Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Testimony before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, House of Representatives, Regarding Cruise Ship Safety
Jim Hall
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime     Transportation, House of Representatives, Regarding Cruise Ship Safety

Good morning, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. I am pleased to represent the National Transportation Safety Board before you today regarding the safety of cruise ships operating from U.S. ports.

Before beginning, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Coast Guard for permitting Safety Board personnel to board the foreign flag cruise ship Tropicale to gather information following a fire that occurred just two weeks ago. As you know, this accident happened outside U.S. territorial water, and the Safety Board had no jurisdiction to board this foreign flag cruise ship.

Travel by cruise ship remains one of the most popular leisure pastimes for U.S. citizens, and this popularity continues to increase each year. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, cruise ships carried 5.4 million vacationers from U.S. ports in 1998. That figure is expected to increase to 6 million this year.

Cruise ship travel also remains one of the safest forms of transportation. However, with newer and bigger passenger ships being built, some of which may carry as many as 5,000 passengers, the potential for disaster is high. I would like to focus my testimony today on what the Board believes is the greatest threat to cruise ship safety - a fire at sea.

Since the fire on board the Angelina Lauro that occurred in March 1979 in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Safety Board has investigated 25 major accidents involving foreign cruise ships operating from U.S. ports. Of those 25 accidents, 16 involved fires. As a result of those fire-involved accidents, there were 8 fatalities, 210 personal injuries, and over $175 million in property damage.

Although there have been no cruise ship accidents involving major loss of life investigated by the Safety Board, one need only recall the tragic 1990 fire on board the Scandinavian Star while it was operating as a North Sea ferry -- in which 158 persons lost their lives -- to be reminded of the potential for disaster that exists.

The very same vessel had been operating from U.S. ports for many years and had just departed from the U.S. about 2 weeks before the accident. In fact, in 1998 the Scandinavian Star was the focus of one of the Board's major investigations on fire safety and cruise ships in 1988.

On March 15, 1988, a fire started in the engine room of the Scandinavian Star about 50 nautical miles northeast of Cancun, Mexico. The ship was carrying 439 passengers and 268 crewmembers. The ship lost its main generator and emergency generator electrical power and the oxygen system malfunctioned. The inability of the crewmembers to communicate with each other and with passengers was a serious concern and created confusion during the fire fighting and evacuation activities. As a result of this investigation, in August 1989, the Board issued a series of recommendations to improve fire safety. These recommendations were not implemented until after the tragic accident in the North Sea. The 1990 accident finally convinced the international community that the changes recommended following the investigation of the 1998 accident were necessary.

The safety recommendations issued by the Safety Board to improve fire safety on board cruise ships have been complied with through amendments to the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) or by voluntary action by cruise lines. These recommendations have addressed such areas of concern as:

  • Sprinkler systems;
  • Smoke detectors;
  • Protected means of escape;
  • Remote operation of fire doors;
  • Centrally located control systems for all fire detection, alarm and fire protection equipment;
  • Fire suppression systems in exhaust ducts from galley ranges;
  • Low-level emergency lighting;
  • Effective public address system;
  • Hose ports in fire doors; and
  • Improved crew language/communication ability to assist passengers during emergencies.

Even with these safety improvements, the Safety Board must remain vigilant as cruise ships continue to have fire problems. Indeed, during the past three years, the Safety Board has investigated three cruise ship accidents involving fire. Those accidents were:

-- July 1996 - Five crewmembers died from smoke inhalation following a fire in the main laundry of the Universe Explorer, which was en route from Juneau, Alaska, to Glacier Bay, Alaska. The ship was carrying 733 passengers and 274 crewmembers.

-- April 1997 - One crewmember died from smoke inhalation following a fire in a storage room adjacent to the laundry of the Vistafjord, which was underway from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to the Azores. The ship was carrying 569 passengers and 422 crewmembers.

-- July 1998 - There were no fatalities following a fire that occurred in the Ecstasy's laundry, spreading through the ventilation system. The ship was carrying 2,557 passengers and 920 crewmembers.

Mr. Chairman, the fires aboard the Universe Explorer and the Vistafjord caused multiple injuries and death. Our investigations discovered the same safety problems on board both ships. In both accidents, the fire started early in the morning when most people were asleep in their cabins. However, neither ship was equipped with automatic smoke alarms that sound locally in the crew and passenger accommodation areas.

As a result of these two accidents, the Board issued 4 urgent recommendations, 2 addressed to the two cruise lines involved in these accidents, and 2 to the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL). These recommendations pointed out the need for passenger ships to have smoke alarms that sound locally in crew and passenger accommodation areas so that crews and passengers will receive immediate warning of the presence of smoke and will have maximum time to escape. Immediate warning of the presence of smoke is absolutely essential to escape during a fire, especially when escape routes are through narrow passageways with no natural lighting.

