THEY were trying to escape from the civil war tearing their country apart.
But scores of terrified men, women and children fleeing the fighting in Syria faced an even greater danger as the boat carrying them across the Mediterranean was adrift and in danger of sinking.
Enter Southampton-based cruise ship Crown Princess as part of an urgent mercy mission to rescue the refugees.
The ship – more usually the scene of luxurious, relaxing holidays – became a temporary haven for more than 100 of the refugees.
Medical teams on board the city-based vessel were able to give emergency treatment to a heavily pregnant woman rescued from the rickety boat.
The 113,000- tonne ship stood by on full alert as the distressed mother- t o - b e was plucked to safety by Italian coastguards who rushed her to the nearby cruise ship, which, by chance, happened to be in the area at the time.
After receiving the distraught Syrian woman, doctors and nurses on Crown Princess, which is due back in Southampton on Thursday, September 26, were able to give her immediate medical attention before she was lifted off the cruise ship into a helicopter hovering over the vessel’s deck.
Watched by many of the vessel’s passengers standing out on the open deck, the helicopter’s winch-man was lowered down to the ship from where he helped guide the woman back up to the aircraft.
According to Italian authorities, as soon as the helicopter touched down at a hospital in the Sicilian city of Catania the woman gave birth to a baby girl.
The full-scale rescue operation swung into action when an unseaworthy boat, crammed with 44 children, 20 women and 94 men, was spotted about 100 miles off the coast of Sicily on Monday.
An Italian naval aircraft then circled over the boat until a coastguard cutter arrived on the scene and was able to transfer the refugees to two other naval ships and onward to the port of Syracuse.
The rescue marks the latest in a wave of boat migrants to Italy.
Last Friday the UN refugee agency said that a total of 3,300 Syrians have arrived in Italy by boat in recent weeks, all fleeing the civil war which has raged for more than two years.
In just 24 hours before this latest incident another 500 Syrian boat people had been rescued off the coast of Italy.
Crown Princess left Southampton earlier this month on Monday, September 9, on a voyage to the Mediterranean.
The cruise ship, which entered service seven years ago and has been a regular sight alongside the port of Southampton during the summer, is scheduled to call at the docks on another four occasions before departing for Florida where she will begin a programme of Caribbean cruises.