It's been an eventful couple of weeks for the cruise industry. Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Triumph suffered a fire in its aft-engine room on the third morning of a four-night Western Caribbean cruise. According to Carnival, the ship was heading back to Galveston, Texas and was about 150 miles off of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and more than 250 miles from Progreso, Mexico. when the fire broke out disabling the ship's propulsion system.
The US Coast Guard claimed they found exactly where the small fire ignited, which was a leak in a fuel oil return line that sprayed onto a hot surface. The ship's automatic fire extinguishing system was activated and doused the fire according to lead US Coast Guard Investigator, Lt. Cmdr. Teresa Hatfield. "They did a very good job," she said.
Carnival's emergency response teams were activated Sunday morning. Press statements and plans were quickly made known so media could accurately convey the latest developments. Before damage assessments were available, Carnival determined the ship needed assistance and dispatched two tug boats to tow the ship to port in case the ship's engines couldn't be restarted.
Carnival advised there was a fire aboard the 13.5-year-old, 101,000-ton ship and that it had been extinguished with no casualties nor injuries to the 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew onboard. There was no propulsion power, but emergency generator power was activated with limited auxiliary power. Within hours, another cruise ship, Carnival Elation, rendezvoused with Carnival Triumph to deliver needed food, supplies and support.
Within a day and a half of the fire, Triumph drifted about 90 additional miles because of strong winds and currents. On Monday, Carnival Legend arrived to offload tons of food and supplies to assist Triumph's passengers and crew.
Taking the ship's current position into consideration, Carnival made the decision to have Triumph towed to Mobile, Alabama instead of Progreso, Mexico. It was stated that the ship was essentially equal distance to both ports. Considering 900 passengers didn't have passports, this avoided delays with Mexican and US immigration and customs authorities. The logistical nightmare of disembarking, housing and transporting 4,200 people to Merida or Cancun and flying back to Houston on charter flights would have possibly added another two or three days to the trip home for all of Triumph's passengers and crew.
The first tugboat, which was dispatched from Mexico on Sunday, arrived at 6:30 p.m. Monday evening and began towing. The second tugboat, dispatched from Mobile, arrived Tuesday. Carnival Triumph was met by a third Carnival ship, Carnival Conquest, which offloaded more food and supplies. A total of four tug boats were used to push and pull Carnival Triumph toward Alabama. US Customs and Immigration authorities boarded Triumph while still under tow to quickly clear the passengers and expedite the disembarkation process once the ship finally reached Mobile.
Many people questioned why Carnival didn't transfer the passengers to another ship and the simple answer was they didn't want to risk the safety of the passengers and crew. They were extremely uncomfortable but weren't in imminent danger. The weather had drastically changed overnight with seas reaching up to 10 feet with 30 knot winds. The risk of injury greatly increased with the deteriorating weather conditions, so the decision to keep the passengers onboard and safe was prudent and responsible.
Imagine trying to load 40 people into a 20 passenger elevator. These other ships were completely full. If there was an emergency, arrangements would have been made as many ships were in the area, but again, passengers were not in any danger, just incredibly uncomfortable.
What was horribly painful for us viewers was the shameful media coverage by certain networks. They pulled out the hurricane handbook and went wall-to-wall with their coverage. Their intent was simply over-dramatization for ratings. The coverage was excruciating, redundant and at times, unnewsworthy. Some networks preyed on the suffering of these cruise passengers providing the same story, different person, repeatedly, for the entire day. Media overused the vocal minority and weren't interested in the silent majority.
Several people brought up the mechanical condition of the ship, questioning its seaworthiness. Carnival Triumph was recently inspected by the US Coast Guard in November 2012. Previous repairs had nothing to do with the fuel leak that caused the fire and disabled Triumph.
The oceans and ships are the lifeline of the cruise industry. No cruise line is going to knowingly sacrifice passenger or ship safety. A careless disaster could be not only be devastating for the company but also for the entire industry.
Carnival Cruise Lines provided each passenger with a complete refund, a free future cruise credit plus an additional $500 per person as additional compensation. Carnival isn't as large and successful as it is because of their good looks. They provide a safe, quality product that people from around the world enjoy year after year. As for the industry, each cruise line offers very different products and experiences, but safety is paramount. Keep in mind, cruise ships are machines and machines do break down.
The good news is that there hasn't been a negative consumer response relating to Triumph. The current wave season continues to be strong for the industry, as evidenced by higher pricing, year-over-year. None of the cruise lines have engaged in "panic pricing." Current cruise sales by several cruise lines, including Carnival, are almost identical in nature with their usual offers. Upgrades, reduced deposits, shipboard credits and the like were offered before and after Carnival Triumph's fire. Cruise passengers feel safe, supported by the undisputed fact that over 150 million people have cruised over the past decade, incident-free.
One of the many lessons I've learned in the industry over the past 24 years is that policies and procedures are constantly evolving. Nothing is etched in stone and improvements will always be made, especially when safety is concerned.
I'm confident that Carnival learned a great deal from this horrible experience and will share its findings with the entire industry as the matter unfolds. This situation should never happen again, but when it does, better preparation and response will undoubtedly ensue.
I've been asked several times if I feel comfortable and safe going on a cruise, especially after this latest incident. The simple answer is I wouldn't think twice and neither should you!