When Whipple resident Rebecca Johnson boarded the Carnival Triumph on Feb. 7, she was expecting a fun-filled four-day cruise but what she got was an experience she won't soon forget.
The Carnival Triumph suffered an engine fire the morning of Feb. 10 and was stranded at sea for nearly four days. The ship, which was carrying 4,200 people eventually arrived late on Thursday in Mobile, Ala. after being pulled by tugboats, according to The Associated Press.
Johnson, 39, the assistant principal of Barlow-Vincent Elementary School, was on the cruise with her friend Wendy Bailey, of Houston, Texas.
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Johnson
Passengers of the disabled Carnival Triumph try to photograph a helicopter that is air dropping supplies to the ship.
"We were jolted awake at about 5:30 a.m. after hearing an announcement about the engine room over the PA system," she said. "So I got up and put on jeans, shoes and a jacket and got my things gathered so if we needed to go to the muster stations I'd be ready."
Passengers aboard the ship would not need to evacuate, but many would be required to relocate due to deteriorating conditions on some of the lower decks.
"The people on decks '0' and '1' had to leave due to the smoke and water," said Johnson. "People kept their life jackets on the majority of the day and people were anxious to find out what was happening, but no one really panicked."
Leak caused fire aboard ship
By Kate Brumback
The Associated Press
ATLANTA - A leak in a fuel oil return line caused the engine-room fire that disabled a Carnival cruise ship at sea, leaving 4,200 people without power or working toilets for five days, a Coast Guard official said Monday.
Cmdr. Teresa Hatfield addressed the finding in a conference call with reporters and estimated that the investigation of the disabled ship, the Carnival Triumph, would take six months.
Hatfield said the Bahamas -where the ship is registered, or flagged - is leading the investigation, with the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board representing U.S. interests in the probe. The vessel was in international waters at the time of the incident.
She said investigators have been with the ship since it arrived Thursday in Mobile. Since then, she said, interviews have been conducted with passengers and crew and forensic analysis has been performed on the ship.
She said the crew responded appropriately to the fire. "They did a very good job," she said.
In an email after Monday's conference call, Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Diaz described the oil return line that leaked as stretching from the ship's No. 6 engine to the fuel tank.
A Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman said in an email Monday that the company agrees with the Coast Guard's findings about the fire source.
Andrew Coggins, a former Navy commander who was a chief engineer and is now a professor at Pace University in New York and an expert on the cruise industry, said the fire could potentially have been serious.
"The problem is the oil's under pressure," he said. "What happens in the case of a fuel oil leak where you have a fire like that is it leaks in such a way that it sprays out in a mist. In the engine room you have many hot surfaces, so once the mist hits a hot surface it will flash into flame."
If the crew hadn't reacted quickly and the fire suppression system hadn't worked properly, he said, "the fire from the engine room would have eventually burned through to other parts of the ship." Engine room fires that can't be suppressed generally result in the loss of the entire ship, he said.
The Triumph left Galveston, Texas, on Feb. 7 for a four-day trip to Mexico. The fire paralyzed the ship early Feb. 10, leaving it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico until tugboats towed it to Mobile. Passengers described harsh conditions on board: overflowing toilets, long lines for food, foul odors and tent cities for sleeping on deck.
Hatfield said investigators from the Coast Guard and NTSB would stay with the ship until about the end of the week, then continue work at their respective offices. She said the investigation will look further at the cause of the fire and the crew's response, as well as why the ship was disabled for so long.
Last week, a team of six NTSB investigators were in Mobile trying to determine the cause of the fire. An NTSB spokesman said then that the agency could take information developed from the probe and use it to make recommendations for improving cruise ship safety.
Passengers interviewed after the cruise complained about confusion in the immediate aftermath of the fire about whether to evacuate their rooms as well as poor communication about what was happening.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill apologized to passengers late last week.
Many of those who had to relocate were forced to make shelter with whatever they had available.
