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Cruise Ship's Sudden Tilt Not An Isolated Incident

Mishap last week is one of a number of similar accidents in past year

Jul 23, 2006 | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The sudden tilt that threw passengers across the deck of a cruise ship last week appears to be the most severe of a half-dozen similar incidents over the past year.

The accidents occurred on ships run by three major cruise lines, including Princess Cruises, which operates the month-old Crown Princess, which injured 93 people Tuesday when it lurched to one side about 11 miles off Port Canaveral, Fla.

The incidents, described on a cruise Web site and confirmed by some cruise line officials, raise the issue of whether such accidents are more frequent than industry trade groups contend.

"The recent listing of the Crown Princess is an uncommon occurrence for cruise ships," the International Council of Cruise Lines said Wednesday in a statement.

But earlier this year, 27 passengers were hurt on a Princess Cruises ship after a sudden list caused by the captain. In another case, a computer glitch on the Carnival Legend last July caused the ship to list 14 degrees to the side, an angle similar to the list on the Crown Princess. There were minor injuries, Miami-based Carnival Corp. said.

One reason for uncertainty about the number of such incidents is that no one keeps an official count of them. Cruise lines aren't required to report them, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson, except if they cause serious injuries or property damage.

Ships are designed to roll in the waves, but when a tilt endures for more than five or 10 seconds, it becomes a list. It signifies that the ship is moving forward with the deck at a stable angle, rather than level.

When it happens abruptly, things go flying. That occurred July 13, 2005, on the 2,680-passenger Carnival Legend as it left Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.

According to a passenger who left an account on an Internet message board, a hard left turn combined with a strong wind pushed the ship into the 14-degree list.

"(It) felt like the ship was going to turn over; pool water and debris streamed past our window. Crew members said they had never experienced a list of that degree," said the account, on the Web site, which is run by a Canadian professor who has written two books about cruising.

In a statement issued last July, Carnival blamed a computer malfunction that affected the propulsion system.

That also is suspected as the cause of the Crown Princess accident, although no firm conclusion has been made. Steering, including the autopilot on the bridge, is one subject of the investigation under way by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Although keeping an officer at the ship's controls would seem the best policy, human error also causes listing incidents. In February, a passenger on the Grand Princess had a heart attack and the captain decided to return to Galveston, Texas.

He turned hard at cruising speed. "It was a sharper turn than should have been undertaken," said Princess spokeswoman Julie Benson. Glassware, ornaments and TV sets went airborne, according to an account in the Galveston County Daily News. Twenty-seven passengers and 10 crew members were treated for sprains, cuts and bruises.

Searching for Explanations

One question about last week's Crown Princess mishap is why it caused so many more injuries than other recent listing incidents.

Ron Butcher, a former Coast Guard inspector who recently wrote a book on cruise passenger safety, said the cause of the list may be different than other incidents, such as a mistake in keeping the ballast in the ship's holding tanks in proper alignment.

Butcher also said he wonders whether investigators may conclude the list on the ship was more acute than is currently thought.

"A 15-degree list, while serious, I don't see as consistent with the amount of damage that occurred," Butcher said.

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