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U.S. Coast Guard: Carnival Triumph fire sparked by fuel leak

The engine room blaze that disabled Carnival Cruise Lines’ Triumph for five days in the Gulf of Mexico was sparked because of a leak in a fuel line, according to a U.S. Coast Guard investigator.

Lt. Cmdr. Teresa Hatfield, marine casualty investigation team leader for the agency, said in a conference call with reporters that the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board will likely wrap up work on the ship by the end of the week.

But the investigation is expected to last about six months, she said.

The Bahamas Maritime Authority is leading the inquiry because the ship is Bahamian flagged, but the Coast Guard and NTSB are handling the U.S.-interest investigative efforts, Hatfield said.

“We are looking at the cause of the fire and why the ship was disabled for so long and we are also looking at the crew response to the fire,” she said.

The 893-foot ship left Galveston on Feb. 7 for what was supposed to be a four-night cruise. But on the morning of Feb. 10, as the ship sailed off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, fire broke out and disabled the ship’s propulsion systems.

None of the 4,229 people aboard were injured, but passengers reported uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions. The 14-year-old vessel had only emergency generator power, leaving those aboard without hot water, air conditioning or widespread use of toilets.

One Texas woman filed suit over the ordeal on Friday; ABC News reported that another sued over the weekend.

Aided by tugboats, the Triumph reached land in Mobile, Ala., late Thursday night. Investigators boarded the ship to start interviews before it reached land to avoid keeping passengers aboard longer than necessary.

So far, investigators have spoken to passengers from about 33 cabins on various parts of the ship as well as 21 crew members. Hatfield said there is no suspicion at this point that the fire was started intentionally.

She said the initial investigation has shown that fuel from a flexible hose, the fuel oil return line in the No. 6 diesel engine, leaked into a hot surface and ignited. The ship’s automatic fire suppression system activated immediately, but Hatfield said damage was unavoidable.

“Anytime you have a fire, you’re going to have damage,” she said. “They were able to contain the fire to a small area of the vessel, and they did a very good job with their fire containment.”

Hatfield told reporters that redundancy systems apparently kicked in on board, but the agencies are still looking into why the power was knocked out.

She said the line that had the leak is subject to routine preventative maintenance and would be examined by inspectors who check ships for safety. But, she said, it will take time to go over all the inspection and maintenance records to show when that part was last inspected.

Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said her understanding is that the last full-scale Coast Guard inspection of the ship was on Nov. 15, 2012.

The Miami-based cruise operator has canceled all sailings aboard the ship through mid-April and estimated a financial hit of as much as $80 million.

The company still plansto return the ship to service for the April 18 sailing, de la Cruz said. The damage assessment is still ongoing, she said via email, and said it is too early to determine where the final repairs will be made.