Cruise ship fire prompts probe

April 09, 2006|By MARY LU ABBOTT | MARY LU ABBOTT,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A cruise ship fire March 23 that killed one person and injured 11 has prompted an investigation that could bring about changes affecting consumers 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 four-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 was one of four incidents in two days that raised anew questions of passenger safety, which was 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

No official details of the fire have been released and no cause determined, but there has been 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.

The bus crash that killed 12 U.S. passengers sailing on Celebrity's Millennium has focused attention on the dangers of touring in remote areas. The ship was visiting the small port of Arica, Chile, on a 14-night cruise from Valparaiso, Chile, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Mary Lu Abbott is a freelance reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

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