An in-depth interview with an experienced cruiser who lived through the Triumph disaster
Triumph is towed towards Mobile, AB
After listening to CNN prattle endlessly about "putrid, fetid conditions where raw sewage was running down the walls" on Carnival Triumph, and then an independent guest on Fox News today saying "they endured five days of no food and sleeping in urine soaked halls" I have had enough.
Fortunately, a staff-member of our sister-site, CruiseReviews.com, was onboard the Carnival Triumph last week and has just reported to us his first-person account of what he experienced. Here you have an informed veteran cruise enthusiast, with a electrical engineering background, tell an informed reporter the exact details of conditions onboard.
Jim Copeland answers our questions below:
CruiseReviews: Jim… to the best of your knowledge what really happened to cripple Triumph?
Jim: At 5:20 am on Sunday, we were awakened by the calls of "Alpha Team to the Engine Control Room." This was a bit concerning but I have heard calls for Alpha Team before and nothing ever major came of it. But then about five minutes later another announcement came to move the gather point from "Stairway 20 to the Medical Area." Then the power went out for about 30 seconds and then came back on.
I was wide-awake now. The ship was still moving so I was hoping the power outages were temporary. The electrical engineering planner in me kicked in so I opened the safe to get my cash out just in case you needed power to open it. More announcements to coordinate the fire team were made, then they specifically asked the passengers NOT go to their muster stations. They had to make this announcement a few times - which suggests people were already gathering there.
Next the power went out completely and the engines stopped and we were adrift. I just figured I would get dressed and go up on deck to see what was up. By the time I got out to the deck I saw smoke coming out of the ship's funnel, lots of it. It was definitely an electrical fire smell, like burning resistors. By the time I got out on deck I heard the captain say the fire was out, but they had to close the bulkhead doors to the engine room to engage the Halon system (editor's note: Halon is a fire suppression system used to flood the engine room and control room to stop any flame.) Then they had to wait until the temperature in the control room dropped enough to open the doors and enter to assess the damage.
As to what exactly happened; only Carnival can say but as an electrical engineer I sensed the smell of burning wiring, which could indicate a fire in the control room, but I did not see anything to verify anything else. They never did tell us exactly what the fire damaged. Not that most of the cruisers would know the technical details of how cruise ships work to make that matter.
CruiseReviews: Thanks Jim for the extensive technical overview, now let's address more practical matters. We have consistently heard two things from news reports during the last few days; that there was raw sewage everywhere, and that there was very little to eat beyond ketchup sandwiches, what is the truth?
Jim: That is simply not what I saw or experienced. I can give you a daily menu of what food I saw available every day since Sunday, the day of the fire.
CruiseReviews: Let's start with Sunday, right after the fire.
Jim: I went to see if they had continental breakfast set out, and I saw that a line had already formed for the Danishes and fruit. About 20 people were in line and as I waited I saw a man and woman together each holding two serving trays. On one of the man's trays were about 10 cartons of milk on it and on the other several pieces of fruit and more milk. The wife had both of her trays piled high with as many Danish pastries as she could fit. When this couple walked away I could see that they had taken the entire amount of food remaining from the continental breakfast buffet. I couldn't help thinking that I'd never seen such disregard for other people before. A crewman looked on in amazement, like the rest of us in line, and then he retrieved some boxes of cereal and managed to find two more containers of milk.
As for the reports of onion sandwiches, about 1:00 that afternoon the Sunday buffet was opened. The kitchen staff had managed to put together some sandwiches accompanied by fruit and salad. We waited in line for quite awhile and when we finally reached the sandwiches we saw that people had been using the tongs to open up the sandwiches to get the single slice of meat and add that it to their own sandwich - leaving an empty bun with a piece of lettuce and the slice of onion behind. I had to search through the empty buns to find a sandwich with meat in it and I was lucky enough to get the only good one left. The idea that the crew served us onion sandwiches is just not true, what is true is that some people are more selfish than you expect. After that the crew started serving us the food rather than trusting the passengers to be fair.
Sunday night - we had more cold sandwiches, fruit, cold vegetables, cakes, cookies and I had a Crème Brule which had obviously been pre-made for the evening meal.
Breakfast- Cereal, fruit, yogurt, bread and croissants. They managed to get a couple of coffee machines working in the Lido buffet area.
Lunch - More sandwiches, fruit, vegetables and cole slaw
Dinner - Chicken and beef (cold), salad, fruit, cakes cookies bread.
Breakfast - same as Monday but no white milk. So they used chocolate milk for the cereal.
Lunch - they got the grill working and we had hot hamburgers and grilled chicken and pork chops. This was the longest line so far, people were really ready for hot, fresh food.
Dinner - Shrimp appetizer, more hot beef and chicken which had been delivered that afternoon from the Conquest, and more desserts - but the selection was
Same breakfast as before but the last of the cereal was used up.
