The following is my recollection of the events as they occurred on board the ms Ecstasy, July 20, 1998. First all let me say without equivocation that any fire on board a ship at sea is a serious and potentially dangerous event. Having said that, let me also say at no time did we feel in eminent danger during the fire event.
First, a brief explanation of why we were on this voyage.
This trip was planned as a special eighteenth birthday present for my son, Ian. His mom would be out of the country visiting friends in England and would miss this important birthday, so we decided to try to do something memorable for him. Little did we know. This trip was more than a cruise for both of us. For Ian it was a fantasy, he dreamed of the things he would be doing and counted the days until cruise time. For me it was an opportunity to spend 4 good days having fun with my son.
We arrived at the Port of Miami early and went through the necessary procedures to go aboard the ship. Once on board, it was business as usual, unpacking, standing in line for lunch on the Lido deck, becoming acquainted with all the places on the ship where we would be spending the next four days. The ship was due to sail at 4 p.m. For whatever reason, the sailing was delayed. Between 4 and 4:30 the "Muster Drill" was held. This is a drill that is required by maritime law and participation by all passengers is compulsory. The alarm is sounded, the passenger is required to obtain his/her life jacket and muster at an appointed location. The drill assures that, in an emergency at sea, all passengers know what to do and where to go.
After the drill we returned to our room to await sailing. Leaving the port, watching the city of Miami Beach pass by, being taunted by a couple on a JetSki, heightened the sense of adventure for things to come. The ship is truly a floating city, nearly as long as 3 football fields, 12 stories high, over 2400 passengers, over 950 crew, with a ride as smooth as silk. A light rain was falling as we entered the open ocean, and I returned to my cabin. Sometime after 5 p.m., I went out onto my "veranda."
I observed the sky was brighter forward of the ship (indicating a turn back to the west). As I turned my head toward the aft section of the ship, I saw the billowing clouds of black smoke. Concerned, but not alarmed, I left the cabin and went to the Lido deck. There, behind the large smokestack painted with the Carnival Cruise Lines colors, the smoke continued to billow. By now an announcement had been made over the PA system that a small fire had broken out in a crew laundry area, that it was under control and there was no need for alarm. When I returned to my cabin, I turned on the TV to the local English speaking news. The station had just begun broadcasting reports of the "possible" fire on board a cruise ship. Within a few moments, their helicopter was next to the ship sending back a live feed of the fire. At first it only appeared to be the smoking remains of a fire well under control. Then, as the news anchor offered his commentary, flames could be seen beneath the smoke. It was obvious that this was not a "small" fire, nor did it appear to be under control. Coincidentally, at about the same time, the Cruise Director interrupted with another announcement stating that the fire was under control, but in the interest of safety, all passengers should leave their cabins and muster on deck. At this point the ship's alarm had not sounded. The time was approximately 5:50 p.m.
First seating for dinner was scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m. Obviously this seating did not occur. Instead of a dinner announcement, we were greeted with the ship's fire alarm warning. My son, who had just played his first quarter in one of the ship's slot machines and had won $35.00, and I donned our life jackets and attempted to make our way to the designated muster area. In order to arrive at our muster area we had to pass the crew's muster station. It became clear at that point that many of the crew were as "in the dark" as we were about the extent of the fire. The Cruise Director was directing passengers who were designated muster stations in the aft section of the ship, NOT to proceed to their designated areas, but to instead muster at the forward portion of the ship. My muster station was on the Lido deck at approximately the mid-point of the ship. The Cruise Director informed all passengers assigned to our area to proceed to that designated area. Unfortunately, the security team on the Lido deck did not agree and all of our group were redirected by security to forward sections. This was the first communication break down. The voice over the PA was clearly telling us to proceed to Muster Station "F" and the security team (who could hear the announcement) were telling us no.
We proceeded to an area designated as a "life boat station" and began to wait for the signal to return to our quarters or to abandon ship. The Cruise Director made announcements regularly, "Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please!" He would announce in his British accent, and then proceed to tell us that there was nothing to worry about and the fire was under control and that "the United States Government Coast Guard" was on the scene.
