Carnival Ecstasy Cruise Ship FireOne of the dangers of cruising is the cruise ship catching on fire.  Most families who go on a cruise don’t like to think about it.

But it happens.

A Rash of Fires on Carnival Cruise Ships

One of the most publicized incidents involved Carnival’s Ecstasy (left) in 1998 when it caught fire shortly after leaving the port of Miami.  If the fire had occurred thirty minutes later there would have been no fire boats to extinquish the flames.  Local news helicopters from Miami flew to the scene and filmed the burning ship.  The story was broadcast on all of the local Miami news stations.

The next year, another Carnival cruise ship, the Tropicale, caught fire and the ship was adrift in the Gulf of Mexico with 1,700 passengers and crew members for almost two days after the fire disabled the engines.  This incident received national attention, particularly after passengers complained that some crew members did not speak English well enough to provide safety instructions.  The New York Times reported on the debacle in an article “Language Barrier Cited In Inquiry Into Ship Fire.” 

Sun Vista Cruise Ship FireDuring the ensuing investigation, the captain of the Tropicale testified that he was concerned that the engine room would explode. He kept information about the raging fire from passengers because he worried they might panic and jump overboard, according to the St. Pete Times article “Cruise Captain Feared Panic.”

Despite wide-spread media coverage, few major news organizations reported the Tropicale’s prior problems which could be traced back to 1982 when a fire broke out during its inaugural cruise. And the Ecstasy had also caught on fire earlier as well, in 1996.

Carnival has had more than its share of fires, with the Carnival Celebration burning in 1995 which forced 1,700 passengers to evacuate.

Between the Ecstasy and Tropicale fires, the Sun Vista ignited off of the coast of Malaysia and 1,000 passengers found themselves in lifeboats in the Straits of Malacca.

There are spectacular photographs of this fire available on line.

Sun Vista Cruise Ship Fire

Fires on Princess Cruise Ships

The Royal Princess Fire Reported on Twitter 

The most recent fire occurred last year involving a Carnival subsidiary, Princess Cruises.  The Royal Princess’ engine room caught fire in June of last year during a Mediterranean cruise near Egypt.  The cruise line initially didn’t release any information to the public.  But a passenger, a Pastor from South Carolina, Greg Surratt tweeted on his Twitter account @GregSurratt about the fire from his iphone on the cruise ship.

Reverend Surratt tweeted that the fire had disabled the cruise ship and a tug had to tow the ship back to port.   Frantic families in the U.S. had to rely on Pastor Surratt for information about their loved ones. He even tweeted photos of the fire and the passengers sprawling out on the deck in the dark (right) via “Twitpic” – an application which permits photos to be uploaded onto Twitter.

When Princess finally posted its typical less-than-forthcoming corporate press statement, no one Princess Cruises Cruise Ship Firewas paying attention to the cruise line.  Everyone was listening to Pastor Surratt tweeting away on the cruise ship in the Mediterranean. Fortunately no passengers were injured.

Disaster Strikes the Star Princess

Real tragedy struck passengers on Princess’ Star Princess cruise ship in 2006.

A fire began on a balcony and quickly destroyed several hundred cabins and killed a passenger, Richard Liffridge of Georgia.  We represented Mr. Liffridge’s children in litigation against Princess.

The cause of the fire was a cigarette being flicked over an upper balcony.  Some of the Princess cruise ships are designed with the balconies of the lower cabins jutting out (photographs below).

So if anything – like a cigarette – is thrown out  from an upper balcony, it will land in the balconies below.  This created an obvious fire hazard, particularly considering that the balcony chairs and balcony partitions were highly combustible and none of the balconies had heat detectors or sprinkler systems.

Princess knew about the danger, but chose to simply place a sticker on the sliding glass doors stating: “fire hazard – do not throw cigarette ends over the side.”

Hoping a smoker won’t flick his or her cigarette butts over the rail is wishful thinking – and Princess had no fire suppression systems in place to deal with a balcony fire.  The balcony furniture and partitions acted like kindling wood, ready to explode into flames.

Mr. Liffridge’s children’s story was widely reported, including in an article in the Dover Post, which is re-printed below:

Richard Liffridge“Siblings Take on Cruise Line after Father’s Death” 

Richard Liffridge’s children intend to make sure no other family endures the heartbreak they must bear for the rest of their lives.

An Air Force tech sergeant who retired at Dover Air Force Base, Liffridge and his wife Vicky were on a Caribbean cruise March 23 when a fire broke out aboard their ship, the Star Princess. The fire damaged or destroyed 283 cabins – and killed Liffridge.

Shortly thereafter, Phil Liffridge and his sisters, Michele Norris and Doris Henry, all of Dover, and Lynnette Hudson of Bear, set up the non-profit Richard Liffridge Foundation in honor of their father. Their goal is to bring about tougher fire regulations aboard cruise ships and to lobby for legislation to make cruise ships safer.

They also plan a wrongful death lawsuit against Princess Cruises, owners of the Bahamas-registered Star Princess.

