Shortly after the Holland America Line (HAL)’s Westerdam caught on fire this weekend, HAL issued a press release characterizing the fire as "small" and "quickly" extinguished. It also said that it returned to port in Seattle "out of an abundance of caution."

Cruise line press statements like this rarely tell the whole story. We know that this fire was not immediately extinguished by the automatic suppression system on the ship and had to be fought by crew members with fire hoses, but the fire still re-ignited. The cruise line did not bother to explain why the fire ignited in the first place.  Was it a ruptured fuel or oil line? If so, did the cruise ship have splash guards? Was it a HAL Westerdammechanical failure of some type?  Why wasn’t the fire suppressed by the automatic systems? Why did it re-ignite? 

Carnival Corporation, HAL’s parent company and the owner of the cruise ship, stated last year that it invested hundreds of millions of dollars in safety improvements throughout its fleet of ship, primarily in the engine rooms. The announcement was a major public relations strategy after the bad press following the fires aboard the Triumph and other Carnival cruise ships. Did the Westerdam receive any of the much touted safety improvements?

There are many hundreds of newspaper articles mentioning the fire.  But no one is asking these basic questions. Returning to port after a fire "out of an abundance of caution," seems like a gross understatement to me. Can you imagine a major airline battling a fire and then saying that it returned to the airport voluntarily, just to be on the safe side?  

A fire at sea is one of the most dangerous experiences imaginable. But most cruise fans don’t seem to be particularly bothered by these issues.  HAL quickly announced a $250 per cabin credit to be used during the remainder of the cruise which is now continuing. The incident will soon find itself out of the news and forgotten.  


Photo Credit: Becky Bohrer / AP 

  • gl greene

    You’re right, a fire at sea is very dangerous, as it is on an airliner. I’d like to know more details too. Jim I know HAL probably won’t answer your inquiry, but don’t you have some friends in the press that you can get to ask.

  • John Barltrop

    One could also ask the question as to how well and how often machinery space inspections are carried out, its all very well being on watch in an air conditioned control room, but watchkeeping duties also mean thorough inspections of all spaces, particularly boiler rooms……..or maybe I am just old fashioned!!!!

  • Stir Fry

    On John’s note, there seems to be an egregious lack of standard procedures on these cruise ships.

    For example, on Costa Concordia, the procedure is NOT for the crew to jump in a lifeboat with all the belonging AND THE CONTENTS OF THE SAFE, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.

  • Tom

    I was on this ship. They battled the first fire with alarms and announcements for some time before the “all clear” was given. Soon the fire somehow restarted again, announcements and alarms again, and it took a while to put out the second fire. The “Pinnacle Lounge”, which is an extra cost steak resturant, did not serve steak that night as the chefs could not get to the meat because of the fire. So to say all systms remained fuctional was not true. Also the Captain announced that the Coast Guard had insisted we return to port. Why did we not return immediately the first time the fire broke out? We were then in port again all the rest of the evening and night and did not get permission to leave until the next morning so if everyrhing was OK when we returned to port as we were told why were we their all that time?
    It should be noted that the $250 credit as compensation for their ship fires was per room so if there were 2 it was only $125 per person to be spent on overpriced items on the ship only and so not a big sacrifice on Holland Americas part. The one family had 5 in an expensive room and so $50 per person. I later learned some left the ship when we returned to port and my wife and I wish we had done so and would have if we knew how this was to be handled.
    We then sailed directly to our most northern destination after we were told 1 port of call was eliminated and so we were on the ship 3 continuous days with no stops and the whole itinerary changed. Holland America seems to have a well run staff and crew but policies that protect its bottom line and reputation are more important by far than customer satisfaction when there is a problem. The old saying “its not the mistakes but how you handle them” fits. This is the true measure of any individual or company. Not one person I spoke with from the first day forward was satisfied with how everything was handled and the complaints mounted as we continued with the itinerary in a constant state of change,
    All the “kudos” I read posted for Holland America about their handling all of this must come from staff and crew or those who have never had a reason for a legitimate issue with this company. I truly believe no one on the ship would commend the cruise line for their handling of this fiasco.

  • JADU

    I was on this ship as well. I share Tom’s sentiments completely. If it wasn’t that I was part of a large family gathering, I would have left the ship when it returned to Seattle. This was my first cruise, and I was apprehensive about traveling on a large vessel. I had already run the gamut of disaster scenarios through my mind, chiefly the one of my children falling overboard, so when the first announcement of a fire in the boiler room came over the p/a system, I was very concerned. I was comforted when I saw the Coast Guard running alongside as we returned to Seattle, and was hoping the trip would be cancelled so I would no longer feel like a caged animal in my quad room. The resumption of the cruise added insult to injury. Changes to the itinerary required the passengers to scramble to change shore plans, and the changes to the route kept us in open waters for much longer than anticipated (hang on to your Bonine, we’re in for a bumpy ride!). But the thing that surprised me most was the relaxed attitude of other passengers to the fire itself. Many I spoke with thought it was no big deal. One even referred to it jokingly as “The Great Boiler Fire of 2014”. It may be that many made light of the situation to mask their disappointment. We all had to find ways to adapt to the changes and it was no-win all around.

  • Gayle

    My husband and I were on this cruise. While I understand and appreciate the caution of turning the ship around , we witnessed the Coast Guard leaving the ship around midnight. We lost a full day of cruising and sailed for two full days before reaching our first destination. The $250 per cabin reimbursement was minimal at best. We were in a verandah suite w/balcony and worth far more than $250. I wonder if the passengers who got on directly after us where made aware of the incident. This was our first and last experience with Holland.

  • Stonehard

    TRULY, A FIRE AT SEA IS AS DANGEROUS AS HAVING FIRE ON BOARD AN AIRLINE. NO AMOUNT OF COVER-UP JUSTIFIES ANY MISHAP AT SEA. DESPITE ANY SAFETY DRILLS ON SAFETY OF LIFE AT SEA… CAUTION AND PREVENTION OF FIRES AT SEA AND THE LIKE WHERE-EVER IT MAY BE (pacific ocean, atlantic ocean, the bering sea)will be tantamount to murder due to negligence by the company and the carrier. The case of the Titanic, the Brittanic and the Queen Elizabeth where lives were lost should always and must always be a Haybting Call for SAFETY at sea by all vessels…

  • M J Lawrence

    I have sailed with H A on 4 cruises. The only “hitch”
    occurred in Costa Rica, when the Captain who started the cruise, left to catch a plane for a vacation, before the relieving Captain arrived. It turn out the
    relieving Captain’s plane was late and the ship was delayed by 2 to 3 hours until the “new” Captain was on board. We were docked when the Captain left the ship.

    It did seem strange that the ship’s captain left before his replacement arrived.

    That being said, I have sailed on two other cruise lines, and still prefer Holland America.

    Their demographics match mine very closely and the amenities represent good value for the cruise dollar.