Insignia Fire Reveals Cruise Industry Remains Unprepared for Disaster

Many cruise passengers began asking us when the Insignia will sail again, even before the ship's burned-out engine room stopped smoldering.  

Of course we don't know. The investigation into the fire is just beginning. Investigators from the Marshall Islands (the flag of the Oceania cruise ship) has just started. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) flew from Miami to St. Lucia to accompany the Marshall Islands investigators.

The ship will undoubtedly sail long before the official investigations are concluded. I doubt that the Oceania Insignia Cruise Ship Fireofficial reports will be ready for publication by the end of next year. It remains to be seen whether the Marshall Islands will release the reports to the U.S. public, notwithstanding the involvement of the USCG and the NTSB. Pursuant to the flags-of-convenience scheme, the Marshall Islands has jurisdiction over the investigation and decides if the reports are published. This means that the reports won't be published if the owners and operators of the Insignia (Oceania, Prestige and now new parent company Norwegian Cruise Line) don't want the information released.  Trust me, the Miami-based Oceania/Prestige/ NCL people will keep the accident info secret. 

This morning, I read a few articles about the aftermath of the fire. 

The first article was in the St. Lucia News Online, which first covered the story, explaining that the last passengers out of St. Lucia spent "12 hours in the port terminal with very little food or water," and then another couple of hours in a bus and five and one-half hours stuck on an airplane before they finally headed to Miami without their luggage.

Another newspaper reported that a Canadian complained that the passengers were herded through the ship during the fire and into a warehouse at the port where they remained without water for nine hours in high heat and without any information about the fire. The passenger first learned of the plans to send them to Miami and the crew/contractor deaths via Google. All of this belied Oceania's press statement that "our top priority is ensuring all 656 guests return home as quickly and comfortably as possible." 

A third news station interviewed a couple from Long island who said that the fire fighters didn't seem trained regarding what to do nor did the cruise line keep the guests informed.

Amongst the death and destruction, the cruise line quickly announced that it will give the passengers their cruise fares back and a 50% credit toward a future cruise - a calculated and inexpensive way to hook them into another cruise.

But no one is saying anything about the crew members who just lost their jobs and won't be able to support their families in the foreseeable future. No, the cruise line doesn't pay salaries to the crew who are considered to be expendable. Many crew member work primarily on tips and without paying passengers there are no tips.  Yes, some of the lucky ones will be shuffled to other Oceania ships, but the majority will return to the Philippines, Indonesia, India, etc., unemployed and with no benefits and certainly no Christmas bonus. A bleak Holiday Season no doubt. 

But nowhere as bleak as what the families of the dead crew and contractors will face.

Maritime wrongful death claims are subject to the archaic Death on the High Seas Act (1920). "DOHSA" excludes emotional distress, sadness, bereavement, pain & suffering and other emotional damages suffering by the widows and children of the dead. Plus, Oceania will move to dismiss any claims asserted by the family members and seek to send them to "arbitration" in London, subject to the laws of the Marshall Islands. This is a strategy to make the crew claims more difficult and expensive to pursue while limiting the available damages to the suffering families. 

But no one seems to thinking about the crew members or their families. They just want to know when their cruise ship is ready to sail for their vacation.

December 15, 014 Update: We have been contacted by cruise passengers who dispute that the passengers were kept in the dark, or denied water, etc. One passenger videotaped the cruise line's interaction with the passengers in the port terminal and posted the videos on You Tube:  

Photo Credit:  St Lucia News 4

Video Credit:  C. Andrews You Tube Page

Don't forget to read an article I wrote nearly five years ago (before the Splendor, Triumph, Insignia, etc. cruise ship fires: Ten Years of Cruise Ship Fires - Has the Cruise Industry Learned Anything?

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Comments (10) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Harvey Weingarten - December 14, 2014 8:24 PM

I cruised on the Insignia on the prior sailing arrived San Juan 12/7. Of interest we noticed a daily cacophony of workman beneath our forward balcony. Of interest was a barrel of Mobil oil and a crane like device. Three men worked and made quite a ruckus every day. We noticed the men were hoisting items down an opening in the deck. This may be a clue that there was a mechanical issue. I have sailed many times in forward cabins and never saw or heard such a noisy situation.

