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As stricken ship's passengers head home, cruise line's woes far from over

Passengers from the cruise ship Carnival Triumph are questioned by reporters after they disembarked in Mobile, Ala., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The ship with more than 4,200 passengers and crew members has been idled for nearly a week in the Gulf of Mexico following an engine room fire. (AP Photo/John David Mercer)
John David Mercer

Thousands of hungry and unwashed passengers streamed from the lifeless Triumph cruise ship Friday, ending a five-day ordeal that saw them adrift in the Gulf of Mexico in fetid conditions and clamoring for food.

Singing "Sweet Home Alabama," waving towels and cheering as the vessel was pulled into dock here late Thursday, the more than 4,200 passengers and crew were transported to New Orleans and elsewhere for a night in a hotel bed, happy to put the ordeal behind them.

Some of the Triumph's passengers kissed the ground as they exited the long ramp from the ship. Others ran to hug relatives.

"I'm just so blessed to be home," said Kendall Jenkins, 24, crying and wearing a bathrobe to keep warm. "I don't want to hear the word 'cruise' ever again."

As the passengers settled in on dry land, the ship's owner, Carnival Cruise Lines, with headquarters in both Florida and England, was grappling to deal with the aftermath.

The company faced questions about how and why a fire came to knock out the propulsion system, the power, and the sewage, heating and air-conditioning systems on the 14-year-old ship, which had mechanical troubles last month that delayed a similar cruise to Mexico.

Company officials said the two episodes were not related, but their proximity might help inspire a wall of legal actions from passengers, experts said.

And the problems of the Triumph fit into a larger picture, too, one painted by a booming cruise industry that increasingly is priced for the middle class but that critics say has become too large too fast and needs stronger, more consistent oversight.

With the industry's popularity has come concerns over safety, pollution and the impact of thousands of tourists. Communities including Key West, Fla., Sitka, Alaska, and Charleston, S.C., are weighing the economic gains against the cultural and environmental impact of an industry with ships that can accommodate more than 6,000 people.

"There are more ships out there, so we are seeing a higher number of incidents like this, and that is not good for the cruise industry," said Ross Klein, a faculty member at Memorial University in Newfoundland, who has testified before Congress on the safety and environmental impact of cruise ships.

The passengers had left the Port of Galveston in Texas on Feb. 7 for what was to be a four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. They ended up sleeping for five days on sewage-soaked carpets and open decks, with food so limited that they were reduced to eating candy and ketchup on buns.

"It's like being locked in a Porta Potty for days," said Peter Cass, a physician from Beaumont, Texas, as the ship crept closer to Mobile Thursday. "We've lived through two hurricanes, and this is worse."

The cruise industry, which has been growing nearly 8 percent a year since 1980, hit critical mass in the United States last year when more than 14 million people stepped onto ships looking for a convenient vacation offering the excitement of the open seas and exotic ports, along with casinos, unlimited buffets and umbrella drinks.

"We pride ourselves on providing our guests a great vacation experience," said Gerald Cahill, the chief executive of Carnival, before boarding the ship Thursday to apologize to passengers. "Clearly, we failed in this particular case."

In 2011, about 3 percent of Americans took a cruise, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. That is fewer than half the number of people who ski, but cruising is growing faster.

And even the specter of passengers being trapped on the Triumph for five days will not necessarily slow the popularity of cruises, said Matthew Jacob, an analyst with ITG Investment Research.

While there may be some fallout, he said, most travelers have gotten used to seeing television reports about cruises that were aborted because of mechanical problems and hearing about viruses that ran rampant among passengers and crew members. The Centers for Disease Controland Prevention reported 16 outbreaks of the norovirus on cruise ships in 2012.

"We don't see any spikes downward," Jacob said.

There were last year, however, after the grounding of the Costa Concordia, a ship operated by a Carnival subsidiary. Thirty-two people died in the episode off the Italian coast, and Carnival, the world's leading cruise operator, halted advertising for a time. Bookings dropped, and Carnival and other operators had to cut their rates and offer promotions for cruises last summer.

Other cruise industry watchdogs say the cruise line will try to minimize bad publicity by playing down conditions on board and minimizing risks to travelers.

"They're going to go out of their way to be sure people are given what they perceive is a fair deal," said Klein, who recently spoke at a conference in Charleston, where preservationists are trying to stop construction of a new cruise ship terminal near the heart of the 300-year-old city.

However the plight of the Triumph plays out in public opinion, the damage to the bottom line is already substantial: On Wednesday, Carnival estimated that costs including the ship's repair and the cancellation of 14 cruises on it over the next three months would reduce the company's earnings during the first half of 2013 by 8 to 10 cents a share.

And then there is the matter of potential litigation by passengers, although the ability of passengers to sue cruise ship operators is sharply limited, lawyers said.

Tickets issued by Carnival and other companies contain language limiting how much a passenger can recover and also setthe location of the court where any lawsuit filed can be filed. The location typically suits the company involved, said Vincent J. Foley, a lawyer in New York who specializes in maritime cases.

In Carnival's case, it is Miami, where the company has its headquarters.

"They select a favorable forum for the cruise line," Foley said.

Maritime law also bars passengers from recovering damages for emotional distress, unless they can show it was caused bya cruise operator's negligence.

Gerald McGill, a plaintiff's lawyer in Pensacola, Fla., who specializes in maritime cases, said it seemed unlikely that passengers on the Triumph would be able to recover damages for distress because they would also have to show physical injury.

"From what I have been seeing, people are not reporting injuries," he said.

Undoubtedly, some litigation will rest on the outcome of an investigation into the fire, which started in the engine room last Sunday. The Maritime Authority of the Bahamas will lead the investigation because the ship bears that country's flag. The National Transportation Safety Board, along with the Coast Guard, will also inspect the ship, although a full report might not be issued for months.

Even when it is, it will probably come as little comfort to people like Cindel Pena, 28, who ended up sleeping on the deck except Wednesday, when it rained and she curled up on the casino floor. Since Monday, there had been no gambling or drinking, and there also had been no showers.

"We are all just beyond disgusting," she said by cellphone, planning her flight back to California.

To appease passengers on the Triumph, Carnival initially announced refunds for the trip's cost, traveling expenses and the money spent on board, with exceptions like gift shop purchase and casino charges.

The company also offered passengers credit equal to their ticket price that could be used on future cruises -- a deal some people scoffed at.

"Who is going to want to get back on a cruise?" said Travis Jackson, who drove from Paris, Texas, on Thursday to pick up his daughter, Karley. She and a group of her colleagues at a Jazzercise studio were on the cruise ship.

 

 



By ROBBIE BROWN, KIM SEVERSON and BARRY MEIER