Autopilot glitch may have caused ship accident

July 20, 2006|By ORLANDO SENTINEL

PORT CANAVERAL -- A glitch in the autopilot system on the Crown Princess likely caused the month-old cruise ship to tilt harshly to one side, injuring 240 passengers, marine experts said yesterday.

About 2,500 of the ship's passengers were bused to Orlando International Airport to fly home yesterday. The final 600 or so are expected to get flights out today.

Twenty of the injuries were considered serious, cruise ship officials said, and all are expected to recover fully.

Princess Cruise spokeswoman Julie Benson said that each passenger on the nine-day cruise would receive a full refund - an average of about $2,000. Passengers also said they were promised reimbursement for yesterday's travel home.

The 113,000-ton vessel was about 11 miles from Port Canaveral and headed for New York on Tuesday when it lurched 15 degrees to the port side, sending passengers and furniture flying, witnesses and officials said.

The tilt was so extreme that even the casino's slot machines and the gymnasium's exercise equipment tipped over or slid across the floor, passengers said.

"It felt like it was going to tip all the way," said passenger Rory Pollock of Seattle as she waited for an airport taxi yesterday morning. "We're lucky we didn't lose anybody overboard."

The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the accident. Spokesmen said it could be weeks before an official determination of the cause is released.

Industry experts said severe listing is uncommon in cruise ships, but at least two other similar cases have happened in the past five years. Such vessels routinely use autopilot systems to set a desired course, which is then compared to compasses that direct the rudders.

Any miscommunication between the systems could result in an abrupt stop or suddenly wild steering, experts said.

Al Calabrese, a former field technician for autopilot systems who now works for Radio Japan Co., a marine electronics manufacturer, said one likely scenario was that the autopilot malfunctioned and shifted the ship's rudders harshly to one side. That would make the vessel list, he said.

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