Unauthorized welding by crewmembers in the main laundry ignited a large accumulation of lint in the ventilation system, leading to a major fire aboard a cruise ship that injured 23 people and resulted in damages exceeding $17 million, the National Transportation Safety Board has found.
On July 20, 1998, the Liberian-registered passenger ship Ecstasy - operated by Carnival Cruise Lines - departed the Port of Miami, Florida, en route to Key West, with 2,565 passengers and 916 crewmembers on board, when a fire started in the main laundry. The fire migrated through the ventilation system to the aft mooring deck where polypropylene mooring lines ignited. As the ship was attempting to reach an anchorage point, it lost propulsive power and steering and began to drift. The fire was declared extinguished 4 hours later, and the vessel was towed back to port.
The Safety Board found that two crewmembers were preparing to weld in the laundry room without obtaining the proper authorization. During the course of that activity, a fire migrated to the lint that had accumulated in the ventilation system. In addition to the unauthorized welding, the Board cited Carnival's failure to maintain the laundry exhaust ducts in a fire-safe condition as part of the probable cause. Contributing to the extensive fire damage on the ship was the lack of an automatic fire suppression system on the aft mooring deck and the lack of an automatic means of mitigating the spread of smoke and fire through the ventilation ducts.
Within months of the fire, following examinations of ventilation ducts on other ships, the NTSB issued urgent safety recommendations to all cruise lines suggesting they keep laundry ventilation duct systems clear of accumulated lint and other debris. All cruise lines serving the United States at that time adopted that recommendation. In the report adopted today, the Safety Board recommended that other cruise lines install fire detection and suppression systems on mooring decks like that of the Ecstasy. Because the mooring deck on the Ecstasy was considered as outdoors - even though it had a ceiling - it did not need the fire equipment.
Carnival is retrofitting its fleet to install such equipment on its mooring decks. The Board also recommended that cruise lines install emergency call systems in passenger staterooms and crew cabins so that people trapped during a fire emergency will have a means of signaling their location. The Ecstasy lost propulsion and steering control because of design characteristics of the ship. For example, even though the port and starboard propulsion systems were supposed to be redundant and isolated, circuitry for both systems shared a common panel, which was damaged by fire.
Although no injuries resulted from the loss of propulsion in this instance, the Board noted, "Hazardous situations that may result from a ship losing propulsive power include vessel grounding, inability to avoid severe weather conditions, and passenger evacuation at sea." The Safety Board recommended that classification societies and ship builders require qualitative failure analyses to ensure the fail-safe operation of propulsion systems on new vessels. A copy of the Board's final report on the Ecstasy fire will appear on the NTSB's web site in several weeks.