The Safety Board is asking that these floating hotels have the same warning systems, particularly local sounding smoke alarms that alert passengers and crew, that are already required of all hotels and motels throughout the United States.

Accident history has shown that most fire-related transportation deaths are not the result of burn injuries, but rather, are caused by smoke inhalation. Smoke from a fire builds quickly, obscuring artificial lighting and making exit signs and exits hard to find. The irritating nature of dense smoke causes eyes to tear and blinds persons attempting to escape. Coupled with resulting difficulty in breathing, smoke causes panic to set in, at the very time when one needs clear thinking the most. Heat and smoke detection systems presently on board passenger ships sound an alarm on the navigation bridge or the central control station, whereupon control center personnel activate the general alarm. As these accidents demonstrated, such detection systems can result in a sufficient time delay between the fire breaking out and activation of the general alarm to allow a lethal amount of smoke to spread into living quarters.

The Safety Board's continued investigations of cruise ship fires and oversight of the cruise ship industry, remains critical. For example, it is noteworthy that even though the Ecstasy was a modern cruise vessel built in 1991 that actually exceeded the existing fire safety standards for cruise vessels, it still experienced a fire in its laundry ventilation system that disabled the vessel. The fire burned for over 3 hours before it was brought under control with considerable assistance of the shore-based Miami Fire Department. On the Ecstasy, spaces normally considered to be conceptually fire safe due to the lack of combustible material, such as ventilation ducting and exposed mooring decks, were found by Safety Board investigators to contain significant quantities of combustible material, allowing the fire to propagate and damage vital propulsion and control components.

As a result of our investigation of the Ecstasy fire, the Safety Board issued urgent safety recommendations to 23 cruise lines that operate ships out of U.S. ports to immediately inspect and clean, as necessary, laundry ventilation systems to remove combustible materials that may fuel a fire. In addition, a second recommendation was issued to the same companies to institute a program to regularly inspect the ventilation systems to ensure that they remain free of combustible materials. Twenty-two companies have responded and have taken the recommended action on both recommendations. As a result, the recommendations to these companies have been classified as closed-acceptable action. One company, Bergen Cruise Line, has failed to respond to the recommendations.

As mentioned earlier, although the Safety Board had no authority to investigate the fire on board the Tropicale, the Coast Guard allowed Safety Board staff on board the ship to gather information. The fire broke out in the engineroom while the ship was returning to Tampa, Florida, from a cruise of the Western Caribbean. As a result of the fire, the ship lost propulsion power and was adrift for more than 12 hours until the crew was able to restart the starboard main engine. The Tropicale was operating in the vicinity of a tropical storm and was vulnerable to the elements. It is our understanding that the Coast Guard will look into the adequacy of fire detection and alarm systems and passenger communications with crew during the emergency. The Safety Board looks forward to reviewing the Coast Guard's final report of the fire.

Mr. Chairman, cruise ship safety remains a major focus of the Safety Board's attention, and shipboard fire safety continues to be a primary concern. There have been significant fire safety improvements over the past five years, but as shown by the Vista Fjord, Universe Explorer, Ecstasy, and Tropicale accidents, fires still present a major risk to cruise ships operating from U.S. ports with millions of American citizens each year.

Before closing, I would like to briefly mention an item on the Board's Most Wanted list of safety issues - the need for voyage data recorders (VDR). The Safety Board has promoted the use of VDRs on ships since the 1970s, with the most recent recommendation issued in 1995. VDRs provide crucial factual information for accident investigation and play a key role in identifying and addressing causal factors. In addition, a VDR can provide the vessel operator and owner with information that can be used to better manage the vessel's operation, thus

providing key information that can be used to improve traffic routing, manage hull stress conditions, and better manage fuel consumption. The Board notes that many companies have already taken the initiative to install VDRs on their vessels.

We are pleased to advise that the Board's quarter century quest for VDRs on passenger vessels has born fruit. Safety Board staff have vigorously been working with the U.S. delegation for the past two years on this matter, and, during the week of September 20, 1999, the IMO's Subcommittee on Navigation made a recommendation to the Maritime Safety Committee that would require VDRs on passenger vessels on international voyages. The proposed regulation would require passenger ships constructed on or after July 1, 2002, to be equipped with a VDR. All other passenger ships must be equipped with a VDR no later than January 1, 2004. Should a final regulation be adopted next May, we will be pleased with this action.

Mr. Chairman, the Safety Board is aware of a reluctance by industry representatives in all modes of transportation to use on-board recorders because of privacy issues. The Board's reauthorization request, passed by the House of Representatives on September 29, 1999, includes a section regarding withholding of voice and video recorder information for all modes of transportation from public disclosure, comparable to the protections provided for cockpit voice recorders. With passage of this legislation, we believe the privacy concerns raised with the Board will diminish.

That completes my testimony, and I would be happy to respond to any questions you may have.