The official report on the fire, published Oct. 23 by the British Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), placed the blame on an unknown smoker whose cigarette ignited plastic partitions and furniture on one of the stateroom balconies surrounding the exterior of the ship. While room sprinklers kept the blaze from spreading to the interior, choking black smoke from the burning plastic blocked inboard escape routes.

Star Princess Cruise Ship - Balcony - FireAwakened by fire alarms shortly after 3 a.m., Liffridge and Vicky struggled out of their stateroom and into a hallway, but failed to reach fresh air. Vicky was one of 13 people later treated for smoke inhalation.

Liffridge succumbed to the toxic fumes, his death at first attributed to a heart attack.

The picture of health

“I said, ‘Yeah, right,” Henry said of the news her father had died of a coronary.

At the age of 72, Liffridge had the look and energy of a man 10 years his junior. He was self-conscious about his weight, so he ate properly and exercised regularly at a basement gym in his Locust Grove, Ga., home, Henry said. Her father enjoyed traveling and he and Vicki rarely missed the chance to socialize with their friends.

The cruise was a belated celebration of Liffridge’s birthday, which had taken place March 11.

Star Princess Cruise Ship - Balcony - Fire“He was at the peak of his life,” Henry said.

“Who would have thought he’d be celebrating his birthday and then have so much tragedy?” Norris said.

Although they stop short of accusing the cruise line of deliberate insensitivity, Liffridge’s children feel the Princess Cruise officials were slow to react to the aftermath of the tragedy. Even though Hudson was listed as an emergency contact, no one from the cruise line called to notify her, they said. They found out about their father’s death when their distraught stepmother telephoned from Jamaica, seven hours after the fire was extinguished.

The cruise line also seemed more interested in smoothing things over with survivors whose vacations had been interrupted by the fire than with helping her family, Hudson said.

“They were focused on taking care of people who were inconvenienced, not on the family of the man who died,” Hudson said.

Star Princess Cruise Fire While the cruise line made sure the Star Princess’ passengers got a rebate for the incomplete cruise and a discount on their next excursion, the Liffridge family had to pay to have their father’s remains returned to the United States, Hudson said.

A start, but more needs to be done

Cruise lines, including Princess, started replacing plastic balcony dividers and furniture soon after the Star Princess fire and are acting on additional MAIB recommendations that include posting extra fire watches aboard ship. The United Nations-sponsored International Maritime Organization also is set to discuss new balcony fire safety requirements this December.

But more needs to be done, according to the Liffridge family.

Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., is co-sponsoring legislation in Congress that would require cruise ships calling at U.S. ports to report incidents involving U.S. citizens within four hours. Working through the Liffridge Foundation, the siblings also hope to influence Congress to ban smoking on cruise ships, except within designated areas.

Despite these efforts, Hudson and her sisters and brother know they’re just reacting to an industry that failed to be proactive.

And although they realize their lobbying efforts and the wrongful death lawsuit, if successful, won’t bring their father back, it may help him rest easier.

“Our focus is to make sure this never happens again,” Hudson said.

Star Princess Cruise Ship Fire“No amount of money will replace our loss,” she added. “The main thing for us is that another family does not have to go through this like we did.”

Lynnette Hudson – Joins The International Cruise Victims Organization 

Mr. Liffridge’s daughter Lynnette Hudson, who was appointed the personal representative of her father’s estate, joined the International Cruise Victims organization.  She was asked to testify before Congress and proposed recommendations to prevent other families from suffering through similar tragedies.

Her Congressional written submission to Congress can be viewed here.

Ms. Hudson later boarded the cruise ship after it had been repaired and inspected the external heat detectors and sprinkler systems which were installed after her father’s death.

Ms. Hudson is shown pointing to the heat detectors and sprinklers.  Although all Princess cruise ships have been retrofitted with sprinkler systems on the cabin’s balconies, not all cruise lines sailing today have such safety systems.

In her Congressional testimony, Ms. Hudson expressed her fear that other families may face the Lynnette Hudson - daughter of Richard Liffridgerisks of a cruise fire which killed her father:

“CLIA tells us that by the year 2010 twenty million passengers will sail on cruise ships.  Visions of these passengers flicking their cigarettes over the rails as unsuspecting passengers are asleep in their cabins, with no fire detectors or sprinklers instantly comes to mind . . . “

What have cruise lines learned over the course of the last ten years?  Is the cruise industry ready for the next fire on a cruise ship filled with several thousands of passengers?


Additional Information:

Wall Street Journal: “Cruise Lines Scramble to Replace Fire Hazard – Deadly Blaze Exposed Danger of Plastic Balcony Partitions Used on Dozens of Ships

LA Times: “Cruise Industry’s Dark Waters

NTSB Report of the Carnival Ecstasy fire.

MAIB Report of the Star Princess fire.


Carnival Ecstasy  photograph        WFOR

Sun Vista photographs         Sun Vista survivors web site

Royal Princess passengers   Greg Surratt twitpic

Star Princess balcony         Jim Walker’s Flickr photostream

Lynnette Hudson             Jim Walker’s Flickr photostream

Star Princess balcony on fire        CBS News

Star Princess balcony destroyed    MAIB report

Dover Post article                 Jeff Brown

Star Princess Video               airplaneflyer69