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Fire At Sea – Every Sailors Worst Nightmare

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David Beers’ excellent analysis of the Splendor fire, tough decisions by the captain and the heroism of cruise director John Heald.

We’ve all been following the saga of the Carnival Splendor fire and subsequent journey home at 4 miles per hour.  Thankfully nobody was injured and the worst things were toilet problems, boredom, and cold food.  I thought this would be a good time to take a look at fires at sea, and provide some insight on what I think is #1 on every Captain’s list of bad things that can likely happen.   I rate a fire higher than sinking because of probability.

There have been many fires aboard passenger vessels over the years.  Many have never heard of the SS Yarmouth Castle and it’s horrific fire and sinking in 1965.  90 people died and there was gross incompetence and charges of cowardice among the crew (along with some displays of courage).  No drills were done.  None of the fire fighting systems worked properly.  The ship was built with a lot of wood.  Lately, I think of the Star Princess fire in 2006 where substantial damage was done and port side balconies essentially melted down.  One passenger died from smoke inhalation.  These and other events provided impetus for changes in safety protocols, as well as drastic improvements to SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) requirements.

I’ve personally been involved in fires at sea.  I’ll use one example.  This was during my Navy life when I was assigned to the nuclear powered cruiser USS Texas (CGN-39).

I was a “nuke”, meaning I was one of the people who operated the two nuclear propulsion plants on the ship.  While transiting the north Atlantic, alone and around 0200 hours (2am), a fire developed in a 400 Hz motor-generator room near my berthing area.  We had heard the fire announced and frankly we figured it was a probably a false alarm and we went back to our bunks.  A few minutes later a Chief Petty Officer entered and told us to evacuate to the mess deck.  He told us the fire was not under control and the Captain was considering bringing the ship to general quarters.  In other words, battle stations.  We all looked at each other with a “this is not good” expression on our faces.

When a naval vessel goes to general quarters a process called “setting material condition Zebra” is performed.  This puts the ship in a maximum state of compartmentalization.  Its purpose is to break the ship up into little zones such that flooding or fire can be contained to smaller areas.   In our case we didn’t get that far since the fire party was able to extinguish the blaze.  There was still a great deal of smoke and burned electrical odor, which filled the interior of the ship.  But we were safe and the ship was still combat ready.

Much like military vessels, cruise ships have their equivalent of material condition Zebra.  These are fire zones.  We’ve all probably seen the fire doors, which are normally retracted into the walls as we walk down passageways on cruise ships.  You may have seen them closed, such as during a crew drill or even on embarkation day when the crew needs to keep passengers out of selected areas.  These doors are used to establish containment and minimize the impact of a fire or flood.

I’ve been reading the compelling blog posts of John Heald, who is the Cruise Director aboard Carnival Splendor and also the senior Cruise Director for Carnival Cruise Line.  John was given free rein by CEO Gerry Cahill to tell the story with warts and all.  Thus far, my opinion is that the crew performed admirably during and after the emergency.  The Captain and his officers displayed a high level of professionalism and calm in the face of an unfolding drama that could have quickly become a catastrophe. John Heald, Carnival’s top cruise director, was cited by many passengers as a thoroughly professional, calming voice that guided them through the fear and turned the situation into an experience many people ultimately described as “an adventure” and not the “cruise from hell,” the favorite media phrase.

But what about the fire parties who were face-to-face with the smoke and fire?

Again I’ll use my Navy experiences for perspective.  All sailors must complete training and qualification to be a shipboard fire fighter.  No matter your rank or job description, everyone has to be able to work on a fire team.  The Navy training is quite thorough, including giving sailors a real taste of fire – inside a burning ship mock-up.  Two hose teams are assembled, you are wearing a breathing device, and then they set the ship on fire with oil burners.  They let the hatches get red hot, and then they tell you to put the fire out.  Nothing has ever given me more anxiety than that first time I crouched and walked into that blaze – I couldn’t see anything but flames and smoke.  Otherwise it was dark and hot, and I was scared.  But we put out an oil fire with water.  Most people don’t think it can be done, but the goal is to get the oil temperature below its flash point.  Cruise ship firefighters receive similar training and go through refresher courses and routine drills to maintain these skills.

