Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

*logoNow that the Carnival Splendor passengers are home safe and the accounts about the crew’s remarkable actions under trying circumstances are out, people are starting to ask: How did a single engine-room fire knock out the power aboard a modern cruise ship carrying almost 5,000 people?

The National Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Coast Guard launched an investigation into the fire the day that the Splendor limped into San Diego, under the power of six tugboats.

Because the Splendor is a Panamanian-flagged vessel, the investigation is being led by Panama. The NTSB said that the U.S. Coast Guard asked to participate in the investigation because the majority of passengers on the Splendor were U.S. citizens. The Coast Guard then invited the NTSB to provide it with technical assistance.

However, the Panama Maritime Authority will release all information on the progress of the investigation.

All that is now known is what Carnival Cruise Lines has said, which is that a generator caught fire in the aft engine room about 6 a.m. on Nov. 8. Carnival said the cause of the fire was still unknown but that it prevented the transmission of electricity to the ship’s propulsion system.

It also knocked out power to the ship’s main switchboard, blacking out much of the ship’s hotel systems, including air conditioning, hot food service, telephones and most of the interior lighting. There was no hot water, and for the first day, the ship’s toilets didn’t function.

Carnival said the ship’s auxiliary generators and its engineers were unable to restore additional power to the vessel.

Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill said while in San Diego last week that this was the first time in Carnival’s 35-year history that an incident of this type had happened with a generator.

Anastassios Perakis, an associate professor at the Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering school at the University of Michigan, said it was surprising that the fire disabled the ship’s electrical systems to such a degree.

"On most oceangoing large ships — but above all on a cruise ship, which has multiple generators — having one of [the generators] totally destroyed by fire or anything else should not affect its services in the least," he said. "There is a lot of redundancy there."

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