Usually, a cruise ship fire is one of the most highly publicized types of cruise accidents. As our maritime lawyers here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. have mentioned before, cruise lines have a tendency to underreport onboard accidents and crimes in order to avoid liability for incidents that result from lack of safety, but when it comes to fires, there’s not much cruise lines can do to conceal evidence. Or is there?
According to a post on the Cruise Critic message board written by an alleged passenger, a fire broke out aboard the Holland America vessel Noordam last month. The passenger explained they were woken up on Aug. 25, the last night of an 11-night Mediterranean cruise aboard the Noordam, when a fire alarm sounded. Shortly after, an announcement was made that a fire had erupted on deck 3 aft and fire crews had been dispatched to extinguish it. Passengers were told to remain calm, and that the situation was being handled.
Naturally, the passenger recounted feeling frightened and went out to their balcony to see if they could notice any signs of the fire, but none were visible. About 15 minutes later, the captain announced over the speakers that the fire broke out in the incinerator room and had not yet spread to the passenger areas of the ship. Again, passengers were asked to remain calm and await further updates.
After another 30 or 40 minutes, the Cruise Critic poster reported that the captain made another announcement letting everyone on board know the fire had been extinguished and that emergency crews would continue to remain in the area to ensure passenger safety. The captain assured passengers they had nothing to worry about and could go back to bed.
Well, it’s certainly hard to get back into a relaxing state after hearing there was a fire on board your ship. The Feb. 2013 Carnival Triumph fire certainly left a sour note for many prospective cruisers after the blaze caused the vessel to lose power and became stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. Even though the fire was contained and no one was injured, Triumph passengers had little to eat for the five days it took to tug the disabled vessel back to the United States, had to use plastic bags in lieu of toilets because there were no working toilets on the ship, and were subjected to numerous biohazards after sewage and waste began seeping from deck to deck. This is the opposite of what anyone ever envisions a cruise vacation to be.
Now, the Triumph fire was certainly a monumental accident. It’s pretty hard to ignore a disabled vessel bobbing in the middle of the ocean with over 3,000 angry passengers. But this particular fire on board the Holland America ship doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere else besides Cruise Critic. Did the ship’s operators even report the incident to the Coast Guard? Was the fire logged in the ship’s records?
It may seem like a relatively minor incident, but this fire is just one of many accidents cruise lines have brushed off over the years. Unless the incident is short of catastrophic, the public won’t usually be privy to information regarding the incident. As far as cruise ship fires are concerned, many cruise lines tend to dismiss their severity, stating onboard fires are few and far between. Sure, maybe the fires that sweep an entire ship and result in injuries or fatalities are relatively uncommon, but minor fires happen more often than anyone can imagine. Cruise lines don’t report them because they get put out within a relatively short amount of time before many even realize what happened. But just because you can’t actually see a fire on a ship doesn’t mean it didn’t occur. It also certainly doesn’t mean these “minor” fires can’t escalate into life-threatening blazes. Surely this nonchalant attitude toward small fires wouldn’t be quite as dismissive if the fire were to spread throughout the ship.
Bottom line, a fire is a fire. There shouldn’t be any fires erupting on a ship, especially when they can be easily prevented if a ship’s equipment is in proper working order. The problem usually stems from either the ship operator or a crew member’s failure to maintain equipment in safe condition. Ships should be thoroughly inspected before sailing to check for even the minutest of issues. As our maritime lawyers previously reported, the Carnival Triumph fire resulted from a leak in a fuel hose because the vessel’s operators refused to install spray shields – despite prior warnings.
Luckily no one was injured in the Holland America fire, but with the public’s trust in cruise lines rapidly diminishing, it would have served Holland America operators well to have at least made a public announcement of the fire, detailing its cause and the actions that were taken to contain and extinguish it. Unfortunately, it seems the lack of transparency in cruise accident and crime reporting prevails.