Carnival Cruise Lines President and CEO Gerry Cahill on Tuesday apologized to passengers stranded after an engine room fire left 4,229 people adrift on one of the cruise giant’s ships in the Gulf of Mexico.
“No one here from Carnival is happy about the conditions on board the ship and we obviously are very, very sorry about what’s taken place,” Cahill said at a press conference at the company’s headquarters in Doral. “There’s no question that conditions on board the ship are very challenging. I can assure you that everyone on board in the Carnival team and everyone shoreside is doing everything they can to make our guests as comfortable as possible.”
Passengers aboard the fire-stricken Carnival Triumph have one more full day at sea without air conditioning or widespread use of toilets before they reach land in Mobile, Ala. under the power of two tugboats. A U.S. Coast Guard vessel is escorting the ship in case of emergencies.
“If something does happen, we’re out there to help,” said Petty Officer Richard Brahm.
Cahill said the company has lined up more than 1,500 hotel rooms in New Orleans and Mobile for Thursday night and 20 charter flights to fly people to Houston on Friday. The company has canceled the ship’s Feb. 11 and 16 sailings. For those who just want to get home, Carnival is arranging for motorcoach service to Houston and Galveston.
By the time they arrive, it will have been a longer trip than they bargained for, and much less of a vacation.
The 14-year-old ship left Galveston for a four-night Western Caribbean cruise on Thursday with 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew on board; it was scheduled to return Monday morning.
But Sunday morning, fire broke out in an engine room for unknown reasons as the ship sailed off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The blaze was put out by automatic extinguishing systems, but the ship lost propulsion and was forced to operate on emergency generator power.
Since then, passengers have complained of stench, human waste in public areas, heat and long lines for food.
Texas resident Brent Nutt, whose wife is on the cruise ship, said Monday that she told him the "whole boat stinks extremely bad" and some passengers were getting sick and throwing up, the Associated Press reported. Nutt said his wife reported "water and feces all over the floor."
Jimmy Mowlam, 63, told the Associated Press his 37-year-old son, Rob Mowlam, told him by phone Monday night that the lack of ventilation onboard Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Triumph had made it too hot to sleep inside. He said Rob and his new bride are among the many passengers who have set up camp on the ocean liner’s decks and in its common areas.
"He said up on deck it looks like a shanty town, with sheets, almost like tents, mattresses, anything else they can pull to sleep on," said Mowlam, 63, who is from southeast Texas.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in chief of the popular website CruiseCritic.com, said many frequent cruisers take such incidents in stride – but, she said, the fact that there have been several fires on ships in recent years could be cause for concern.
In a strikingly similar case, the Carnival Splendor was set adrift in the Pacific in November 2010 after a major fire. It was out of service for about three months; the company estimated its loss was $56 million.
“The thing is that everyone remembers the Carnival Splendor fire,” said Spencer Brown.“And something that appears to be very similar happening within a two-and-a-half year span, it does shake confidence a little bit.”
Cahill said the Triumph fire is not the same as the Splendor, which suffered a “catastrophic explosion” in a diesel generator.
“Clearly we learned a lot from Splendor,” he said. “The automatic extinguishment systems worked very well. Our teams onboard have gone through extensive fire training and they also performed very well. I think those things were very helpful in this situation. Once we have a chance to go back, do an investigation….we’ll learn the cause, we will learn more information, I’m sure there will be further things we will learn that we’ll want to implement across the fleet.”
The U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board said late Tuesday they were investigating the cause of the fire. They will assist the Bahamas Maritime Authority because the ship is Bahamian flagged, the agencies said.
Hector Pazos, a St. Petersburg-based expert in maritime accidents, said explosions are more common than fires in engine rooms. “I don’t understand what happened,” he said. “It must be something fairly large.”
He said maintenance goes on constantly in an engine room, with crew required to keep detailed logs and follow lengthy manuals routinely. “It’s not that they have to wait for the end of the month to take it to a shipyard,” Pazos said.
Jim Walker, Miami-based maritime attorney, said he has seen cruise companies work crew members extremely hard – and he expects that the ships put in as much work.
“These are not airlines or city buses where you have 50 percent of them in operation and you can shut them down and rest them or put them in the garage and provide maintenance,” he said.
Aside from short scheduled drydock repairs and upkeep, Walker said, “They’re doing maintenance at sea… Push the ships like the crewmembers to the point of exhaustion and when they break, that’s what you see.”
While nowhere near as severe as the wreck of the Carnival Corp.-owned Costa Concordia that killed 32 people in Italy in January of 2012, the Triumph fire comes at an inopportune time for the world’s largest cruise ship company. The traditionally busy booking time known as “wave season” is about midway through, and Carnival had reported encouraging activity in North America in its last earnings report.
Cahill said he could not estimate what kind of financial hit the company might take and added “frankly, we haven’t even looked at it or thought about it.”
But Tim Conder, a Wells Fargo analyst, estimated that the impact could be between as much as $80 million, or 10 cents a share, for the quarter.
“While this incident represents a string of similar occurrences over the last several years, we believe this incident will most likely be more of a negative PR event, especially during the Wave season,” he wrote in a note to investors. “We believe that management will place additional efforts to better identify and install preventive measures to avoid future similar incidents and related negative PR.”
Carnival stock closed Tuesday at $39.02, up nearly one percent.