Police are continuing to hold two men following a fire on board a North Sea ferry which sparked a dramatic emergency rescue by RAF helicopters.

When passengers were eventually allowed off the King Seaways cruise ferry after it returned to North Shields, North Tyneside, some vowed never to sail again after their frightening experience.

A blaze, said to have been caused by a smoker, started in a cabin when the vessel was around 30 miles off the North Yorkshire coast at around 10.45pm last night.

Two RAF helicopters scrambled to the scene and winched two passengers and four crew members to safety so they could have hospital treatment after breathing in smoke.

The ferry sailed back to Tyneside and most of the 946 passengers were allowed off this morning while others remained on board to be interviewed by detectives.

Northumbria Police arrested a 26-year-old man on suspicion of arson and a 28-year-old man was held arrested on suspicion of affray.

Scuffles broke out during the emergency procedure among passengers, some of whom had been drinking heavily.

Steven Basford, 28, from Northumberland, who was travelling to Amsterdam with his partner Vic Liang to celebrate New Year with friends, saw two men fighting.

"We were in our room at about 10.40pm last night when they raised the general fire or emergency alarm with seven high pitched siren noises," he said.

"We were told to evacuate outside the ship and when we got outside they asked us to converge around the lifeboats.

"The fire was on our floor but on the other side of the ship. When we climbed up to the communal area we could see the smoke. It wasn't thick but it was definitely noticeable.

"People were generally pretty calm. Obviously people had had a lot to drink. It's a bit of a party boat. Two big blokes started brawling."

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.

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."

Mr Richardson said when passengers were told to muster on deck, it was clear some youngsters had been asleep in their cabins.

"There were lots of children with no socks or shoes on. They must have just got out of bed," he said.

Jake Nipper, an 18-year-old fitter from South Shields, South Tyneside, said people had heard the fire was caused by someone who fell asleep while smoking in a cabin.

"It has spoiled everyone else's holidays," he said.

"We have been stuck on that boat for hours now. I'm tired and I just want to go home."

Karl McMurrough, 18, from Pennywell, Sunderland, said: "We all got rushed on to the deck, there were helicopters, kids squealing, life jackets.

"They were telling us to keep calm but they weren't giving us any information."

Asked about passengers fighting, he said: "There were a few people going wild - no-one knew what was going on.

"I'm never going on a boat again, I'm horrified."

One passenger travelling with his family said it was only when the helicopters arrived above the ferry that people began to realise the situation was serious.

The father of two small girls said: "I was at the window and I could see the helicopter and it was quite dramatic.

"That's when actually everyone started panicking, because until then everyone thought it was a small fire, but when we saw the helicopter we thought it was something major."

He praised the 127 DFDS staff for their efforts throughout the night.

RMT General Secretary Bob Crow thanked the emergency services.

He said: "RMT has nothing but praise for the calm and professional manner in which the workforce dealt with the emergency situation that unfolded in the North Sea last night.

"RMT would also like to express our thanks to the emergency services and the RAF whose swift and decisive actions in last night's dangerous conditions are a credit to their professions."

Gert Jakobsen, a spokesman for ferry operator DFDS Seaways, said: "We are very sorry for those passengers who have not only been affected by the fire but now by these delays.

"We are looking at how we can help them.

"The cabin that was burnt is very damaged and there has been some smoke damage to surrounding cabins but the ship's function has not been affected in any way and is safe to travel."

According to the DFDS Seaways website, the 26-year-old vessel has room for over 1,500 passengers and 600 cars. It was renovated in 2006.

It offers entertainment including restaurants, bars, a nightclub and a casino.