Tonni - December 15, 2014 12:38 PM

I was a passenger on the Insignia. There was plenty of water immediately after evacuation. The "warehouse" was actually a cruise terminal (island style) with large fans for cooling, again we had plenty of water or juice and we had plenty of food provided by Carnival Cruise lines shortly after the normal lunch hour! The wait time on the bus was so passengers could get all their medications, passports, cash and wallets retrieved from their cabins and returned to them. Why endanger lives to get luggage? We were informed of the situation as it occurred. The only information we did not have was regarding the injuries and deaths.
The crew and port authorities were great. Some people only think of their own comfort and complain about everything. They have no symphathy for what others are experiencing.

Jim Walker - December 15, 2014 12:51 PM

Tonni: Thanks for your comments. How were the crew treated, based on your observations?

Adora Pede - December 15, 2014 4:09 PM

I have been reading accounts of the events regarding the Insignia. As passengers on that boat I feel each of us can say that the greatest hardship will be for those who lost loved ones and for the staff that will be out of work. We want to give high praise to a fellow passenger who had medical training who stepped up and helped those who had special medical needs and also took names of those who needed meds immediately and made sure the Oceania staff got those meds for them. She was on the last plane to leave St. Lucia along with the crew.
However it appears that some passengers on board the ship at the time of the fire have their own stories to tell and had to spend hours standing in the heat plus some rain downpours. Those of us that returned to the ship later in the day to find out that we could not get back on board due to a fire also can state that information in a timely and on going manner was not there. Water was in plenty but food was not, some passengers had little to eat for over 24 hours and some were dressed only in bathing suits. All of the passengers spent up to 12 hours in the Port Terminal that at first did not have enough seating until additional chairs were brought in. The crew and staff of the Oceania did their upmost to be of help.

Most passengers were flown out by at least 2AM the next day.

HOWEVER, there was at least 160 people who did not fly out until 5AM and one group of 59 did not leave until
9AM because the plane was held up due to airport staff and custom issues; not due to the pilot as stated by Oceania. We were in that group and when we first arrived at the airport the President of Oceania met us and assured us that we would be flying out 5AM, sent us into the airport to get water and a hamburger (?) that was cold and uneatable. Apparently he did not stay at the airport to make sure all flights left. The airport staff first instructed us to board one of two planes, our group consisted of 59 people which included a 92 year old man who had already been sent to the hospital in St. Lucia during our over 15+ hour stay in the terminal. After being on board for about 15 minutes the airport staff said we had to de-board and move to the other plane. After another additional 4 hours of sitting on the plane we still had not left the airport. We were able to contact our lawyer by cell phone and asked them to contact customer services. They were able to speak to the President, who was previously at the airport and he was unaware that all flights had not left. His response was that he and his staff had been up for 12 hours and were tired (at least he was able to go to a hotel) was not accepted well with those of us on the plane. His or his staffs duty was to stay at the airport to make sure there were no problems.

The response we received upon our arrival in Miami from Oceania was to put us up at the Ritz Carlton for two days until our flights home were available and provide $400 per person, per day for our "longer" delay in returning. This of course was appreciated. But still we had to press the Oceania staff to give us proper information about our flights home, i.e. flight confirmation numbers so we could verify our seat assignments and print out boarding passes. When we first tired to verify our flight information the airlines told us we had unconfirmed tickets so therefore we could not verify seats or print out boarding passes. They said Oceania had to call and "purchase" the tickets. Bottom line Oceania had to cancel the previous tickets, which they had not done, and make final confirmation on the new ones. This confusion did cause some passengers who had started their flights home on Friday some problems with the airlines not showing they had valid tickets.

Overall many of the problems during this whole experience had a lot to due with the lack of proper "internal" communication within Oceania.

