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Crew member’s mistake led to Carnival cruise ship’s loss of power

A spectator watches as a tug nudges the Carnival Splendor into the San Diego Cruise Ship Terminal. The ship and its nearly 4,500 passengers and crew were towed into port after a fire. Many air conditioners, refrigerators and toilets stopped working during the four-day tow.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

A crew member’s inappropriate response to a fire alarm on the Carnival Splendor cruise ship in 2010 led to a loss of power that forced nearly 4,500 passengers to endure a hot, four-day tow back to port, a U.S. Coast Guard report found.

Many air conditioners, refrigerators and toilets stopped working during the tow back, according to passengers.

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Details of the crew’s mistakes are contained in a scathing, 51-page Coast Guard report on the fire that broke out Nov. 8, 2010, as the ship sailed from Long Beach to the Mexican Riviera.

When the fire alarm first went off on the ship’s bridge, a crew member reset it, leading to a 15-minute delay in the activation of an automatic fire-suppression system.

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“This was a critical error which allowed the fire to spread ... and eventually caused the loss of power,” the Coast Guard report said.

The report also faults the crew’s “lack of familiarity with the engine room,” which hampered their ability to locate and fight the fire, and the captain’s decision to “ventilate” the compartment where the fire began before it was fully extinguished, allowing the flames to flare again.

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“We agree with the U.S. Coast Guard’s conclusions surrounding fire detection and firefighting processes and took numerous actions throughout our fleet as a result,” said a statement issued Monday by Carnival.

Neither the fire nor the long tow back to port caused any injuries, the statement added.

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“Carnival Cruise Lines has maintained an excellent safety record throughout our 41-year history,” the statement read.

News of the crew’s missteps may be hard to swallow for Splendor passengers, some of whose dream vacations turned into nightmares permeated by odors of human waste, rotten food and sour milk.

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As the stricken vessel was towed to shore, some people had to scoop their own waste out of non-flushing toilets and carry it to receptacles elsewhere on the ship, one passenger told The Times.

Others reported lining up for two hours for food delivered by U.S. Navy helicopters.

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The ordeal was leavened, slightly, by an offer of free alcohol, some passengers told The Times.

Another Carnival ship, the Triumph, experienced a fire that knocked out power during a cruise earlier this year. Once again, passengers reported kitchens, toilets, air conditioners and elevators stopped working.

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This time, however, passengers armed with smartphones created a media storm by sending out real-time photos, videos and tweets chronicling the conditions.

In an email to The Times on Tuesday, Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen acknowledged both cruises had problems, but said reports of the poor conditions have been overblown.

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“There were numerous working toilets on the Carnival Splendor as the ship was being towed back to port,” Gulliksen wrote. On the Triumph, he added, “there were some toilets working as well as limited galley and elevator functionality.”

The ensuing public relations crisis has been cited in press reports as one of the reasons Micky Arison, son of the cruise line’s founder, stepped down last month as the company’s chief executive. Gulliksen said “recent events” had nothing to do with Arison’s decision to relinquish the job, and said Arison is still the company’s chairman.

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jack.dolan@latimes.com


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