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'We thought we were gone' says cruise passenger

Jul 20, 2006 | USA Today Investigators are looking at whether human error may have played a role in an accident Tuesday aboard a Princess cruise ship that left four people in the hospital.

The incident aboard the Crown Princess, which listed about 15 degrees to the right and sent passengers flying, is similar to one in February on a sister ship, the Grand Princess, that has since been blamed on mistakes by the bridge crew.

In the earlier incident, the cause "was strictly human error, and that captain was reprimanded," says Princess spokeswoman Julie Benson. Though the line "hasn't ruled anything out" in Tuesday's event, "two possibilities that we're looking at are something in the steering system and human error."

Benson says the line expects to have a final answer on the cause of the latest accident, which is being investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board, "within days."

The Crown Princess rolled suddenly to the right Tuesday afternoon just hours after departing Port Canaveral, Fla., for New York on the final leg of a nine-day Caribbean voyage. But Benson says the ship never was in danger of overturning.

About 240 of the 3,450 passengers were treated onboard for injuries ranging from cuts to broken bones, Benson says. Of those, 94 were sent to hospitals upon return to Port Canaveral. As of late Wednesday, all but four had been released; Benson says the patients are "expected to make a full recovery."

"It was like Niagara Falls. People who were in the pool were washed out of the pool," says Alfred Caproni of North Adams, Mass., who says he was thrown to the deck as the ship rolled. "There were dozens of people with broken noses, bloody noses. We thought we were gone."

Hanford Ndlovu of Hershey, Pa., who was on the ship's pool deck at the time, says furniture and people were "falling and flying. It looked like some people over by the banister were barely holding on."

A Princess statement called the damage to the ship "considerable" but "superficial" and said it could be repaired quickly. The ship resumes service Saturday from Brooklyn, N.Y. Passengers on this trip, who were originally scheduled to depart today, will receive a 50% refund for the two lost days or can choose to cancel outright for a full refund.

The Crown is the fifth in a series of nearly identical "Grand Class" ships, which have transported more than 1 million passengers safely over the past eight years. They have an almost unblemished safety record, says Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week newsletter.

Benson says Princess is giving passengers on this week's cruise full refunds and will pay for any out-of-pocket expenses related to the incident. UBS stock analyst Robin Farley estimates that will cost Princess' parent company, Carnival, $6 million to $10 million.

Travel agencies with customers on upcoming Princess sailings say they're being flooded with calls. "Nobody is looking to cancel," says David Brams of World Wide Cruises in Fort Lauderdale. "I think most people realize this is a fluke thing."

Brams says the incident is the most bizarre thing he's seen in nearly 20 years in the business. "It's very unusual."

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