M. Gallinger - December 15, 2014 7:05 PM

My wife and I were on the Insignia and let me tell you that any stories you hear about lack of care and concern from Oceania is outright nonsense and disgusting. Oceania and their staff handled the situation as best as they could under the circumstances and we along with most people who went through this have nothing but praise for how we were treated. Anything you hear to the contrary is from people who have nothing better to do than complain! I doubt that most of these whiners and complainers would even be alive today to complain if this had happened at sea!

R. W. Kent - December 16, 2014 12:51 PM

Dear Mr. Walker:

My wife and I were on the Insignia.

A lot of the information in your article was just plain wrong.
Here are the facts:

My wife Betty and I left the ship at 0815 hours being the first passengers off the ship for a private tour of the island.
We returned to the gangplank at about 1400 hours to learn that the ship had a fire and a bus took us a block or two to the Ferry terminal where the rest of the passengers were assembled.
The cruise line was bringing in chairs and there were enough for everybody.

There was plenty of bottled water, buns, cookies and fruit provided.

Later on sandwiches were supplied.

There were fans in the terminal and it was not uncomfortable.
The first thing they did was announce that we could not go on the ship but as soon as the fumes were cleared they took names and stateroom numbers and retrieved prescription medications as fast as they could.

Keep in mind that they were doing this by penlight in a dark ship with instructions as to the location of medicines which were not all accurate. Some required several trips because the passengers could not remember where they put their drugs.

They announced that they were cancelling the cruise and that they would have to get passports and valuables from the safes and staterooms. This took time in the dark ship. All of the valuables were sealed in casino coin bags and numbered with the state rooms.

They had four crew members who were authorized to open the safes so this took time. I heard no one say anything about
any problem with their valuables or passports being tampered with. In fact, it took a knife or pen to break the plastic bags.
The one crew member who was hurt, broke her ankle jumping down from the top bunk when the alarms were sounded. She was seen by the ship's doctor and ambulanced to the hospital.

In the interim they arranged four chartered jets to arrive at the St.Lucia International airport which was one hour away by bus and a very interesting road to traverse.

During this time, they arranged for buses to take us to the airport and called out the staterooms by number. As far as I could tell the disabled were the first out along with elderly elderly. Most of us were in that category.

One of the reasons we were on the buses for several hours was the fact that passengers could not remember where they put their passports. It took three trips to check the desk, the suitcase , the vault and finally in a jacket with a brown file!!!!

While we were waiting for one misplaced passport, one jerk was upset with the crew and went out alongside the gangway,
shouting at an officer and stepped off the pier into the dock water between the pier and the ship. Fortunately, the crew and other passengers jumped to his rescue, got a line around him and fished him out. He was covered with towels and taken care of. The new bumpers on the pier saved him from being crushed.

While on the bus sandwiches were passed out.

We arrived at the air terminal cleared immigration and loaded on a Falconair MD80 and flew to Miami. We were the 2nd flight
After clearing US Immigration and customs buses took us to the Four Seasons hotel where we had a very nice hotel room on the 28th floor (2806) and $200.00 in per diem. By now it was about 0400 hours on Friday. We had a hot shower,5 hours of sleep a great buffet in the Breakfast room and loaded onto busses which took us to Miami Dade international.

Others went to the Hilton and the Sheraton

We had a direct flight to Dallas Fort Worth where we are staying with our daughter for Christmas.

Oceania is making arrangements to forward our luggage here.W have had two email updates on the luggage.

We were in stateroom 7054 nothing special and certainly not in a penthouse or large suite on the ship.

The president of Oceania and other execs flew down to St.Lucia and were at the airport to assure us of their concern and
take a hands-on management of their clients.

Personally, I do not think they could have done more under the circumstances.

I cannot speak for how the crew was handled but they shared the same with us at the Ferry terminal.

Yes I would sail with Oceania again.

We are all saddened at the loss of life in the engine room and very thankful that the fire happened in port and not at night at sea.

This is our experience as faithfully recorded as possible and please feel free to share it with any you wish.

