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Cruise Ship Fire Highlights Past Incidents

Vera H-C Chan
Senior Editor, Special Projects

Recent cruise ship fires

Allure, April 20, 2012: Dubbed Royal Caribbean's "signature ship," the world's largest cruise ship had to change course to keep smoke from a "small and short-lived engine fire" from blowing back into the vessel.
Azamara Quest, March 31, 2012: The ship drifted off the Philippines coast for 24 hours due to an engine fire, which injured one crew member. Power was restored and the ship made port to Malaysia; some passengers remained to finish the trip.
MS Costa Allegra, Feb. 27, 2012: After a generator fire, the vessel had to be towed over the course of several days — across pirate territory — to the Seychelles.
Costa Concordia, Jan. 13, 2012: After its captain ordered a change in its route, the cruise ship struck a rock and ran aground off Italy, leaving 32 dead. The captain's trial for manslaughter is due to be held this spring. Salvage operations are estimated to conclude this September.
Bahamas Celebration, Dec. 21, 2011: The crew extinguished a fire in one of its six generator and shut down the engine as a precaution. Tugboats pulled in the ship, which was four miles off Grand Bahama. Originally built as the Prinsesse Ragnhild, the boat had a 1999 engine-room fire that resulted in a full evacuation.
Queen Mary II, Oct. 5, 2011: A minor fire in the engine room reportedly did not affect the voyage. One year earlier, an explosion led to a brief power outage. The ship returned to news headlines in December after a norovirus sickened 205 people.
Ocean Star, April 16, 2011: The ship had just been retrofitted when a generator fire forced an evacuation of 748 people by catamaran.
MSC Musica, Dec. 19, 2010: A trip leaving Rio de Janeiro had to be canceled when an engine room fire knocked out air conditioning and water purification systems.
Carnival Splendor, Nov. 8, 2010: A catastrophic failure knocked out a diesel generator. The second engine room failed to provide backup, and the vessel had to be towed from Mexico to San Diego.

The Carnival Triumph and its 4,200 passengers left Galveston, Texas, on Feb. 7 for a four-day jaunt into the Gulf of Mexico. A week later, four tugboats are towing the 900-foot-long vessel to Mobile, Alabama, after an engine fire took down operations on Sunday. The ship stalled out 150 miles from the Yucatan Peninsula, and strong currents circumvented earlier plans to head to Mexico.

Carnival is in maximum public-relations overdrive: Besides reported offers of free onboard booze and full refunds with extras, the cruise line has also canceled 14 upcoming trips. Customers on its Facebook page have been largely sympathetic, although there have been calls for boycotts. Nevertheless, the breakdown is drawing another close look at the industry, calling to mind similar engine fires (the 2010 engine-room fire at Carnival Splendor) and cruise safety in general (the Costa Concordia crash in 2012).

Maritime lawyer James Walker, in a CNN article, lists the "alarming frequency" of fires in the past two years, some of which partly or completely disabled vessels such as the Costa Allegra, Bahamas Celebration, Ocean Star, and Azamara Quest. Walker also alluded to Senate hearings that list fires in 79 cruise ships over a period of two decades.

Cruise Critic, a review site owned by TripAdvisor, called out these same incidents as well. "[D]ebilitating cruise ships are still rare," the blog notes, but "it's enormously troubling. An engine room fire that's contained relatively quickly manages to TKO the sewage systems and A/C? The ship requires a tug's assistance to move a nautical inch?"

The industry has asserted an impeccable safety record, citing research that, out of 100 million passengers, only 16 deaths can be related to "marine casualties," which would make it safer than air flight. Walker, however, has questioned the methodology used and highlighted the lack of a central database that makes accident reports accessible to the public — unlike the FAA or even private U.S. airline companies.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are on hand to investigate this latest breakdown. However, the primary authority lies with the Bahamas Maritime Authority, since the Carnival Triumph sails under its country's flag. That's the case with many cruise ships. Incorporated in countries such as the Bahamas (which ranks the first in cruise ship registry worldwide), Panama, Bermuda, and Liberia, the cruise lines — while booked by many Americans — are not subject to many U.S. laws, from labor to safety. Besides Carnival, other popular lines in that category include Royal Caribbean and Disney.