Cruises face growing safety issues

May 07, 2006|By TOM STIEGHORST | TOM STIEGHORST,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

When the new Freedom of the Seas arrives in the United States next month, it will make history as the largest cruise ship, a behemoth built to carry more than 5,000 people.

Boarding passengers will be easy enough. But questions arise about whether cruise lines can successfully evacuate the Freedom and other ships in emergencies.

Unlike the airline industry, cruise lines don't have to prove they can get every passenger off ships within a set time. Routine lifeboat drills are done without passengers because of the risk of injury.

"It's just too dangerous," said Jack Westwood-Booth, head of marine technology at the International Maritime Organization, which sets safety rules at sea.

It's so dangerous that beginning in July, the organization will drop a requirement that crews board lifeboats during drills because too many seamen have been killed or injured in accidents.

While some lines plan no changes, the new rule could leave sailors even less prepared in emergencies, such as the fire on a Princess Cruises ship last month that killed one passenger and injured 13.

The ship did not have to be evacuated, but passengers said the thought weighed on their minds

"We certainly didn't know what we were heading into as we were walking out of the cabin in our life vests," said Dan Deutsch, a Brooklyn product manager for a credit ratings agency.

Cruise lines do simulate emergencies for internal readiness. And shipyards are starting to use computer generations of emergencies to design ships.

But as ships grow, so does the potential for catastrophe, critics say.

"You're talking about a whole city full of people on a ship," said James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Cruise lines aren't alone in pushing the envelope on size. Later this year, an airliner that can carry 850 passengers is expected to start service.

Since 1965, the Federal Aviation Administration has required plane makers, when they develop a new type of aircraft, to demonstrate that they can evacuate it within 90 seconds. The test takes place under realistic emergency conditions, such as cabin darkness, using volunteers who match the demographics of a typical jet passenger load.

The test isn't without risk. When a prototype of the Airbus A380 was evacuated in a hangar in Hamburg, Germany, last month, 873 people successfully escaped, but one broke a leg and 32 others had lesser injuries. Roland Herwig, an FAA spokesman, said that less realistic simulations, on computers for example, don't provide the needed reality check.

"We feel you actually have to have people and controlled demographics," Herwig said.

Cruise regulators take a different approach. When a new ship is near delivery, the U.S. Coast Guard inspects it for safety compliance. Another inspection is made at its first port call in the United States, where crew competency is also assessed.

But the shipyard doesn't conduct a drill like the one required by airline regulators.

After delivery, crews practice lowering the lifeboats weekly, and the Coast Guard checks the drill at least twice a year.

When passengers board a cruise, they also go through a drill, which directs them from their cabins to lifeboat stations. The drills are mandatory but some passengers skip them, Coast Guard officials say.

Few tests have been done to see what happens when passengers or passenger stand-ins are lowered in lifeboats. While crew members play passengers in some drills, they tend to be young, male and spry, while passengers run the gamut of ages and abilities.

One realistic test took place in England, two years after a 1994 ferry disaster in the Baltic Sea killed 852 people. British authorities evacuated 723 passengers and 119 crew members from the ferry Stena Invicta, but the exercise took 65 minutes, well beyond the International Maritime Organization standard of 30 minutes for such ships.

Ship operators are loath to add passengers to lifeboat drills. A 2001 report from Britain's Marine Accident Investigation Branch found that drills killed 12 seafarers and injured 87 over a 10-year period from 1989 to 1999.

Fatalities occurred mostly when release hooks slipped, dropping the boats. The study said the mechanisms were too complicated, and that crews tend to take shortcuts in drills, thereby learning bad habits.

Starting in July, crews may lower the boats in drills without being in them. Royal Caribbean Cruises won't change its current practice.

Carnival Cruise Lines is undecided, a spokeswoman said.

Industry experts say ships have more safety features than in the past, including broader corridors and stairwells, making escape easier. Bigger ships also have more barriers to halt the spread of fire or flood.

Michael Crye, president of the cruise industry's trade association, said even if a ship is burning or sinking, passengers are better off staying with the ship, which is designed to be "its own best lifeboat."

At the London-based International Maritime Organization, the Maritime Safety Committee has been working for five years to address the growing size of cruise ships. At a meeting next month, the panel is expected to approve new rules.

One will say that ships should have redundant power systems to better ensure that they can reach port after a disaster.

If a ship has to be abandoned, it should remain habitable for at least three hours, another rule will say.

Officials said the changes are designed to avoid having to pluck thousands of people from dozens of lifeboats in remote spots where cargo ships that might rescue cruise passengers have little capacity to recover small craft.

"The real problem is getting the people out of the lifeboats once they are in them," said the organization's Westwood-Booth.

Tom Stieghorst writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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