Pat Solomon - December 16, 2014 1:06 PM

There was plenty of water and rest room facilities in the ferry terminal but little food after lunch. Stale bread, cookies, breadsticks, some fruit, peanuts and potato chips were all that was available. An MD and nurse passengers stepped up, treated patients and kept track of diabetics and others with serious medical conditions. No sign of the ship's medical team. Yes, we were kept informed but the information from the ship's crew was erroneous. At 1 pm our travel agent in Chicago had a communication from Oceania saying the cruise was cancelled and we were being flown home. At the same time, in St. Lucia, the crew was telling us that when the fumes cleared we would be allowed back on the ship and possibly be able to spend the night aboard. NO mention of cancellation, or of putting us up in St. Lucia (travel agents in US were told we would be). Major communication failures between boat crew and Miami headquarters resulted in poorly informed passengers, frustrations etc. We were told we would not be able to get the items in our safes; only threat of a passenger revolt made the ship's crew come up with a way to obtain our passports, wallets, etc. Charter flights came in but many passengers were clad in bathing suits or lightweight summer attire - no blankets offered but temps in Miami were in the 40s. Poor thinking, planning. Also, 2 of the three killed were contractors - why were they on board? Was there a problem noted earlier that required their presence?

steven & nancy - December 29, 2014 5:05 PM

It amazes me the different interpretations people have for the same situation we all faced.

my wife & I were on this ill fated voyage. we abandoned the ship by 930am on our own. never was a verbal message of any kind given. the only signs of trouble were: bells going off, the doors to the hallways and in the hallways sealed shut automatically and the lights going out. we were boarding the aft elevator, deck six, when this occurred and we heard an explosion exactly as these happened. no where has anyone mentioned an explosion. the sound may have come up through the elevator shaft. it was distinct and we both heard it. on the dock there was zero seating except for an I beam by the building. the cooking crew took that over and stayed there until an officer demanded they get off so their guests would have a place to sit. as more people left the insignia and the dock became crowded with standing people some chairs were brought off the ship. there never was enough seating for those in need. there never was any porta potties made available. the water that was distributed was sparse but it was available. THE REAL CRIME WAS FOR ALL THE TIME WE WERE ON THE DOCK NOT A SINGLE MEMBER OF THE SHIP'S MEDICAL TEAM WAS THERE TO ATTEND THOSE IN MEDICAL NEED! in fact they never showed their faces in the ferry terminal until very late in the evening when the ship's doc appeared to respond to a passenger's spider bite. so, who attended to those medically in need people? Doctor Cindy Stevens, a US Navy doctor on board as a passenger. she took it upon herself to tend to them. This was done non stop on the dock and in the terminal until she exhausted herself. Not a single member of the crew ever thanked her but a stream of passengers did that night. We sat beside her and witnessed this take place. We never heard from the ship's captain, NEVER! we were given either no or mis information throughout the day. Oceania cancelled the voyage as of 345pm AST yet well after 4pm we were not told. When we were addressed we were told we would spend a comfortable evening back on board once the power was restored. BULL. as for the food in the terminal, Barf. we were in the rear of the building. when the boxes came to us there was slim pickings in them. the ham sandwiches that were left were nothing you would want to eat. the fruit had just about run out although we had lots of cookies. water and juice were distributed and Doctor Stevens went up and down the aisles making sure diabetics had juice and whatever else they needed. this lady saved lives. How anyone can say conditions in the terminal were decent or those on the dock is dealing with a vision outside of reality. Not a soul mentioned the conditions in the men's bathroom. You could swim on the floor in the mens. at least they restrooms were working throughout the day and evening.to say the crew we had direct contact with were capable is a falsehood. they knew nothing. we were allowed to reboard in the morning only to have someone bang on the cabin's door 5 minutes after we got in saying to get to our muster station with the life vests. we went to deck 4, was greeted by a crew member who looked at our life vests and directed us to the wrong side of the ship! how is that for competency? the crew member on that side sent us to the correct muster station. we stood where we should have only to see crew members standing about without offering any directions. my wife and I looked at each other and said we're getting off the ship (our 2nd time). I might add the crew member that allowed us back aboard had a terrible challenge with English and could not respond to my wife's questions. another example of incompetency that took place is when there was an announcement in the terminal stating we would not return to the ship and would be transported back to the United States. the people who came to this decision simply had given zero thought that passengers had all their valuables still in their staterooms. a roar of protest filled the terminal. several minutes passed before another announcement stated we would be taken back by bus to the ship & crew members would retrieve medicine and valuables from the safes. all that I commented of regarding lack of information and misinformation throughout the day is verified by the videos people have posted. the videos verify no medical crew member visible but the US Navy Doctor is. They verify no information was provided on the dock as to what happened nor is there any communication from the captain.