Between about 6:15 and 8 p.m. we all waited for further instruction. We waited without food or drink. At some time between 7:30 and 8 p.m. someone in the crew must have decided that the passengers had been standing, sitting, lying on deck without water for nearly 2 hours. The crew began to distribute soft drinks. Still no sign of being allow back to our rooms, however. Many passengers noticed that the smoke was greatly diminished and totally confined to the aft portion of the ship. Those who had rooms in the forward section and on the upper decks began to take advantage of the absence of "security" people on the stairways, and made their way back to their rooms. It had to be far more comfortable to relax in an unaffected part of the ship than to wait on deck.
The announcement continued at random intervals (throughout the ordeal, the first announcement by the Cruise Director was in English and a second followed in Spanish). At sometime after 8 p.m., the Cruise Director announced that food stations would be opened on the Lido deck and passengers would be allowed to have their dinners there. Imagine 2400 hungry people, many with small children, lined up along the deck waiting for whatever could be prepared on the short order grills. The average wait for those of us who were not fast enough to be at the front of the long lines was between 30 minutes and 1 hour. Throughout all of this, the passengers remained calm and accepting of the situation. I did not see a single person trying to instigate malcontent among us. The emotions seemed to range from accepting to numb disbelief.
At about 1 a.m. the ship was putting in to the Port of Miami. The press was waiting. Because of the necessity to remove those fire fighters suffering from smoke inhalation and minor burns, it was well past 2 a.m. before disembarkation began. By 3 a.m., Ian and I were off the ship and on our way home.
It is important to give credit to the people who fought to contain the fire. The fire crew did an incredible job. The ships automatic protective systems immediately contained the fire and there was, according to Carnival officials, never any danger to the passengers - even if firefighters had not been available. Nevertheless, the fire fighters fought a terrible blaze and protected the rest of the ship with a spirit that must be recognized.
Secondly, the serving staff, when they were allowed to return to duty, fed nearly 3000 people in a little over 4 hours time, using grills and equipment that were designed for far smaller numbers. These people were as tired and stressed as any of the passengers, yet they came together and provided us with food and drink with hardly a complaint. They were hot and tired and I, for one, wish to thank each of them personally.
The helicopters constantly swarming around the ship made it difficult, at times, to hear the PA announcements. I wish that the news media had taken their pictures and departed the scene early in the drama. The constant drone of the helicopters did nothing to calm the passengers anxiety. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say that the mere presence of all the news helicopters added to the "What if we really have to abandon ship" worry that was surely felt by some passengers. On the other hand, there was really nothing much for us to do EXCEPT look at the helicopters while we awaited resolution of the situation.
Carnival Cruise Lines (through the Cruise Director's PA announcements) stated that all passengers will receive full refunds plus a free cruise (with certain limitations). For that, I thank them. This was an accident. If asked how I felt while the fire was being handled, I will state "Bored, thirsty and hungry." No panic. No real worry. The city of Miami Beach was never out of sight. The US Coast Guard was on the scene immediately and the people aboard the ship (passengers and crew) all remained calm and acted professionally and rationally throughout.
I certainly understand the grousing about negligence, etc. My personal feeling is (until the NTSB and other agencies show otherwise) that it was an unfortunate accident. Could it have been prevented? Probably (keep in mind we all have 20/20 hindsight), but again, I'll wait for the official results, conclusions and recommendations before I become irate about it. Carnival has appeared to try to treat all the passengers fairly, I hope they have. I have been in contact with executives at Carnival and am satisfied that the corporate officers are sufficiently upset over this that corrective actions will be taken to assure this type of accident will not occur in the future.
I am, at the present, upset over news reports that have taken my posting out of context. I have been described as a spokesman for a disgruntled passenger group, when in fact, I'm not a spokesman for anyone but me. Please refer your subscribers to my web page if questions arise about my motivation for posting this page.
Delos Johnson is a registered nurse by profession, although he does not practice nursing anymore. He is employed by St. Jude Medical, Cardiac Rhythm Management Division as a Field Clinical Engineer. This was his first cruise (attempted cruise). Delos Johnson can be reached for questions or comment at: email@example.com.
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