed and tipped, almost dumping passengers into the sea. The passengers, many elderly, scaled rope ladders hanging over the side of the burning ship to get back to the deck.
"We had to climb up the side of the ship on ladders," said Kathleen Phillips, 67, of England. "Then we climbed down a ladder to the life rafts. I don't know how we did it."
"Teenagers would be glad to do what we old people have done," said her 69-year-old husband, Herbert.
Two elderly women fell off the ladders into the sea and had to be rescued by those already in life rafts.
Lategan was standing next to the man who died after being hit by the life raft.
"He was put in my life raft but died about three hours later. We couldn't get a doctor. He died in his wife's lap about 50 minutes before we were rescued," he said.
Van Wijk said he and his wife had worked on the cruise to South Africa for 10 years. His first cruise was the ship's first one after it was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1985.
An elderly Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed during the hijacking and his body dumped overboard.
The Achille Lauro sank Friday, 125 miles off the coast of Somalia.
"This tragedy was a tremendous shock and something I won't get over for a long, long time," Van Wijk said.
"The morning after the disaster, I walked out on the deck of the rescue ship and looked and saw the old blue lady blazing and just broke down."