Cruise ship fire leads to call for stricter rules on materials, monitoring

Following a March 23 cruise ship fire that is believed to have started on a passenger balcony, investigators have called for stricter regulations concerning the construction and monitoring of external areas on cruise ships.

One passenger died from cardiac arrest and 11 passengers were injured when a fire broke out aboard the 109,000-ton cruise ship Star Princess, which is owned by Carnival Corp. Two of the injured passengers suffered serious smoke inhalation and the other nine were affected to a much lesser extent.

The blaze began at 0310 while the ship was sailing from Grand Cayman Island to Montego Bay, Jamaica. There were 2,960 passengers and 1,123 crew aboard at the time of the accident.

The United Kingdom’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) is leading the investigation of the fire. Also taking part in the investigation are the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), officials from Bermuda (the ship’s flag state), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Although the cause of the fire is still unknown, the MAIB and the ICCL have issued safety notices to highlight specific safety issues that emerged as a result of the fire. The MAIB contends that existing SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) regulations do not adequately address fire protection of external areas such as balconies. The MAIB has urged the International Maritime Organization to “consider appropriate changes to the SOLAS convention to ensure that external areas of cruise vessels meet appropriate standards of fire prevention such as those currently applicable to internal areas, and to issue appropriate urgent guidance on fire protection measures for external areas.”

The MAIB/ICCL recommendations highlight the need to include the external balcony areas within the vessel’s fire zones so that they can be monitored. They also stress the need to replace combustible materials in external areas such as balcony partitions and for vessel operators to conduct an overall fire risk assessment.

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a safety alert recommending that all cruise line passenger vessels comply with the MAIB and ICCL recommendations.

The fire on Star Princess seriously damaged approximately 100 passenger cabins, but the crew successfully extinguished the blaze, and the ship proceeded to Montego Bay for damage assessment. All passengers were disembarked in Montego Bay, and the vessel sailed to the Grand Bahama Shipyard in Freeport, Bahamas, for temporary repairs.

Star Princess then sailed to the Lloyd Werft Shipyard in Bremerhaven, Germany, for permanent repairs. The vessel was out of service until May 15.

By Professional Mariner Staff