A FIRE on a North Sea ferry which sparked a major rescue operation when it was carrying around 1,000 people was started by a drunk passenger who was smoking cannabis in a cabin, a court has heard.
Boden George Hughes, 26, admitted arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered, during a brief hearing at Newcastle Crown Court, where his trial had been due to start.
The fire on the DFDS Newcastle to Amsterdam service happened at around 11pm on December 28 when the vessel was 30 miles off the North Yorkshire coast.
Six people were winched off the ferry by the RAF and helicoptered to hospital.
Hughes, who also admitted affray, pleaded guilty to arson on the basis that he was drunk, was smoking cannabis in a bong, and the fire started when his lighter’s flame set a pile of clothes ablaze.
He had altered his lighter so it produced a constant flame, he claimed.
Judge James Goss, the Recorder of Newcastle, will sentence Hughes, of Fulwell Road, Sunderland, in September.
Hughes was remanded in custody and warned to expect a lengthy prison sentence.
Judge Goss said: “Be under no illusions as to the seriousness of the crimes you have admitted today.
“This (arson) was a very serious offence which will attract a substantial sentence of imprisonment.”
Ian Lawrie QC, prosecuting, said figures will be produced at the next hearing to show the losses incurred by DFDS after the fire.
He said the helicopter rescue alone cost £50,000.
Mr Lawrie said a reconstruction of the fire showed that a blaze in a cabin using the same combustible clothing took just two minutes to engulf the space.
Hughes was guilty of “spectacular recklessness”, he said.
He added: “He was clearly drunk, he was clearly also on drugs.”
After the terrifying experience of a fire and rescue operation miles out to sea, Hughes’s fellow passengers faced the frustration of returning to Newcastle.
Passengers hugged family members in relief at the ferry terminal when they were finally allowed off, with some vowing never to sail again.
Julie Bell and Shaun Richardson, from Washington, Tyne and Wear, were on a weekend away.
At the time she said: “It was like a scene from a movie, a chaotic mess, horrible.
“It was terrifying and I won’t be travelling by boat again. I think I will stay in the UK from now on, it’s a lot safer.”
The King Seaways vessel was carrying 946 people at the time, plus crew.
RAF helicopters from Leconfield near Hull and Boulmer, Northumberland, were scrambled to the vessel along with RNLI lifeboats from Bridlington and Filey.
As he was led away, Hughes, dressed in a grey sweatshirt for the hearing, said: “Thank you, Your Honour.”