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Home > Cruise News Archive > Carnival Splendor One Year Later: 10 Lessons Learned From the Cruise Ship Fire
Date Published: November 8, 2011
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Carnival Splendor One Year Later: 10 Lessons Learned From the Cruise Ship Fire
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(1:40 p.m. EST) -- A year ago today, fire tore through the engine room of Carnival Splendor, leaving the vessel adrift and cut off from the rest of the world. The ship, which had just begun a weeklong voyage to the Mexican Riviera, had 3,299 passengers and 1,167 crewmembers onboard. For the next four days, a saga unfolded that riveted millions worldwide -- one that involved a daring Navy supply mission, a cruise director who both entertained and kept things in check, and a mysterious pallet of Spam caught by a photographer's lens.

On November 11, 2010, the ship was finally towed into San Diego, where it was met by a phalanx of journalists, family members and buses that transported passengers to area hotels. The fire, it was revealed two months later, was caused by the "catastrophic failure" of a diesel generator.

So what did the Carnival Splendor adventure teach us?

The best way to handle a crisis is to let the world know what the crisis is. From the beginning, Carnival was forthcoming about what was going on and how things were expected to progress. Even as the media firestorm ticked upward, the line sent out a steady stream of alerts via Twitter and Facebook. It responded to all of Cruise Critic's e-mails and phone calls, even going so far as providing us with copies of the makeshift dining menus and access to a very busy Senior Cruise Director (John Heald).


John Heald deserves a promotion. Talk about dumb luck. Somehow Carnival's star cruise director was on the right ship at the right time and was able to skillfully prevent panic on a dead ship and mount a PR campaign at the same time. Then, upon his return, his candor was both reassuring … and almost unnatural.

Nothing adds to a story like photo and video. The first-hand footage that surfaced on YouTube and elsewhere -- of the food lines, passengers hanging out in eerily dim cabin corridors -- had us glued to our computer screen. Another clip showed John Heald addressing the somehow still plucky crew in the ship's darkened theater. Riveting. There was also much said about the food onboard, and, understandably, it wasn't to everyone's tastes. But, thanks to ChadsJewel, we actually had a (haunting) visual of one of the sandwiches.

Treat your passengers right and there will be (almost) no bad feelings. Carnival announced Monday night (the day of the fire) what the compensation would be for stranded pax -- a full refund, reimbursement for transportation costs and a complimentary future cruise equal to the amount paid for the shortened voyage. Even some of those onboard initially remarked that it was overly generous. That said, there were very few complaints in the days following the event. Passengers on the summarily canceled voyages -- Carnival first announced repairs would take until January -- received full refunds and air transportation costs, plus a 25 percent discount on a future cruise. There was, however, a second round of cancellations after the line revealed repairs were taking longer than expected. And those further cancellations did ruffle some feathers.

Cruise Critic members know everything. From beginning to end, this site's members were a font of knowledge. At one point, when the ship was said to be heading to Ensenada, Mexico, sharp-eyed members, tracking Splendor on MarineTraffic.com, realized that it was heading to San Diego instead. As Splendor came closer to land, family members of the folks on the ship started posting on the boards. And the exchange of ideas, thoughts and news pieces on the boards expanded the story exponentially and created one of the longest threads in Cruise Critic history. Indeed, one of the first accounts of life onboard the ship came from member Bob Flynn, who noted that "Splendor's crew worked under difficult circumstances for unusually long hours, but still always had a pleasant greeting and a smile on their faces."

The U.S. Navy made Americans proud. Part of the U.S. Navy's core mission is to deliver humanitarian aid for those in need -- be that a capsized boat off the coast of Africa or a cruise ship carrying nearly 4,500 people. With Splendor running on auxiliary power and the reality of losing a large amount of perishable food setting in, Carnival asked the Coast Guard to help deliver provisions. But due to the logistical challenge of this mission, the Coast Guard brought in the Navy. Enter the 1,092-foot-long USS Ronald Reagan, a Pacific-based aircraft carrier, which managed the effort to deliver thousands of pounds of food -- including bottled water, Pop-Tarts and sandwiches -- to the stranded ship.

Cruise ship fires can be incredibly costly. Carnival bigwig Gerry Cahill estimated the total cost to the company to be $65 million, including the repairs, the deductible on the line's insurance, the lost revenue from canceled cruises, free or discounted cruises offered to passengers, and the costs to transport and house passengers when Splendor first returned to San Diego. He said that the line had displaced 47,000 cruise travelers with the cancellations, and the line and its travel agent partners worked as hard as possible to re-accommodate everyone.

Cruisers are more adventurous than you think. It's surprising that over 70 percent of the readers who responded to a Cruise Critic poll in the days following the event said they would have wanted to be onboard the disabled ship. But we learned that some readers will take a cruise -- even one with closed pools and only sandwiches to eat -- over pretty much anything else. "A bad day stuck on a cruise ship is still way better than a good day being stuck in a cubicle all day," Valerie Seit Clark Johnson posted on Cruise Critic's Facebook page. Still, basic amenities are important for some. The largest contingent in the "no" group (14 percent) said they couldn't live without toilets, air-conditioning and lights.

People will sell T-shirts to commemorate anything. As passengers debarked the ship in San Diego on Thursday, November 11, entrepreneurs were at the ready. Some reportedly did a brisk business selling T-shirts, including one that read "I Survived the 2010 Carnival Cruise Spamcation."

Carnival cruisers don't eat spam: It was a photo op gone awry, and to this day Carnival is explaining that Spam was never served to hungry strandees. True, it was delivered to the ship during a relief mission by the U.S. Navy, but the mystery meat never made it onto any menu on the crippled ship. Said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz at the time: "We gave the supplier a list of items that we wanted ... Spam was not on the shopping list. … We gave it to them on very short notice and gave them latitude to substitute where they needed to."

--by John Deiner, Managing Editor, and Dan Askin, News Editor

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