Federal officials are investigating Princess Cruises’ conclusion that “human error” caused its newest cruise ship to list as much as 38° to starboard, injuring more than 200 passengers.
The incident on the Crown Princess happened on the afternoon of July 18, 11 miles off the coast of Port Canaveral, Fla., the National Transportation Safety Board said.
The 952-foot cruise ship had just departed Port Canaveral on its way back to New York on the seventh day of a nine-day Caribbean voyage with 3,100 passengers and 1,200 crew. Seas were calm with very little wind.
Passengers reported that the ship inexplicably began turning toward port. Then they felt a moderate tilt toward starboard, followed by a bump and steep tilt in the same direction. The roll lasted perhaps 30 seconds, causing water to gush out of swimming pools and sending people, deck chairs, televisions and exercise equipment tumbling.
“We made such a sharp, sharp U-turn,” said Hane Selmani, a 43-year-old passenger from New York City who was in an exercise room on the 17th level, one below the uppermost deck.
“We were working out, and we felt a little bit of a tilt, and then all of a sudden, I felt more of a tilt — like everything was going down and it looked like we were falling straight into the water,” Selmani said.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re dead,'” she said. “I held onto the (exercise) machine, and this man held onto me and held me back. Then the rest of the exercise machines slid right toward us, and there was water running into the gym from a swimming pool. You could hear people screaming from all over the place.”
Crewmembers initially announced that the vessel had experienced a problem with its steering or autopilot computer, passengers said. Six days later, the Santa Clarita, Calif.-based cruise line blamed the accident on a crew mistake.
“The incident was due to human error and the appropriate personnel changes have been made,” Princess Cruises President Alan Buckelew said in a statement July 24.
Crown Princess turned back to Port Canaveral, where it stayed for two days. After the Coast Guard validated its seaworthiness, the ship proceeded to New York for its next cruise.
Princess said the ship’s captain, who has over 30 years experience, was not on the bridge during the accident and was not disciplined.
Crown Princess had been in service only one month.
In August, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway confirmed that his agency was still investigating the possibility that “mechanical factors” were involved, including a report that an autopilot glitch caused the sharp turn and an officer on the bridge, in reaction, shut down the autopilot and made a steering mistake that worsened the problem.
“We’ll review the voyage data recorder, which will give us the speed and the rudder position,” Holloway said. “We have conducted some interviews of the operating crew at that time. We were on the vessel for the voyage from Florida to New York to document the operation of the vessel.”
Parker & Waichman, a New York law firm representing several Crown Princess passengers, said the tilt was as much as 38°. In addition to the human error and potential autopilot malfunction, the law firm raised the possibility of problems with steering or ballast systems.
The injured passengers and crew suffered broken bones or cuts when they were thrown against bulkheads or the deck. Most were treated at Florida hospitals and promptly released. As of July 24, one person remained in the hospital.
The NTSB investigation will take an estimated 12 to 18 months. The Coast Guard and Bermuda’s Department of Maritime Administration are participants in the probe.