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Crew error cited in Carnival ship fire that led to nightmare tow

A passenger aboard the Carnival Splendor waves a T-shirt message as the cruise ship is tied up in San Diego Harbor in 2010.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

An 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 and crew to endure a hot, four-day tow back to port, a U.S. Coast Guard report found.

There were no working air conditioners, refrigerators or toilets during the tow back. The findings were 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.

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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.

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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The ensuing public relations crisis has been cited as one of the reasons Micky Arison, son of the cruise line’s founder, stepped down last month as the company’s CEO.

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Twitter: @jackdolanLAT

jack.dolan@latimes.com


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