Given the above, I can appreciate what the crew aboard Carnival Splendor faced.  They were in an engine room and totally blinded by smoke.  They didn’t know where the fire was or it’s extent.  Electrical power was off and the ship was adrift.  These are moments where seconds seem like minutes.  This is when a crew’s training faces its toughest test.  When teamwork is key.  The ship has drills and the Coast Guard conducts inspections and their own drills, but they never come close to the real thing.

Aboard the Carnival Splendor, Captain Cupisti had no other choice than to evacuate the affected area and activate the CO2 deluge system.  He had to stop the event from getting any worse and went for the ultimate weapon at his disposal.  This completely fills the space with CO2 and starves any fire since the oxygen is displaced.  It also would kill anyone still in the area who wasn’t wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus.   Oftentimes, in the confusion of the moment, someone can get separated from the group.  Obviously this was a key consideration for the Captain since he required that everyone be accounted for twice before giving the order for the CO2 system to be be activated.  It had to be a great relief to Captain Cupisti when the team re-entered the affected space and reported no casualties.

The facts of the Carnival Splendor fire will trickle out over the next several weeks and months.  I’ll be anxiously awaiting them.  My background is in nuclear power and electrical generation.  It is apparent that this fire got into the electrical distribution system enough to make it impossible for the engineering crew to cross-connect systems and route power from other diesel generators to the ships electrical grid and propulsion azipods.  Ships have redundant systems that are supposed to prevent this type of thing from happening.

Electrical cables are routed on what we call cable trays.  If the insulation and bulkhead fire seals are insufficient, a small fire can race down a cable tray and disable numerous systems.   I spent my entire civilian career at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.  You can read about the infamous Unit 1 fire we had in 1975 here.  It was started by a worker using a candle to check for air leaks.  It almost caused a major nuclear accident.  I’m not saying this is what happened aboard Carnival Splendor.  I use the example to show how a small fire can do incredible damage.

The how’s and why’s of this incident will make for some interesting reading.  I fully expect that ship builder Fincantieri will be asked some very probing questions.  The other ships of this design (Costa’s Concordia class) will also need to be evaluated to see if there is some commonality to whatever flaws are uncovered.

In the meantime, remember that the crewmember you see painting a fitting or scrubbing the sides of the ship has a collateral duty.  He or she could very well be on the ship’s firefighting team.  It is a job that requires much training, a lot of their time,  and a high level of teamwork and professionalism.

Given what I’ve heard and read so far, I’d sail with the crew of Carnival Splendor anytime, anywhere.

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Comment from Ashlee Belle
Time November 15, 2010 at 12:40 pm

This is excellent analysis and a very good write up on the issues of fire at sea and what we know so far of the Carnival Splendor situation, with one exception.

The person who died in the Princes ship did not die of smoke inhalation but from heart failure due to stress induced by an emergency situation, and aggravated by a preexisting heart condition. The mainstream media either omits or misreports this detail often enough without the need for us to repeat that mistake here.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time November 15, 2010 at 1:38 pm

I used the official MAIB report of the Star Princess fire for my information on the deceased passenger. The report states:

“The deceased passenger was a 72 year old American, weighing about 110kg. Following an autopsy in Montego Bay on 24 March 2006, the immediate cause of death was attributed to: Asphyxia secondary to inhalation of smoke and irrespirable gases as products of incomplete combustion, in an elderly individual with evidence of Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease in conjunction with Chronic Glomerular Nephritis, pending histology and toxicology.”

Comment from Ashlee Belle
Time November 15, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I beg your pardon, as apparently I was misinformed by an article posted on this very website that stated in part:

“Cruising is still by far the safest way to travel. In the ships of CLIA, the U.S.-based cruise industry association, a potentially life-threatening “crisis” such as this one is extremely rare, and there are no reported cases of injury onboard Carnival Splendor. Other cruises have had similar but still rare events, the worst being a fire that broke out in the passenger section of a cruise ship in 2006. One person died due to heart failure during that incident and two people had serious complications from smoke inhalation. That incident is remembered as one of the worst disasters in U.S.-based cruise line history because there was a death involved, although arguably indirectly. That fire was most likely started by a passenger throwing a lit cigarette from a balcony (against the written rule on all ships) which led to a series of unlikely events.”

