Yes, of course there have been incidents requiring evacuation. If you are asking if cruising is safe? Undoubtedly. As safe as most people assume? No.
With modern navigational equipment it would be very unusual for a ship suffer a collision severe enough or run aground with enough force to breach the hull, although it still happens occasionally (for example, Spirit of '98, 1999). However, cruise ships are particularly vulnerable to fire. Every passenger is a potential ignition source and the hotel services clearly have an inherent risk. Smoke, the likeliest thing to kill you, can spread easily through the superstructure of a vessel. And of course ships are, by their very nature, difficult to egress quickly. Even with the most modern fire detection, suppression, and warning systems, fire incidents, if not exactly common, do happen on a regular basis:
- May, 2004 – SunCruz Casino – Ft. Lauderdale – an engine room fire burned for three hourse, filling the ship with smoke and disabling the vessel.
- May 20, 2000 – Nieuw Amsterdam -- Glacier Bay, Alaska – A passenger was forced to crawl on his hands and knees along the passageway outside his cabin due to the heavy smoke. There were 1,201 passengers and 566 crew on board.
- September 19, 1999 – Tropicale – in the Gulf of Mexico – A fire broke out in the engine room. There were no smoke inhalation injuries, probably due to the fact that the fire was restricted to the engine room and smoke did not enter the accommodation spaces. There were 1,096 passengers and 605 crew on board.
- July 20, 1998 – Ecstasy – off Miami, Florida – Two crewmen became trapped by smoke, and both suffered smoke inhalation injuries before they were rescued. Three passengers were treated for smoke inhalation. There were 2,565 passengers and 916 crew on board.
- Oct. 4, 1997 - About 650 passengers and crew piled into lifeboats and helicopters to escape a fire aboard the MS Romantica, a Cypriot ship owned by Paradise Tours that was on a three-day trip to Egypt and Israel. They were all taken aboard another Cypriot ship about 65 miles off Cyprus and no one was injured.
- April 6, 1997 - A waiter died of smoke inhalation and 991 passengers and crew en route from Florida to Portugal were diverted to Freeport, Bahamas after a fire broke out on the Vistafjord. The fire on the Cunard Line Ldt.'s ship was caused by a short circuit in the laundry equipment. A similar fire broke out in the same area of the ship the previous February.
- July 27, 1996 - Five crewmen died of smoke and chemical fumes in a fire off the coast of Alaska aboard the Universe Explorer. About 70 of the 732 people aboard were injured. The blaze on the San Francisco-based World Explorer Cruises' ship was believed to have started in the laundry room.
- July 6, 1996 - The Golden Princess was towed 60 miles from the northwest coast of British Columbia to Victoria after fire broke out in the engine room during a cruise from San Francisco to Vancouver. About 1,200 passengers and crew were aboard the Princess Cruise Lines' vessel. None were injured.
- May 8, 1996 - About 800 passengers and 400 crew were evacuated from the Discovery Cruise Lines' Discovery I in Freeport, Bahamas after a fire broke out in the ship's engine room just offshore. No one was injured. The ship was coming from Florida.
- July 22, 1995 - A fire that began in the engine room disabled the Regent Star in Alaska's Prince William Sound, forcing the evacuation of 1,280 passengers and crew. Two people were injured, one with an anxiety attack and the other with a broken wrist. The ship, which was owned by Regency Cruises, was on a seven-day cruise.
- June 18, 1995 - The 2,560 passengers and crew aboard the Carnival Cruise Lines' Celebration drifted for two days with overflowing toilets and no running water after a fire in the control room knocked out power. No one was injured, and passengers were transferred to the sister ship Ecstasy and brought back to Miami.
- Nov. 30, 1994 - Two elderly passengers died during the evacuation of the the Achille Lauro, which was carrying nearly 1,000 people when it began burning in the Indian Ocean off Somalia. A third died aboard a rescue vessel and a fourth was never found. The fire had broken out in one of the engine rooms of the ship, which was owned by Italy's Starlauro.
- July 14, 1991 - The Starship Majestic was towed from the waters off Freeport, Bahamas to Florida after a blaze began in its engine room. About 1,120 passengers and crew were called to their lifeboats and were prepared to abandon the Walt Disney World-owned ship when the crew contained the fire.
- March 23, 1991 - The crew of the Finnish Eurosun cruise ship put out an SOS after a fire started off Spain's Canary Islands, but none of the 300 people aboard were injured. The ship, which later entered the port of Las Palmas on its own power, was owned by Europe Cruise Line.
- April 7, 1990 - An arsonist's fire killed 159 people aboard the Scandinavian Star en route from Norway to Denmark. An international panel concluded in 1991 that the ship, which had just been sold by the Miami-based SeaEscape cruise line to VR DaNo Lines of Denmark for use in a ferry service, had rotted life boats and missing or insufficient fire alarms. The ship had been certified safe by the U.S. Coast Guard and the London-based Lloyd's Register of Shipping.
My advice is to be prepared. Don’t skip the muster drill. Know how to find and put on your lifejacket and shoes in the dark. Know where you’re supposed to go and at least one alternate path, but don’t assume there won’t be panic and chaos as every person on the ship rushes for the closest lifeboat. Don’t assume the crew will be on hand to assist you in an actual emergency.
And have a pleasant cruise! :-) Of course, the chance of an emergency is small, so don’t obsess over it, just be ready. There will be incidents in the future no matter what safety measures are in place, I guarantee it. So be ready.