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Inquiry into ship fire could bring change to cruise industry

Some ask how fatal Princess blaze could happen on a vessel built to the latest safety rules.

April 02, 2006|Mary Lu Abbott | Special to The Times

A cruise ship fire March 23 that killed one person and injured 11 has prompted an investigation that may bring about changes affecting the consumer and the cruise industry.

The 3 a.m. blaze aboard Princess Cruises' Star Princess, sailing from Grand Cayman to Montego Bay, Jamaica, swept through 100 cabins on the 4-year-old vessel, melting balconies along three upper decks, charring interiors and leaving a large blackened section on the port side of the 18-deck mega-ship.

Now officials are asking how this could have happened on a comparatively new cruise ship, built to the highest international safety standards designed to prevent such a disaster.

The fire "raises a lot of questions that fire safety experts are going to have to take a look at," said Ted Thompson, executive vice president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, a trade association that oversees safety issues for the North American cruise industry. "When the investigation is published, we will see if what did happen was an anomaly or if some change is needed in regulations or construction."

The fire was one of four incidents in two days that raised anew questions of passenger safety, the subject of a March 7 congressional hearing that focused on cruise ship crime.

On March 22, a tour bus plunged down a mountainside in a remote part of northern Chile, killing 12 U.S. passengers and injuring two more from a Florida-based cruise ship.

The same day, in Canada's Inside Passage, a BC Ferries vessel hit a rock on a night voyage and sank off the Queen Charlotte Islands. Fishermen from a nearby port and Canadian coast guard crews plucked passengers and crew from lifeboats. Two of the 101 passengers had not been accounted for by the Travel section's deadline Tuesday.

And a sailing of a Carnival Cruise Lines ship out of Port Canaveral, Fla., was delayed six hours March 23 after U.S. Coast Guard inspectors discovered malfunctioning fire-control systems in a routine inspection. Repairs to the Sensation were made on the spot.

"Any mariner looks at fire at sea as the worst nightmare, the thing of most concern," said Thompson.

He's among several people in the cruise industry who were surprised at the extent of the fire aboard the Star Princess, given current safeguards. Cruise ships adhere to the Safety of Life at Sea convention, which sets safety standards and governs their design and construction.

"New ships have to use noncombustible materials for the major part of construction," Thompson said. "Inspectors from the U.S. Coast Guard go to the shipyard during construction to assure not only that the materials used are certified but also that they are being installed properly," he said.

Ships today have sprinklers and smoke alarms in cabins, Thompson said. Princess Cruises spokeswoman Julie Benson confirmed that the Star Princess was so equipped.

Sprinklers, however, are not required on balconies, which may have been how the fire spread, according to passenger reports and photographs of the damage.

The interior of the ship has fire zones with doors that close to contain a blaze, but such fire breakers don't extend to its exterior, Thompson said.

Michael Crye, president of the ICCL trade association, said it's impossible to extend fire zones to the exterior of a ship because the area cannot be closed off.

No official details of the fire have been released and no cause cited yet, but there has been continuing speculation in the media that a cigarette was the cause.

If true, that could lead to more stringent smoking rules. Except for a few small lines that ban smoking, most allow smoking in specified public areas. Most lines discourage smoking in cabins but don't prohibit it, though some may prohibit smoking in bed.

To ensure passenger safety, all crew members on cruise ships are trained in basic fire-fighting procedures. On average industrywide, more than 150 work on fire-fighting teams, and some of the team members have advanced training, Thompson said.

The U.S. Coast Guard regularly inspects ships. In an Oct. 25 inspection, the Star Princess "passed with flying colors," said Dana Warr, spokesperson for the Coast Guard district in Miami.

Brett Rivkind, a Miami lawyer who has sued cruise lines on behalf of passengers, said maritime accident investigations generally focus on three key issues: what caused the fire, whether the fire detection system worked properly and promptly, and whether the crew responded according to requirements.

Princess Cruises flew passengers home from Jamaica, gave them a full refund for the cruise and airfare and covered out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the changes. The Star Princess will be out of service until May 15, when it is scheduled to begin European sailings.


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