However I would stress that there was an underlying heart condition that did in fact contribute to that passengers death and this is rarely if ever mentioned when discussing the incident aboard Star Princess.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time November 15, 2010 at 4:59 pm

The overriding fact is that a passenger died on the Star Princess, regardless of the proximate cause. If there were no fire then it is unlikely the deceased passenger would have had a heart attack at that moment in time.

I do not think many people have read the official report of the Star Princess fire. You can download the full pdf file at

Comment from Ashlee Belle
Time November 15, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Wait a minute. I disagree with the idea that it is unlikely that passenger would have died at that time were there not a fire. A 72 year old man with a preexisting heart condition could have died from heart failure at that time for any number of reasons. He could have died exercising on the treadmills or lifting weights in the gym, he could have died swimming laps in the ship’s pool, or (as unlikely as it may seem) climbing the stairs to another deck. He even could have died while making love to his wife in his cabin (prurient and distasteful though that may be, there is a precedent for that type of thing happening, if not on a cruise ship then certainly elsewhere with an older gentleman with heart trouble). He could have died because he got in to a heated argument with another passenger over something perfectly mundane. If the report says he died of smoke inhalation then that is a direct result of the fire, and that is unfortunate. But if his preexisting heart condition complicated the situation how is that preexisting heart condition the responsibility of Princes?

Your failure to address erroneous information posted on this website is also troubling to me. Since it now makes me wonder, what other information is present here that I have taken as fact but is in fact in error. If you want your opinions and articles taken seriously it would be wise of your staff to do their very best to make sure that errors do not creep in to the websites content.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time November 15, 2010 at 6:35 pm

As with all blogs and articles posted here, they contain the opinions of the author and that author’s analysis and take on the information they review when writing the article. We all do research on our articles. It is impossible to read everything about a topic before writing about it. Nothing I write carries a guarantee. Most of my readers understand that.

Comment from Ashlee Belle
Time November 15, 2010 at 7:07 pm

It’s not a fascination or a grisly interest in the macabre but a question that goes directly to the point of who was at fault in that man’s death. The website YOU write for has made it seem like that man died from heart failure as an indirect result of the fire.

I can see now after reading the MAIB report that nothing could be further from the truth. These articles may be opinion pieces but even opinion pieces are expected to have complete, and accurate supporting facts. The article I quoted did not and I find it extremely troubling that you are trying to distract from that issue by trying to paint me as some kind of ghoul only interested in the cause of death of a passenger. It’s not about how that passenger died. It’s about the credibility of the website you work for.

If you want this site to be respected as the “complete online cruise guide” it is imperative that you report facts accurately and completely even in an opinion piece.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time November 15, 2010 at 7:44 pm


The article you quote was written by ME (Paul Motter) and I have not read the official report of the Star Princess fire. I got that information from another source I found when I was writing the article.

Naturally, when I am writing an article I like to include facts, and I get them by doing research online when I am writing (I can’t remember everything that ever happened in the cruise industry), but it is possible the source I used was wrong making me wrong (regrettable, but not the end of the world).

If the official report says otherwise then I thank you for bringing it to my attention. Now I know.

No journalist or website can ever be 100% accurate in what they write (as I said, I got that tidbit from another cruise-related site). If you must insist on 100% accuracy for everything you read you probably should stick to official reports (and stay away from the Internet). We think our accuracy is pretty good, but we have no arguments with you coming back here to improve our 99% accuracy to closer to 100% at any time.

Thank you for your input.

Comment from Ashlee Belle
Time November 15, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Paul, Thank you for acknowledging the error and offering an apology. I myself have just finished writing a post acknowledging my mistake in using the article as a reference source without cross checking the facts. It is just as incumbent upon me to thoroughly check my sources before posting on a message board or blog as it is of anyone else. And I too was in error for not doing so in this case.

