Fire At Sea – Every Sailors Worst Nightmare
Written by: David Beers
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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