With passengers home, focus turns to cause of Carnival Triumph fire — and prevention

Following days of critical media coverage after an engine room fire disabled the Carnival Triumph, thousands of passengers and the ship itself were finally in their rightful places Friday.

After docking in Mobile, Ala. Thursday night, the 3,141 passengers who spent five days stranded on the vessel made their way home Friday via car, plane and bus. Showers, hot food and reunions with loved ones were top priorities for most, though one passenger immediately filed a lawsuit against Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines.

Texas resident Cassie Terry sued the cruise operator for negligence, fraud and breach of maritime contract. The suit, filed by Texas attorney Marcus Spagnoletti, says Terry endured “unbearable and horrendous odors” and had to wade through human waste to wait in long lines for spoiled food.

“Plaintiff was forced to subsist for days in a floating toilet, a floating Petri dish, a floating hell,” the suit said. A spokesman for Carnival declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday, saying the company had not yet seen it.

Other passengers described similar situations: using bags or showers as toilets, sleeping with cabin doors open for fresh air or on decks, waiting for limited amounts of food, trying desperately to reach loved ones.

“The ship’s so huge and we felt so small and helpless out there,” said Pat Butterfras, of Houston. She was still visibly shaken early Friday morning while sitting in the lobby of a Mobile Renaissance Hotel, where several passengers were sipping cocktails and having a hot meal.

But they also spoke of unexpected moments of levity and kinship with fellow passengers.

Passenger and nurse Nicole Brown, of Dallas, Texas, said younger people helped older ones. Some had prayer groups. Strangers became friends. Early Friday, Brown had a sheet from the ship wrapped around her bearing the signatures of dozens of fellow passengers.

From the Port of Galveston Friday afternoon, Baylor University student Clark Jones recalled a Wednesday night sing-along that took an unexpected turn. The 22-year-old, who is in a band called O, Loveland, found a grand piano and led a group in Beatles and Neil Diamond songs. Then they turned to My Heart Will Go On, the theme from Titanic.

“At that point, people were like, yes,” Jones said. “My heart will go on.”

Even though the bus he rode from Mobile to New Orleans broke down early Friday morning, Jones said he was still not soured on cruising by the experience. He said he had fun before the engine fire Sunday morning, and spoke highly of crew members who did their best under dismal circumstances.

“You pay for a cruise and you get room service, there’s a buffet, food all the time, there’s sun, fun people,” he said. “I think like this was just a super unfortunate trip that maybe Carnival could’ve prevented if they may or may not have taken better care of this ship in particular.”

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing in San Francisco, said Carnival and the broader cruise industry have work to do to reassure the public that the ordeal will be taken seriously.

“For the industry, what this points out is that when ships sail and they’re in a large body of may be days away from the nearest port,” he said. “I think part of the challenge will be for the industry to determine how they prepare in a pragmatic way for these extreme types of situations, which are also extremely rare.”

Since 2010, more than 48.34 million passengers have sailed on cruise lines that belong to the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group. Including the Triumph fire, 7,668 passengers — less than .02 percent — were aboard ships set adrift in high-profile cases by fire. The Carnival Splendor was disabled following a fire in 2010; the Costa Allegra faced a similar situation in February of 2012, and the upscale Azamara Quest was temporarily without power after a fire in late March of that year.

But Harteveldt said the latest case, and the attention it garnered, shows that such issues need to be addressed in a substantive way.

“If the industry doesn’t get its act together when it comes to something like this, they’re going to hit a point of no return,” he said.

In an email, CLIA public affairs director David Peikin said the association works to learn from any serious incident and use those lessons to improve safety.

“Within CLIA, we have committees that deal with a range of technical issues, and the appropriate committee has begun discussing what we might learn from the investigation of this incident and how we might make a safe industry even safer,” he wrote.

Six investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were in Mobile to look into the cause of the engine-room fire, which happened some 150 miles off Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The ship left its home port of Galveston on Feb. 7 for what was supposed to be a four-night sailing.

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency was working with the Coast Guard and the Bahamas Maritime Authority, which will serve as the primary investigative agency.

The Bahamian government was taking the lead because the Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel, and it was in international waters at the time of the fire, Holloway said.

The 1,000-foot ship has been towed to a shipyard in Mobile, where it is undergoing “a detailed damage assessment,” said spokesman Vance Gulliksen. After cancelling a total of 14 voyages through mid-April, parent company Carnival Corp. — the largest cruise ship company in the world — said it expects to take a financial hit of $64-$80 million. Carnival stock closed Friday at $36.92, a drop of more than 5 percent from Feb. 8, the last day of trading before the fire.

Gerry Cahill, president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines, has publicly apologized to passengers several times, including at a press conference Thursday night in Mobile and by public address system aboard the ship.

“I know the conditions on board were very poor, I know it was very difficult and I want to apologize again for subjecting our guests to that,” he said to a crowd of journalists Thursday night.

Carnival has offered all passengers who were stuck on the ship a full refund, credit for a future cruise and additional $500 compensation.

Jim Walker, a Miami-based maritime attorney, said he still holds to the advice he gave after the Splendor fire.

“I said please don’t sue Carnival, because you’re totally wasting your time,” he said, citing the detailed contract passengers agree to when they buy a cruise ticket. “You’re getting reimbursed. If you are on a cruise ship that has a fire and you get off alive, you’ve had a really good day.”

This report was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.