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Ship Passengers Complained of Smoke

July 21, 1998

MIAMI (AP) _ Passengers aboard the cruise ship Ecstasy say they complained of smoke coming through their cabin vents and saw TV coverage of the fire long before the first announcement telling them to move to upper decks was made.

The flash fire may have been started when a spark from a welder’s torch in the laundry room ignited lint, Carnival Cruise Lines president Bob Dickinson said Tuesday. The fire quickly spread two decks above to a mooring area, where nylon rope fed the flames, Dickinson said.

Fifty-four of the nearly 3,000 people aboard suffered mostly minor injuries Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it is investigating the cause of the fire and also looking into shipboard operations and the crew’s actions during the blaze.

Dickinson commended the crew’s handling of the smoky fire that broke out shortly after the 855-foot ship set out on a four-night trip to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico.

However, Coast Guard Lt. Dennis Seehoaus said that when the Coast Guard radioed the ship after seeing billowing smoke, the Ecstasy’s crew initially said it was dealing with a small fire and didn’t need help.

And passengers complained that they were kept in the dark and that the crew responded slowly.

``They communicated effectively to keep panic to a minimum, but they did not give all the facts,″ said Tom Owens of Dallas, who was traveling with his 12-year-old twin son and daughter.

Dickinson said the first internal alarm rang at 5:30 p.m., and the first ship alarm to the 2,575 passengers sounded about 6 p.m.

However, Dale Palmer, a banker from Union, S.C., said she told a steward at 4:40 p.m. that smoke was entering her cabin through the air-conditioning duct, and the steward came to her cabin to see it for himself.

``I’m disturbed when I see the president of Carnival on TV saying the fire started (later) when I know better. I reported it,″ Ms. Palmer said.

Chris Whipple of Dallas said that he also complained of smoke and that it seemed at least half an hour passed before he heard the public-address announcements.

In the meantime, he said, his family turned on the cabin television and saw a live broadcast showing smoke billowing from the ship two miles from the beach. WTVJ broadcast its shot of the smoke at 5:46 p.m.

``It was very frustrating,″ Whipple said. ``They were telling us everything was OK.″

Chris Cerbini of Freeport, N.Y., said he and three co-workers saw the smoke over the ship’s stern from their balcony, and their steward told them there was only a small fire. Moments later, ``we grabbed the steward again and actually showed him the smoke,″ he said. ``When he saw it, he told us to get out.″

Carnival Cruise officials did not immediately return calls Tuesday to respond to the passengers’ complaints.

Dickinson said there was no damage to any passenger cabins, and he was confident the fire was so well-contained that it would have burned itself out even without help from firefighting tugs that sprayed the ship.

Announcements told passengers to go to the upper decks at the ship’s bow and to take along the life vests from their cabins. However, not everyone was in their cabins, and some passengers said they were told not to return to get their vests. The lifeboats were never lowered.

``There was welding going on in an area of the laundry room,″ and alarms sounded there, but there was no serious fire damage in the laundry, Dickinson said. ``Perhaps a spark from the laundry room ignited some lint in the vent tubes, which caused a very high explosive-type fire which ended up in the mooring deck.″

Fire doors isolated the fire, and the air-conditioning system was shut down to cut the fire’s oxygen supply, Dickinson said. He said the billowing black smoke visible from shore was probably produced by the nylon ropes on the stern.

After Dickinson raised the welding theory, NTSB vice chairman Robert Francis said it was too early to draw any conclusions. ``Even the experts at this time have done nothing other than a relatively cursory walk-through of the stern of the ship,″ he said.

Of the 54 people who needed treatment, most suffered smoke inhalation and one had a heart problem. Twenty were taken to hospitals, and at least four _ three seamen and one passenger _ were admitted overnight.

The cruise line said electrical damage was the costliest part of repairs, although no estimate was released. The ship was scheduled to resume service July 31.

Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise lines, operates ships under the Carnival, Holland America and Windstar brands. It also has interests in the Costa, Seabourn and Cunard lines.

The 7-year-old Ecstasy can carry 2,634 passengers. Carnival’s largest ship, the Destiny, can carry 3,360.

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