Ga. man, 75, dies during fire on cruise ship in Caribbean

Accident injures 11, damages at least 100 cabins of Star Princess

March 24, 2006|By TOM STIEGHORST | TOM STIEGHORST,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For 21 years, the cruise industry has found comfort in the fact that accidents aboard ships at sea haven't resulted in the death of a passenger.

That string ended yesterday with a fatal fire on a Princess Cruises ship that killed one man and left 11 guests suffering from smoke inhalation.

The fire started about 3:10 a.m. in a passenger area as the 109,000-ton Star Princess was en route from Grand Cayman to Montego Bay, Jamaica. It damaged at least 100 cabins before being put out by ship personnel.

Jamaican police identified the man who died as Richard Liffidge, 75, of Georgia. In a statement, Princess said the death was caused by heart failure.

"This is the first time such a tragedy has occurred in the history of our company, and we are devastated," the Princess statement said.

The ship was carrying 2,690 passengers who were roused from bed and asked to report to their muster stations.

Zach Bramlage, 19, of Columbus, Ohio, was having a late-night meal when word spread that there was a fire.

"Some people just ran in where we were eating and told us the ship is on fire and we got our life vests real quick and headed downstairs," Bramlage said. "I was pretty scared initially but the captain came over the [intercom] and told us everything was going to be all right."

By midmorning yesterday, Princess said the fire was fully out but residual smoke remained in the damaged area.

Princess will cut short the seven-night Star Princess cruise that left Fort Lauderdale on March 19; it has canceled a March 26 sailing. Passengers will be flown home from Jamaica over the next two days with full refunds.

The Star Princess fire comes on the heels of an accident Wednesday in Chile in which 12 passengers on a shore excursion from a Celebrity Cruises ship died when a tour bus plunged off a road near the Peruvian boarder.

That ship, Celebrity's Millennium, left Arica, Chile, yesterday morning bound for Lima. It is still expected to finish its 14-day cruise April 2 at Port Everglades.

The tour bus that crashed, operated by Andino Tours, was not registered to carry passengers, according to an official with Chile's Transportation Ministry. Eight of the 12 passengers who died were part of a B'nai B'rith group from New Jersey.

The back-to-back misfortunes involving cruise passengers might spook some prospective cruise patrons. But the head of the cruise trade association said yesterday that the industry's safety record is still good.

"There will be lessons learned, and we will apply those lessons," said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines. The fire-prevention systems worked as intended to stop the spread of the fire, he said.

The Coast Guard is sending three officers to help investigate the cause of the fire, and a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said it was also sending an investigator. The main investigation falls to the London-based Marine Accident Investigation Branch because Millennium is registered in Bermuda.

The last time a cruise ship accident caused a passenger's death was in August 1984, when the Scandinavian Sun caught fire as it entered the port of Miami, killing Colleen Skantar of Greenacres City, who was escorting a youth group from Delray Beach, Fla.

Since then, ships have been grounded, caught fire and collided with other vessels in accidents that have injured passengers or killed crew members, but none resulted in the death of a passenger until yesterday's fire.

Cruise safety is an important economic issue for South Florida, where the three largest global cruise brands are based.

Tom Stieghorst writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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