Despite systems designed to isolate problems, 2-year-old cruise ship lost power off Mexico

A Carnival Corp. cruise ship carrying 4,466 people went adrift off Mexico after an engine-room fire knocked out power, prompting marine engineers to ponder how an almost-new vessel could experience a blackout.

Tugboats push the disabled cruise ship into San Diego Bay on Nov. 11. The ship went adrift as a result of an engine-room fire. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Henry G. Dunphy)

The U.S. Coast Guard said the vessel’s CO2 fixed firefighting system didn’t work because of numerous leaks and component failures.

The fire broke out aboard the 952-foot Carnival Splendor on Nov. 8, 2010, while the ship was cruising along the Mexican Riviera. Although the blaze itself was contained to one generator room, the ship lost all engine power and was dead in the water. It had to be towed to San Diego, while the U.S. Navy used helicopters to supply the passengers with ready-to-eat food and drinking water.

“(A) crankcase split, and that’s what caused the fire,†Carnival Chief Executive Gerry Cahill said. The crankcase was in the aft generator room.

The Miami-based cruise line said the incident would knock Carnival Splendor out of service for three months. Major repairs were needed to the aft engine room and switchboard rooms.

The Panama-flagged vessel, built at a Fincantieri yard in Genoa, Italy, had entered service in 2008. All large modern passenger ships, especially cruise ships, are engineered with carefully isolated redundant systems to ensure that even a catastrophic failure in one area of the ship wouldn’t shut down the entire vessel.

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class James Heckwine and Coast Guard Seaman Chad Lyman attach cargo nets to the bottom of a Navy H-60 Seahawk helicopter during the emergency supply operation at sea Nov. 9. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall)

Fire in an aft generator room normally should not cause a complete blackout, said Clark Dodge, a former chief engineer who is a consultant on passenger vessel safety.

“This shouldn’t happen,†Dodge said. “We design these systems to run on multiple engines operated from multiple locations.â€

The Coast Guard and Carnival provided few details that would address why the blackout occurred and declined interview requests. In a statement, the company said Carnival Splendor would be out of service until Feb. 20 while repairs were made. The ship was laid up at San Diego and then sent to dry dock in San Francisco.

“We will replace one diesel generator and two alternators in dry dock and are sourcing these from ships under construction,†Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said in a statement. “Cables and switchboard components are being manufactured and delivered in batches.â€

Few scenarios come to mind in explaining a blackout aboard such a recently built cruise ship that could not be repaired at sea, said Dodge, who doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of Carnival Splendor.

He said something unusual may have occurred with switchboard networks or wiring. The generator fire may have been coupled with a short circuit or an electrical fire. The Coast Guard said it took the crew, using portable extinguishing equipment, over five hours to snuff out the fire.

“Some of the passengers said the ship was shuddering,†Dodge said. “If you have a generator shorting out, or a main cable, you would probably get that sensation.â€

Carnival Splendor has three generators in its aft engine room and three in the fore, and there are two switchboard rooms.

When a crankcase splits and the unit “throws a ring,†oil can ignite into a troublesome blaze, said Dodge, who runs CED Consulting LLC in Koloa, Hawaii.

“If a connector rod from the crank shaft to the piston breaks, it’s just slapping around inside the engine, just tearing the crap out of everything,†he said. “You’ve destroyed the piston. … You cannot believe how much oil comes out. It paints the whole space with oil.â€

The incident was in the Pacific Ocean, in international waters. The flag state, Panama, initially led the casualty probe, with the U.S. Coast Guard assisting. By December, however, the Panama Maritime Authority asked the U.S. to take over, said Petty Officer Henry Dunphy, a Coast Guard spokesman.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided a marine casualty investigator and a fire specialist as consultants, said NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson.

Carnival officials said the company’s own engineers, plus representatives from the shipyard and the engine manufacturer, also were probing the incident.

“We have not been provided with any definitive conclusions, although the focus remains on one of the diesel generators,†Gulliksen said in mid-December.

Dodge said the investigators will look for unorthodox designs and potentially improper installations or maintenance.

“It will be interesting to find out … whether they ran the wiring from each engine and alternator in the overhead or from both engine rooms into the aft engine room and into the switchboard rooms,†Dodge said. “Generator wiring should not be run on the overhead but rather below the deck plates.â€

In December, the Coast Guard issued two Safety Alerts to the industry explaining problems with Carnival Splendor’s CO2 system.

“It failed to operate as designed,†the alert said. “Subsequently, crewmembers were unable to activate it manually and CO2 was never directed into the machinery space.â€

The Coast Guard said “numerous pipes and hose connections leaked extensively.†A zone valve failed, actuating arms were loose and bottles didn’t operate correctly. The manual, shipyard schematics and instructional placards didn’t match the system that was installed.

The Safety Alerts urge vessel operators to maintain their fixed firefighting systems and verify that they will function in an emergency. Operators should ensure that all labeling and instructions match the installed system.

Carnival Splendor was on the second day of a voyage from Long Beach to Mexico when the fire broke out 130 miles west of Ensenada, Mexico. The 113,300-gross-ton ship had 3,299 passengers and 1,167 crew aboard.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutters Morgenthau, Edisto and Aspen responded, said Lt. j.g. Bill Burwell, a Coast Guard spokesman at San Diego. The Navy aircraft were from the nearby carrier USS Ronald Reagan.

Three Ensenada-based tugboats arrived the next day. Burwell confirmed they were the 6,600-hp SMBC Monterrey, 5,400-hp VB Chihuahua and 4,100-hp VB Coral. The tow to San Diego, at 6.5 knots, lasted about 24 hours.

The Panama Maritime Authority’s marine casualties investigations office did not reply to a request for comment on the probe.

Burwell referred further questions to the Coast Guard’s marine investigations office in San Diego. Neither that office nor Coast Guard headquarters responded to requests for comment.

Knudson said the NTSB would not write its own report.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff