Coast Guard: Crew error helped Carnival Splendor fire spread

By Tom Stieghorst
The 2010 engine room fire aboard the Carnival Splendor was prolonged by a crucial mistake on the bridge that allowed it to spread to electrical cables and disable the ship, according to a new report on the incident prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Splendor had to be towed back to San Diego escorted by a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

The Coast Guard report said that when the fire started, a watchstander on the bridge reset the fire alarm panel, which led to a 15-minute lag before the water mist sprinkler system doused the engine room.

By that time, the fire had reached overhead electrical cables, which continued to burn for five hours.

The report said that had the fire been suppressed before it ignited the cables, it is likely the ship would not have lost power.

No one was injured in the fire, but help provided to the ship by the Coast Guard and Navy cost the U.S. government $1.9 million. Carnival earlier this year decided to reimburse those costs, along with costs incurred for assistance to the Carnival Triumph in February.

In a statement last week, Carnival said it had given full cooperation to investigators and had undertaken its own investigation, which resulted in actions to correct many of the problems cited in the report.

Carnival's statement did not specifically address the resetting of the fire alarm panel, but the company has eliminated an automatic 40-second delay in triggering the mist system. The delay had been designed to prevent sprinklers from activating during false alarms.

The Coast Guard had previously issued safety bulletins to all cruise lines regarding the failure of another fire suppression system on the Splendor that used carbon dioxide to smother flames. Early in its investigation, the Coast Guard found that the valve that releases the gas jammed, making the system unusable. Also, the pressurized gas leaked from many pipe connectors.

Carnival said it has changed the activation sequence on the majority of its ships to prevent the valve from locking. On other ships, it has made a temporary procedural change until those systems can be modified.

The Coast Guard faulted Carnival's firefighting preparations, saying drills for engine room fires didn't take place in the engine room and that the captain and bridge crew had perfunctory roles in the drill.

Carnival stated that its crews were familiar with procedures for engine room fires but that it had reinforced training "at all levels" since the Splendor incident.

The report also criticized Carnival's firefighting technique, saying the captain tried to clear smoke from the engine room too quickly, letting in air that reignited the fire several times. It said that decision was contrary to standard operating practice and "indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of firefighting strategy and procedures."

In its response, Carnival disagreed with that assessment but reiterated that it had reviewed its procedures.

The immediate cause of the fire, the report said, was a rupture of one of the ship's diesel generators, which spilled fuel and lubricating oil onto the engine room floor, where it ignited. The report said the rupture was caused by a stress failure in a metal part that had become bent over time because fluid had seeped into the engine, possibly discharged from a corroded air cooler.

Carnival said the engine's manufacturer and a third-party engineer jointly pressure tested the air cooler and had not found a leak.

Carnival also said it has addressed the report's criticism of its engine room electrical design with the $300 million upgrade of fire safety systems across its fleet.
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