An engine-room fire caused a blackout aboard a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving 4,200 people adrift and suffering without power for lights, cooking or toilets for five days.
The Feb. 10 fire aboard Carnival Triumph was caused by a leak from a fuel line near one engine, the U.S. Coast Guard said. Although the blaze was extinguished almost immediately, all power shut down except for one emergency generator.
The 893-foot behemoth was 150 miles from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula when it lost propulsion and drifted. Five tugboats ultimately towed the 101,509-gt ship — with about 3,100 passengers and 1,100 crew aboard — to port in Mobile, Ala.
It was the third Carnival Corp. vessel in three years to experience an engine-room fire causing total power loss. The others were Carnival Splendor in 2010 and Costa Allegra in 2012. Independently owned cruise ship Ocean Star Pacific went adrift off Mexico in 2011.
Those vessels were of varying ages and classes and were designed with differing degrees of redundancy. Still, the Carnival Triumph incident has renewed an industry debate over the safety of cruise ships and the shocking inability of some to sail home if a fire damages even a fraction of its propulsion capability.
“Something is terribly wrong here,” said Hector Pazos, a marine and mechanical engineer and casualty analyst. “I’m very surprised to see a very small fire cause a complete loss of power. It’s hard to believe that a vessel of this size — a very complex vessel — with two engine rooms and six or seven generators would have a failure in the system that could shut down all electrical activity.”
Carnival said Triumph has two engine rooms with three generators each, plus an emergency generator. The Coast Guard said the blaze began in the aft engine room. Judging from ignition marks on a wall, investigators determined that the origin was in the front of one generator.
“The fire started with a leak in the No. 6 diesel engine,” said Cmdr. Teresa Hatfield, the Coast Guard’s lead investigator in New Orleans. “The fuel made contact with a hot surface and caught on fire (which was) immediately extinguished by the crew.”
Engineering officers usually ensure that fuel lines are inspected frequently because of the risk that this type of fire can pose, said Andrew Coggins, a former Navy chief engineer who is now a cruise industry scholar at Pace University.
“When it leaks, it leaks in a mist or a spray,” Coggins said. “When it hits a hot surface, it flashes. … I would look to see if there is a class problem that makes these lines susceptible to leaks.”
Panama-flagged Splendor entered service in 2008, while Bahamian-flagged Triumph is nine years older. Both were designed with separate engine compartments intended to contain any fire, supposedly allowing the other engines to function unscathed. The Coast Guard has not yet issued its casualty report on the Splendor fire. At the time, investigators were looking at whether electrical wiring from one engine room ran too close to the other one, where an explosion started a fire.
Splendor and Triumph each feature podded propulsion, while Costa Allegra had shaft propulsion. Allegra, originally a containership that was refitted into an Italian-flagged cruise ship in 1992, was sold for scrap after its February 2012 fire.
Coggins said electrical wires can conduct heat, potentially damaging systems a considerable distance from the fire.
“With the podded propulsion, I would think it has something to do with the switchboard,” Coggins said. “With this type of podded propulsion, it’s not the typical engine with a geared shaft, but it’s generators. The power from the podded propulsion needs to go through a switchboard. Even if there was another location with diesel generators that could provide enough power to get the ship home, if the switchboard is damaged, the power is gone.
“You can have cables near the switchboard that transfer heat, and that can damage the switchboard.”
Triumph did have an electrical problem only two weeks before the fire, according to U.S. Coast Guard port state documentation. Inspectors in Texas noted a short circuit.
“Vessel reported a short in the high-voltage connection box of one of the ship’s generators causing damage to cables within the connection box,” the Coast Guard records state.
The problem was not immediately fixed, but the inspectors ordered the crew to bring the system into compliance with SOLAS regulations to be fit to sail. The Coast Guard has not said if the short circuit problem was in the same generator where the fire occurred.
After the Splendor blackout, the Coast Guard issued Marine Safety Alerts indicating that the ship’s fixed CO2 firefighting system didn’t operate properly because of leaks and component failures and had been poorly maintained.
“Clearly we learned a lot from Splendor,” said Gerald Cahill, Carnival’s president and chief executive. “The automatic extinguishing systems worked very well. Our teams on board have gone through extensive fire training and they performed very well. (After the Triumph investigation) I’m sure there will be further things we’ll learn that we’ll want to implement across the fleet.”
After the blackout, offshore supply vessel Lana Rose contributed a generator and electrical cables. During the tow to Mobile, tugboat Resolve Pioneer reported a parted towline. One Triumph passenger was evacuated due to stroke symptoms. Cahill apologized to the passengers for the foul sanitary conditions.
The Bahamas flag authority is leading the investigation. The U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board have joined the probe and may issue recommendations to the industry.
For decades, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has pushed design standards that would ensure that cruise ships would not go adrift in the event of engine-room fires.
“The latest regulations from the IMO that were supposed to go into effect in 2010 require get-home capability and safe areas of the ship where you have sanitation and ventilation and shelter from the elements,” Coggins said.
Pazos also believes that not enough is being done to realize the goals of the IMO regulations. “The intent of the regulation is to have enough duplication to prevent a total loss of power if there is a problem,” said Pazos, a Florida-based expert witness in marine casualties. He said the recent fires reflect badly on the class, inspectors and flag.
Triumph is out of service until at least April, Carnival said.