I was fully prepared to ignore the Carnival Triumph story until ABC interrupted my one TV guilty pleasure, "Shark Tank," to announce that the network was going to devote the entire next hour to the "unfolding tragedy at sea."
So I sat and watched the "tragedy" of onion sandwiches and a lack of air conditioning coupled with the real headline grabber: sewage so foul that it was seeping through the cabin walls. The whole thing was played like some sort of C-grade horror flick from the '60s.
The following evening, now caught up in the media's over-the-top coverage of the story, I noticed that CNN was devoting several hours of live coverage to the smelliest-ship-at-sea story line.
I was hooked. How would this end? I wondered whether Martin Savage -- a fine reporter who clearly wasn't happy with the CNN hype -- would echo the words of young reporter Herb Morrison when the Hindenberg suddenly exploded in flames just prior to landing in New Jersey in 1937: "Oh, the humanity!"
But here's the thing. I watched every single moment of coverage that I could handle. On two TVs. And one actual fact emerged from the story of the engine fire and loss of power aboard the Carnival Triumph: Try as they might, neither CNN, MSNBC nor Fox seemed to be able to find any passengers who had anything but praise for the Triumph's crew.
Now that's the real story. Although there was an important meeting of the heads of state of much of the Arab world that day, CNN dropped everything and sent several film crews down to Mobile, Ala., to document, first-hand, "what these people have suffered." One breathless reporter described their suffering as "unfathomable."
Really? Might I suggest that we may have found a cost-effective alternative to water boarding? Let's just send suspected terrorists out to sea on the Triumph until they break under the pressure of no showers and red hazard bags.
I kept finding myself wondering how bad conditions must have been for the crew. They were on a contract, with their ship in trouble and no idea what their immediate future might be. Clearly the Triumph was going to be out of commission for a while.
While we can all sympathize with the discomfort endured by the passengers, what about the crew in their tiny bunks, with sewage backing up, no way to call home, no way to shower, no proper food, and yet required to still serve the 3,143 increasingly unhappy, paying passengers? Crew members were being peppered with questions for which they had no answers. They were physically exhausted and yet, unlike the passengers, they had to look after the guests, some of whom, in their panic, were trying to hoard food and worse. Despite all that, CNN would not be waving cameras in their faces, and talking heads would not be discussing potential lawsuits on their behalf.
It is simply astounding to me that Carnival's crew was somehow able to persuade so many disembarking guests who were tired, dirty and hungry to pause in the light of the cameras to praise crew members for their efforts -- and, in several interviews I heard, their heroics.
As the still-beautiful ship glided into safe harbor in the Port of Mobile, the networks had their lighting just the way they wanted it. And as the guests managed to disembark, some in their bathrobes -- which some PR-DNA-deficient staffer onboard announced just prior to disembarkation "will be complimentary" -- much of the press corps descended on them for "tell me what it was like" sound bites. Yet, one after another, passengers who craved nothing more than a shower and a Big Mac stopped to compliment "the wonderful crew."
I have a feeling that what might endure from this cruise debacle is the heroism and grace under pressure exhibited by most of the Triumph's exhausted crew.
CNN's wall-to-wall coverage lacked an "expert," so they brought in a former officer at Carnival, Jay Herring, who is the author of the book titled "The Truth About Cruise Ships: A Cruise Ship Officer Survives the Work, Adventure, Alcohol, and Sex of Ship Life" (SaltLog Press, 2011). He worked in Carnival's information services department and served on the Triumph for one contract.
I listened to Herring's take on what was happening aboard and his description of life as a crew member, many of whom, he said, earn no more than $17 per day. They have no collective bargaining power nor the rights of U.S. citizens, and may work six- or nine-month contracts without a day off. Pay may be better than back home, but for many of the crew, these are hopeless, dead-end jobs.
The various news anchors were appalled. Erin Burnett asserted, "This will certainly be followed by congressional hearings." In fact, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), no friend of the cruise industry, has set his sights on the Triumph. Expect explosive hearings.
Most of the legal eagles who have commented on the Triumph feel that smart guests will take Carnival's offer, since it would take a very long time and involve a very tricky legal march to win much in the way of restitution for "damages."
I have had specific experience with a fire aboard another Carnival Corp. vessel several years ago. One of my best clients, a former McDonald's executive, was aboard a Seabourn ship off the coast of Italy that had to be evacuated because of a kitchen fire. He and his wife were airlifted off the vessel by helicopter.
I assumed Seabourn had lost a good client and so, perhaps, had I. But he called me from Italy and asked me to book another Seabourn cruise immediately. "I will never sail anyone but Seabourn again," he told me, and then explained that when they arrived at their five-star hotel in Genoa after a somewhat harrowing experience, the president of the cruise line was waiting in the lobby and had boxes "filled with cash" to make certain everyone could still have some sort of vacation. Staff would arrange for them to fly virtually anywhere in Europe before returning home. My client called it "the miraculous recovery."
Some of the criticism for Carnival's current public relations nightmare has been leveled at company executives, and indeed, there are lessons here for Carnival leadership.
The Carnival Triumph will sail again soon, although probably with some additional discounting to assure a full ship. But when Carnival offers it, passengers will come, because at this time, in this economy, in the real world, there simply is no other vacation option that can match the satisfaction level and the pure value of a cruise. Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at email@example.com.