Lunch - grill was running again for hamburgers, hot dogs grilled chicken. There were also beef or chicken pre-made burritos.
Dinner - Salads and veggies, grilled shrimp and chicken breast.
On Wednesday afternoon another generator had been delivered so we had enough power to run the kitchen grills and cooking equipment, so by
Thursday - the food was excellent.
Breakfast - Scrambled eggs, sausages, and more fruits.
Lunch - Grilled shrimp and beef and chicken plus assorted salads and deserts.
Dinner - Steak and Lobster, with chicken as an alternative.
Summing it up - there was food available almost 24/7 although the lines could be long at times.
CruiseReviews: Very succinct, thank you. Now tell us about the sewage situation - and how the ship's crew dealt with the sewage situation:
Jim: First of all, I never personally saw any sewage other than water/urine that had overflowed from used non-working toilets that I passed by. I saw gray water in places which the crew would mop up the best they could. That got better once we had water running again. (Editor;s note: raw sewage is called "black water" while "gray water" is the runoff from showers, dishwashers, and sinks - in other words NOT raw sewage).
Jim: The lower decks were likely pretty bad for sewage, although I didn't go down there to look, the smell was indeed pretty bad.
Deck 6 smelled really bad and I had heard from others that the rooms had been flooded. Deck 7 forward was also very nasty smelling but I did look and did not see any raw sewage. My guess is that with the odor of people urinating in showers resulted in some reports of "raw sewage" but I know the black and gray water systems are separate. So, I also think too many people using non-working toilets also caused the buildup of raw sewage. But as I said, I did not personally see any raw sewage. It certainly was not everywhere on the ship.
By Monday morning they had operating toilets on deck 4 and 5. But the urine that had gotten on the floor still smelled. The crew worked hard and mostly cleaned it up, but the ship would list as it was being towed and there were more spills from toilets all the time.
My cabin toilet was non-working on Sunday, but started working intermittently on Monday and Tuesday. It worked most of Wednesday and all day Thursday until about 6PM when we entered the channel at Mobile. My "engineer's" theory is that they had to divert power to lighting the ship in the channel at night.
CruiseReviews: So, the reports of raw sewage everywhere were not true?
Jim: As I said, I personally never saw any raw sewage, though the smell was bad on the lower decks.
Cruise Reviews: Where was your stateroom?
Jim: As an experienced cruiser I always book at least a veranda stateroom. I was on deck nine, balcony cabin.
CruiseReviews: Obviously so much of what the passengers endure depends on the commitment of the crew. How did the Triumph crew act during this crisis?
Jim: Well, some passengers were moving mattresses, sheets and pillows to the hallways to escape the smell and water-soaked carpets on the lower decks. On the upper decks they just moved into the hallways for circulation and light. People with verandahs left their doors open so air would circulate.
Mostly the passengers helped each other in moving the mattresses, but the room stewards helped a lot in finding blankets and extra bedding as needed. The crew helped put up the "tents" on lido deck. They found rope and were stringing up rope lines between the deck railings on deck 10 and 9 so the passengers could hang sheets to provide shade from the sun. So yes, they were being helpful if they were not performing other duties.
CruiseReviews: What about the officers and "management?"
Jim: I really disagree with allegation that Carnival did not communicate well. Any time there was any news Jen Baxter, the cruise director, was excellent. She remained upbeat and always cheerful, and never lied to us. Most importantly, as an experienced cruiser I am sure the passengers were never lied to, or misdirected. Circumstances changed, but she always told us what she knew as soon as she learned it herself, such as when the docking time was pushed back from 4PM to 11PM.
The only way I can understand people complaining of bad communication is if they were demanding information no one could provide to them. Carnival had to get everyone home from Mobile, and the logistics of communicating all of those revised plans to every passenger, many of them sleeping on deck, with no phones or email, was a daunting task. Plus, Carnival allowed people to change their travel arrangements if they wanted from taking a bus to Galveston to stay in a hotel. I thought they did an excellent job here.
CruiseReviews: I see your point. I imagine much of the frustration came from all the re-coordination of travel plans for everyone onboard, in addition to the condition of the ship. As I recall, with the similar Carnival Splendor incident they were far fewer complaints about communication.
Jim: Yes, but that ship was towed to within 100 miles of the port from which it had left, but in this case everyone needed new arrangements to get home.
CruiseReviews: That reminds me that on that ship the bars were kept open and everyone seemed to come home more relaxed.
Jim: the bars were open with free drinks on Tuesday from 3:00 to 8:00 pm, but apparently there was some abuse, so they closed the bars after that. Many of us already had some liquor in our cabins so we were set, but there was a fair amount of drunkenness that night and I think there were some related problems, so they stopped serving alcohol, but they continued to give free bottled water and soda.
CruiseReviews: It is too bad if some people spoiled it for everyone else. Thank you so much for your time so soon after this ordeal.