Sidelined for Months by Fire, Is Carnival Splendor Ready for Its Comeback Cruise?

February 20, 2011

(11 a.m. EST) -- Is Carnival Splendor, which was crippled by an engine-room fire last fall off the coast of Mexico, safe to sail again? That was the question on everyone's mind during a Saturday press conference on Splendor's lido deck, the day before the ship was to resume service from its Long Beach, California homeport following more than three months of repairs.

Senior Cruise Director John Heald, onboard during the November incident that made international headlines, started the conference with a joke about a special press lunch featuring spam sandwiches and a heartfelt thank you to the crewmembers and shoreside staff. He then turned the podium over to Carnival's President and CEO, Gerry Cahill, who was at times emotional speaking about how employees joined forces to see the ship through the fire, and then worked tirelessly through the winter holidays to ready the ship for its return to service on Sunday. (Splendor will be sailing full to the Mexican Riviera.)

If you've been wondering just what happened during those 3.5 months in dry dock in San Diego and San Francisco, as well as the what changes have been made onboard, here are some answers to the most pressing questions from Cruise Critic readers and editors.

Q: What caused the fire?

A: Although the cause of the fire is still under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Cahill said that the most basic reason was the "catastrophic failure of Diesel Generator #5." The USCG and NTSB are still looking into why the generator failed, but future cruisers can rest assured that the generator at fault has since been removed from the ship.

Q: With all the redundancies in place onboard cruise ships, why did the fire cause the entire ship to lose all power?

A: Although the fire was contained to the aft engine room, the intense heat caused damage to two engine control switchboard rooms directly above and melted much of the electrical cabling in the area. It was these problems that caused the total loss of power onboard.

Q: What repairs were made in dry dock and why did it take so long?

A: As Cahill explained, the damage was more extensive than originally thought. And as spare cruise ship parts are not just lying around, the company had to request the manufacture and air lift transport of new parts, including one diesel generator (weighing in at a whopping 218,000 pounds), two alternators (106,000 pounds) and 110 miles of electrical cabling. In addition to these major repairs needed to fix the main fire damage, the dry dock team also changed the flooring in the gym and replaced some of the carpeting that had water damage. (Editor's note: There is definitely a new-carpet smell in the hallways on Splendor.)

In addition, Carnival took the opportunity to do some normal dry dock maintenance, such as coating the hull with a type of fuel-efficient paint. In anticipation of the day when Long Beach will offer shoreside power hookups for cruise ships, the line did the work to make the ship ready to connect to an in-port power supply. In a previous blog post, John Heald mentioned that "the ship has been in full dry dock mode with deep cleaning inside and out being carried out, mirrors being replaced in most of the guest cabins, a new dance floor being laid in the aft lounge and lots of other important work." He also wrote that the lights on all the life jackets have been replaced since passengers onboard Splendor had used those lights as flashlights when the electricity went out onboard.

Q: How much will the fire and subsequent repairs cost Carnival?

A: 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 and 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 are working as hard as possible to re-accommodate everyone.

Q: What is the line doing to make Splendor safer and prevent another incident like this one from happening fleetwide?

A: Carnival has set up a Fire Safety Task Force, made up of employees both shoreside and onboard (such as captains and chief engineers) to improve the prevention, detection and inspection of fires onboard ships. As Carnival has several different designs of ships in its fleet, there will be variations of engine room design and procedures from ship to ship -- so solutions on Splendor may not apply to other ships. One of the chief goals of the task force is to figure out how to reinforce the redundancies onboard ships so if one engine goes out, the ship doesn't also lose use of the second. To this end, Carnival is already adding additional suppression systems to help put fires out more quickly as well as insulation to electrical cabling and the switchboards so they can withstand higher temperatures. These changes are being made fleetwide.

After the conference, Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz told us he said that while the new task force wasn't necessarily meeting with the Coast Guard or NTSB, various members of the line's committee, including Splendor's captain during the fire, are involved in the investigation and work closely with outside groups. Ultimately, Carnival will determine how to use the expert information they receive.

Q: What's the real story behind the spam sandwiches?

A: When asked for anecdotes, Cahill was momentarily stymied, stating that so many Carnival employees went above and beyond that it was hard to pick out a few who stood out. Cahill himself was one of the people who worked 'round the clock -- he said it was the first time he realized what the couch in his office was for, as he used it to sleep on when he stayed in his office through the night to be on hand while the ship was in distress.

He did, however, recount the story of how spam came to be brought onboard the ship. It was Tuesday morning at 1 a.m. and Carnival's Food and Beverage Manager was on the phone with a vendor, trying to figure out how fast he could get food delivered to the ship (with no refrigeration, all the perishables onboard would spoil). He gave the vendor a list of food items, but then said, "If you don't have any of these items readily available, it's okay to substitute as long as the items don't spoil." Among the 70 pallets of food and water delivered to the ship the next day was a half case of spam that was never served to anyone. Yet that was the food item that got the most media attention ... and the Food and Beverage Manager was mortified that such a food item ever got onboard!

Q: So is Splendor safe?

A: The bottom line is that the ship has passed all its inspections and safety certifications by both the U.S. Coast Guard and Lloyd's Registry, and the line is working hard to make sure that a situation like Splendor's won't happen again. Given that neither Heald nor Cahill had ever experienced anything like this during their careers (Heald has been at sea for 24 years), they don't expect that it will be repeated ... and if it does, Carnival says it's doing its best to make sure it's ready.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

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