A lot of stink has been raised in this (Carnival Splendor) and other cases involving cruise ship accidents and deaths that the mainstream media doesn’t often get their facts straight and often tries to sensationalize and blow the incidents out of proportion. It is imperative that we as supporters and advocates of the cruise industry do not go make the opposite mistake of minimizing the mistakes or incompetence of the cruise lines or their agents. Otherwise we run the risk of ruining our credibility as fair and impartial reporters of the industry.

Again thank you for your posting to clarify the matter here. That really is all I was looking for to be honest, and it is much appreciated.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time November 15, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Well, I strive for accuracy, but no one is always accurate, especially the mainstream media when it comes to cruising. I listened to a rant last night here on Los Angeles radio from some guy “who has never been on a cruise and will never go…” (blah blah blah).

Those people are all the same – their mind is made up and they are speaking from a lack of knowledge. You can’t argue with stupid.

And that really is my point. There was a time maybe five years ago when you could argue the CLIA cruise fleet had a near perfect record – then 2006 – 2008 was a pretty tough era, the Princess fire, the list, the NCL rogue wave, congressional hearings, The Honeymooner disappearance, etc.

I have now gotten past the point of trying to argue in terms of absolutes when it comes to cruising’s safety record (ie: there have been no convictions or even charges for murder at sea in modern cruising; which is a true statement).

These days I just try to say that modern cruising (the CLIA fleet created since circa 1980) has the best safety record in the world of transportation of any kind; planes cars and trains have all had massive catstrophic events where dozens to hundreds of people died.

Here at CM we have hashed this point over probably more than any other site if you happen to dig around looking for the articles.

It is now to the point where cruising really does not have to apologize anymore. The people who know the truth are fully convinced, and those that don’t are only ever convinced by taking their first cruise.

We certainly do welcome your input, though, and I don’t take clarifications or corrections as “challenges.” I consider them very helpful.

Comment from Linda
Time November 16, 2010 at 7:43 am

Dave: Thanks for sharing your first hand experience with issues like this.

I have to say that I was surprised by Carolyn S Brown’s comment :

“If you want a completely predictable vacation don’t go on the sea.”

I guess all the land disasters like tsunamis that killed all those tourist, the eruption of Mt St Helens that killed hikers and campers were all “completely predictable”?

I guess if one wants complete predictability they could stay at home, but then that goes out the door when someone drives a car through their living room (just one example from the news last week)…..


Comment from Dave Beers
Time November 16, 2010 at 10:20 am

All I can say is that of all our cruises, only one was unpredictable. And in that case our itinerary was changed because of a hurricane. Otherwise it was a wonderfully normal cruise.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time November 16, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I see John Heald posted his final report and it mentions a fire flared up in a cable. I am thinking my hypothesis about a cable tray fire may not have been far from fact.

I am really anxious to read the official damage reports.

Pingback from Cruisemates Blog» Carnival Splendor Fire: Troubling Revelations – David Beers
Time December 28, 2010 at 11:07 am

[…] after the Carnival Splendor fire and subsequent journey back to port under tugboat power I wrote this article which praised the crew, the actions of the ship’s Captain, and the calm and steady presence […]

Comment from Terry Sinclair-Wise
Time March 19, 2015 at 3:12 pm

I was the junior Purser on board the Yarmouth Castle the night we burned and sank with the loss of 91 lives. I was last off, and since have learned that it was most likely arson….see Youtube Floating Inferno, or put in Terry Wise and Yarmouth Castle. 50 years ago this year……..thankfully it changed all the laws, SOLAS for one, and many other coast guard requirements……

Comment from Terry Sinclair-Wise
Time May 9, 2015 at 7:58 am

I was junior Purser on the Yarmouth Castle when she burned and sank 50 years ago, Check out a lot of info and articles, documentary, etc, at either Terry Wise and Yarmouth Castle, or Floating Inferno……

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