Jayne Clark, USA TODAY
An engine room fire that disabled the Carnival Triumph on Sunday left more than 4,000 passengers and crew members adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The 102,000-ton ship is now being towed to Mobile, Ala., where it is expected to arrive Thursday afternoon.
We queried cruise experts on questions incidents such as this one inevitably raise.
Q: Why don't ships have backup generators that take over in the event of a power outage, a la hotels and hospitals?
A. By law, they do have emergency back-up systems, but only enough to operate critical functions. The massive bulk of the generators (about the size of a bus) is limiting, says Jay Herring, a former senior officer with Carnival and author of The Truth About Cruise Ships. The Triumph has six such generators, but 80% of the power they create goes into propelling the ship, he explains.
Q: Other Carnival ships are in the area. Why can't they just transfer passengers onto one of those?
A: The cruise line evaluated options and decided the safest alternative was to tow the ship back to port, says Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen.
Plus, Carnival ships tend to sail full, so there may be no way to accommodate extra passengers. "And who would you choose?" asks retired cruise line executive Art Sbarsky. "Given a choice, I'd rather be on a ship the size of Triumph than bobbing around on a (life boat)."
Q:Three other Carnival ships have delivered food to the Triumph. Don't cruise ships stock plenty of food?
A: Perishable food doesn't last long in tropical climes with no refrigeration, so the ships delivered extra non-perishables and also some cooked meals, Gulliksen says.
Q: The ship is being towed to Mobile but isn't expected to arrive until Thursday. Why does it take so long?
A: The Triumph is a big ship — about the length of three football fields, says Herring. Its regular cruising speed is 15 to 20 knots. The tugs are traveling at about 6 knots.
Q:Why don't toilets work when the power goes out?
A: Cruise ship toilets operate on a vacuum system that requires electricity to function. "That's the toughest part of the equation," says Sbarsky. "People can live with a little less food and without air conditioning. But the emotional and intellectual impact of having no toilets is huge."
Q:What training does the crew receive in handling a situation like this, both from a practical and a psychological perspective?
A: Crews are trained to handle safety issues first and then attend to the comfort of passengers. From a damage-control perspective, the crew should be proactive and communicate regularly with the passengers, says Ernest DelBuono, senior vice president with Levick, a Washington, D.C., strategic communications firm and a former Coast Guard commander.
"There are going to be people who will be totally miserable, and you can't make them happy," DelBuono says. "The bulk of the passengers probably aren't happy — their vacation has been ruined. But they understand what happened, provided they're being communicated with and given food and water. Maybe (management) should break out the band."