now that I've stated most of the bad let's talk about what was good. oceania made a herculean effort obtaining busses in st lucia and Miami to transport us. they chartered jets to get us back to Miami. they put us up in top notch hotels, had a guest relations desk staffed by youngsters who deserve commendations for getting almost everything passengers needed taken care of. they did not know of the word "NO". their training and intelligence made us feel good about the younger generation. oceania booked air transportation for all of us back home in short order. the president of the line greeted us at the airport in st lucia. that was a class act.

The good lord was watching over all but 3 people on board the insignia. Never were we told there was a loss of life. If this fire would have occurred at sea and the vessel abandoned I believe, based on the incompetency we witnessed, loss of life would have occurred.

It is our hope that cruise lines would study what happened and take ongoing training to improve their crew's responses in an emergency. the captain needs to timely and competently inform the passengers on what is taking place. we fault him for failing to do so.

Passenger - December 31, 2014 5:41 PM

Steve and Nancy's comments got it 100% correct. The person who says if we were at sea (an hour earlier) people would have died so they could not whine! Well, this shows that this person thinks their was problems also even though they don't realize it. Yes, we were told that we would be back in our 'comfortable cabins to sleep that night'. It is ON VIDEO!! Fans to keep cool....you had to sit in exactly the right place to feel the fan. Fans don't cool by the way, they move air around. Jim is correct that giving 50% off your next cruise is just a cheap thing to offer to get you to take another of their cruises. They should offer nothing. It would be better. There were no medical persons except Susan, the passenger who was great. I heard a crew member give her an order even. How terrible for her but she was more efficient than the captain,wherever he was. Maybe he was with the Costa captain. The captain should have made an appearance for at least a few minutes. It wasn't that far to the terminal! People (more than 1) who finally got their luggage had items missing. Those poor people who died most likely did not have to perish, especially after we know that the ship was refurbished 6 month's earlier and the comment Harvey made above which I think is vital to this. Negligence was everywhere. Go to your muster stations then no, get off on deck 3 where there was no crew to help those who could not walk out. We had to carry people ourselves. I like the comment about the hamburger(?). Yes, I don't know what it was. People should only talk when they have the facts correct and the proof (tapes, recordings which many have) to back what they say up. If you don't have the proof then keep quiet. The facts are what matters and with no proof you have no right to say anything at all. I have seen video's and tapings and photo's that show a lot, a lot of what has not been mentioned. Jim, you did an excellent report and in my opinion you are very professional in what you do. Thank you for reading and I hope that those families of those that perished do get REAL compensation and that Oceania does not use loopholes to let them get nothing. Lastly I feel bad for those crew who had to go home with no pay or tips but I wish everyone, no matter what your thoughts are, a happy, healthy new year. Be well.

malcolm - January 5, 2015 6:05 AM

The 8 Renaissance R class ships area now in the hands of various owners with various ports of registry. There seems to be a worryingly high rate of engine room fires disabling 3 of these ships :- Royal Princess(now P & O Adonia)reg Bermuda June 2009, Azamara Quest reg Malta March 2012 and now Oceania Insignia reg Marshall Islands. The high rate may be just chance or the engine room fires may have a common cause. If each of the incidents is investigated by a different authority who do not necessarily make their findings public, how confident can we be that any common cause is identified?

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