A PASSENGER who sparked a potentially-deadly £800,000 blaze while smoking cannabis on board a North Sea ferry has been jailed for 11 years.
Boden Hughes risked the lives of almost 1,000 people when he caused a fire on board the King of Seaways DFDS ferry on December 28.
Newcastle Crown Court heard the blaze, which quickly spread out into the ship’s corridor, caused 27 passengers and crew to need treatment for smoke inhalation.
Six people, including a pregnant woman, had to be winched from the vessel by helicopter.
The fire, which started when the ship was 25 miles out to sea during darkness, caused panic to spread throughout the boat, where children stood on deck frightened and in tears.
Amid the confusion and upset, Hughes then get involved in a fight with fellow passenger James Curry, throwing punches while scared passengers watched in horror.
The Amsterdam-bound vessel, was forced to return to its departure point in North Shields.
The mini-break for the 946 passengers who were on board was cancelled.
Hughes, 27, of Fulwell Road, Sunderland, admitted reckless arson on the basis he started the fire accidentally with a discarded lighter.
Judge James Goss QC sentenced him to nine years for arson and affray, which he admitted, plus two years for his involvement in a copper cable theft conspiracy from Network Rail, which he also pleaded guilty to.
The judge said the last example of fire on board a similar vessel resulted in the death of 159 people who perished on the Scandinavia Star in 1990.
The judge agreed with the prosecution description of Hughes’ “spectacular recklessness” while using a naked flame to try and smoke cannabis.
The judge said: “The consequences could have been disastrous.
“Panic was caused, passengers were injured by reason of smoke inhalation and £800,000 loss caused to the ferry operator.
“Fires on a ship are even more serious than those on land.
“The escape routes are limited, the stability of the vessel can be effected by use of water to extinguish the flames.
“This is an offence of the highest culpability.”
The court heard Hughes had boarded the ferry with his girlfriend and another couple, carrying his own drink on board.
After drinking in his cabin he had more drinks in the bars before having to be helped back to his cabin by a member of the crew shortly before 10.30pm.
Within minutes, a smoke alarm on board alerted staff to a fire in his room and crew were met with a smoke-filled corridor when they tried to investigate.
Hughes was crawling out of his cabin when the staff arrived.
Prosecutor Ian Lowrie QC told the court: “He was on all fours, half naked, going into the direction of the corridor.”
The court heard the crew swiftly and efficiently tried to fight the flames, which were eventually extinguished by the ship’s sprinklers, and started evacuation procedures.
Mr Lowrie added: “Most of the passengers assembled on the upper decks. They were very scared, children were crying. The crew noted people and passengers beginning to exhibit signs of panic.”
The court heard while crew concentrated on the safety of the passengers, Hughes could still not be calmed.
Mr Lowrie said: “Not content with having contributed to causing a fire, when he got to the deck he met Mr Curry and his friend and got into a fight.”
The court heard any fire on board a ship creates a “race against time” because any water used on the flames makes the vessel unstable.
The court heard the £800,000 cost of the blaze comprised of £80,000 repairs, £30,000 fee because the ship changed course, £25,000 for the medical evacuations, £475,000 on passenger refunds, £175,000 loss of revenue and £25,000 legal and other costs
The court costs in Hughes’ case was more than £6,600.
Christopher Morrison, defending, said: “He wants, through me, to say he is extremely sorry to all concerned, especially those who had to be air lifted.
“He wants to say sorry to the company whose activity he has caused disruption, to the passengers whose enjoyment was ruined and to all passengers and crew concerned in the obvious panic.”
Curry, 29, of Calshot Road, Sunderland admitted a public order offence in relation to the fight as well as involvement in the theft conspiracy.
He was jailed for a total of three years and three months.