Engine Room Fire Results in Cruise Ship Nightmare

By Kim Smiley

On February 10, 2013, an engine room fire on the Carnival Triumph cruise ship knocked out a significant portion of the ship’s electricity and crippled the propulsion system.  Passenger descriptions of the rest of their “vacation” have included the words hellish and nightmare.

This incident can be reviewed by building a Cause Map, a visual format for preparing a root cause analysis.  A Cause Map intuitively lays out the causes that contributed to an issue to visually show cause-and-effect relationships.  The first step in building a Cause Map is to fill in an Outline which includes the basic background information for an issue as well as the ways that the problem impacts the goals.  In this example, a number of goals are impacted such as the customer service because of the many unhappy passengers and negative media coverage; the schedule goal because the delay of the return of the ship; and the safety goal because of there was a potential for illness.    Once the impacts to the goals are determined, the Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions.

Starting with the safety goal, the first step would be to ask “why” there was a potential for illness.  Illness was a very real possibility because of the unsanitary conditions that existed onboard the ship.  The toilets in the aft portion of the ship couldn’t be flushed because the sewage system was inoperable after the fire.  Full toilets and the rolling motion of the ship made a disgusting and unhealthy combination.  There have been many reports of human waste on floors and even leaking between levels onboard the ship which is probably not anybody’s idea of an ideal vacation setting.  Add in the limited electricity available after the fire and passengers faced filthy cabins without lighting or air conditioning.  Food also became an issue because the limited electricity made preparation of hot meals difficult and the supplies diminishing as the ship remained at sea longer than planned.  The ship’s return was delayed because it had to be towed back to port after the fire wiped out its propulsion.

Investigators are working to determine what caused the fire that started this mess.  They have determined that a leak in a fuel oil return line was part of the problem, but it may be months before the details are known.

What is known is that cruise ship fires aren’t as rare as might be expected.  There were reports of 79 fires onboard cruise ships from 1990 to 2011.   While more information is needed to understand the details of this particular fire, there has been speculation that lack of adequate preventative maintenance may contribute to this issue across the cruise industry.  Keeping a cruise ship in port for a week’s worth of maintenance costs tens of millions of dollars and companies have to try to balance this cost with the risk of an issue during operation.  And the risk is big.  If something goes wrong during operation, like it did in this example,  it can be very expensive.   The total cost of the fire onboard Carnival Triumph is estimated to be $80 billion, including 12 cruises that have already been canceled to allow time for repairs.  In addition the negative press isn’t exactly helping entice potential customers into booking a cruise.  Balancing the cost of maintenance with the risk of not performing it is an issue that many industries face.  No one wants to spend money on unnecessary maintenance, but no company wants to make headlines that have the word nightmare in them either.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.

Check out our previous blog about  the Costa Allegra , another cruise ship that lost power.