Makeshift tents were erected all over the top deck and many people formed groups for pooling resources, according to Johnson.
With the ship without water for most of the first day and no working restrooms, conditions weren't luxurious. Passengers were instructed to use the showers and bags provided to go to the bathroom.
Eventually the ship's crew was able to restore both sewage and water capabilities, but sanitary problems still arose for passengers.
"Since we were floating we were listed a bit, so any toilet or shower that was full or clogged would spill on the floor," said Johnson. "By the end of the trip there was no dry carpet, so you kept your shoes on all the time."
For passengers unfortunate enough to be on a lower deck or an enclosed cabin the smell quickly became a problem.
Johnson was lucky enough to be located on deck 6 and had a balcony, so she received plenty of fresh air.
"We tried to keep our door open so the room across from us could have fresh air and get some light," she said. "Overall I think passenger morale was pretty good. Everyone did their best to respect other people."
The hot and humid weather didn't make things easy for the passengers though, especially on the lower decks.
"It was in the 80s and humid in the rooms and as you went farther down the ship the heat seemed to be a little worse," said Johnson. "Many people tried to get out on the main deck as much as they could to avoid the heat."
Unfortunately for those that were camped outside on the main deck a rain shower cooled things off significantly on Wednesday.
"After it rained it was around 50 degrees and windy so we went from one extreme to the next," said Johnson. "After it cooled off it was more comfortable for people to be in their rooms than on the deck."
Johnson did admit that as time went on some passengers did become rather restless with the situation.
"I think the last day specifically was hard for most people," she said. "We all just were anxious to get off the boat. People started getting tired of being around each other."
It wasn't the smell or the food that was hardest for Johnson to deal with on the trip, but rather the extended time away from home.
"I'm a glass half full kinda person, but the hardest thing for me was trying to sleep," she said. "Not being home was very difficult, I also knew that I was missing important meetings at work and that my co-workers had to pick up my work."
Johnson's husband Randy Burnworth, 61, said he wasn't too worried about her safety because he was informed of the situation pretty regularly.
"The cruise line called and gave updates on where they were and what was going on fairly often," he said. "I also talked with Rebecca when she had cell signal on the ship. At least for her it didn't seem like it was an awful experience."
The crew was especially helpful at making the most of the unfortunate situation, according to Johnson.
"The staff was phenomenal, our steward helped us clean sewage, disinfect items, and was available through the whole thing," she said. "The entire staff, no matter what their job title, was pitched in to help with the essentials."
There was really no problem with a food shortage as food lines were available 24 hours a day, according to Johnson.
"The first day they had three types of cold sandwiches, cereal in boxes, fruit, water and unlimited sodas," said Johnson. "The next day they had generator power to one grill so we were able to wait in line for hot dogs and hamburgers."
The food lines were an issue for some passengers, with some waiting for hours before they were able to receive a hot meal. As power was restored and supplies were brought to the ship more selections were made available to the passengers.
Supplies were transfered to the ship from other vessels and helicopter care packages that were dropped off onto the main deck.
"As they brought in more supplies they were able to make eggs, sausage and bacon," said Johnson. "On the last day I even had steak, lobster and salad for lunch."
The real treat for passengers was pulling into the harbor and knowing dry land would be beneath their feet before long.
"When we pulled into Mobile, people were stopped along the roads cheering at us," said Johnson. "People were crying, hugging family members, cheering and whistling because we were all so elated to be going home."
She admitted that when she arrived in Columbus and saw her mother she was overwhelmed with emotion.
"Even though I never feared for my life it was just such a relief to be back home," Johnson said.
Carnival Cruise Lines offered passengers a full refund of the cruise and transportation expenses and $500 per person, according to Johnson.
Johnson said she views this cruise as a unique learning experience for her future trips, which will be occurring sooner rather than later.
"I actually have a cruise planned in July to go to Alaska," said Johnson. "I'll definitely be more prepared for my future cruises because of this experience, though."