A sudden list to starboard, then chaos

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Passengers describe a day of terror in report on the Crown Princess cruise ship

Passengers describe a day of terror in report on the Crown Princess cruise ship

The 46-year-old executive assistant was enjoying an afternoon massage on an upper deck of the Crown Princess. It was 3:25 p.m. on July 18, 2006 — the final day of her cruise. The sea just outside Port Canaveral, Fla., was calm, the sun was shining, and, in the shade of a privacy canopy, she was drifting into a comfortable sleep.

Then, she told the National Transportation Safety Board, “I felt [the] ship turning as if it were turning back southward and then sharp turn.” The woman, whose name the NTSB wouldn’t release, continued. “All of a sudden, the table I was on started to tip over, and I went flying off it as I heard people screaming and the man in the next canopy came crashing through mine onto me, as well as tables, canopies, etc.”

At the same instant, up and down the 15 passenger decks of the 947-foot cruise ship, tables, chairs, dinnerware, planters and many of the 4,545 passengers and crew became projectiles. As the ship heeled to 24 degrees, the water emptied out of the swimming pool, washing children and adults across the deck. Elderly passengers playing bingo in wheelchairs slammed into walls; others clung to the railings from which they had been enjoying the seascape an instant before.

A series of mistakes

Nearly 300 passengers and crewmembers were injured, 14 seriously, in the incident, which the NTSB says happened when the second officer, left by senior officers to oversee the bridge, made a series of mistakes. But the agency also blames the ship’s captain and staff captain for “contributing to the accident.” The board also faulted the training provided to the crew of the Crown Princess, a new ship operated by Princess Cruises and on its first cruise.

“Had the crew been better trained in the equipment they were using, this accident may not have occurred,” says NTSB chairman Mark V. Rosenker.

Where a passenger happened to be that afternoon directly affected his or her exposure to injury. An example is Tom Daus. The 32-year-old resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., was on the top deck, above a pool, talking with his parents and some friends as he lounged on a deck chair, backed up against the Plexiglas bulwark along the starboard edge of the deck.

“All of a sudden, the ship started to list [to starboard],” Daus recalls. Held by the 4-foot-high bulwark, his chair remained in place, giving him a stable view of the mayhem. “Everything started flying. I recall people being thrown into plastic lounge chairs. They [the chairs] cracked. Everything was thrown into a pile, including people.

“There were about eight people in the pool,” he continues. “They got washed out,” he says, and thrown into pool-side chairs. Daus says he saw at least two people in wheelchairs get injured. “People were cut and bruised,” he says.

What they experienced

The passenger descriptions of the day of terror aboard the Crown Princess came in the form of answers to a questionnaire NTSB had sent out. Among the responses were these accounts. (All were among the injured who were later shipped to Florida hospitals.)

• A retired 68-year-old woman and her 35-year-old daughter were in the casino on the sixth deck, seated on stools and playing slot machines, when they were thrown to the floor and, with shattered glass flying, slammed into a wall.

• A 50-year-old woman and her husband were on Deck 15 near the pool. She and her deck chair were washed across the deck by the flood of pool water, and she found herself against the clear plastic bulwark under a pile of about 10 deck chairs. Her husband was flung head-first into the ceramic tiles of a pizza bar.

• A 54-year-old teacher and her mother were on Deck 7, setting up for the bingo game. There was a rumbling, and the floor shook. As the ship began to list, passengers around them assured them there were no problems. Then mother and daughter slid across the floor as glasses fell from a bar and shattered. The daughter got in front of her 84-year-old mother to protect her from sliding furniture.

• An 80-year-old woman was in a lounge on the starboard side when she felt herself being thrown about 20 feet. Tables and chairs and upended people began to pile up on top of her.

• Another teacher, 55, and her mother were in an elevator when the ship tilted, the elevator doors opened and the two women were thrown across a hallway into a wall.

Physician lends a hand

Among those caring for the injured was a passenger, Dr. Gerald B. Brock, a urologist from Ontario. He and his wife had been at their midships cabin on the ninth deck when the ship heeled. “It was dramatic enough that inside our room, we had a marble coffee table that went flying across the room and smashed into doors that went out onto a balcony,” he recalls. “My wife was out on the balcony, and it was enough of a list that … she couldn’t really walk up into the room. She had to pull herself up on the railings to get back into the room.”

Neither Brock nor his wife was injured, so while she remained in the room, he went to the ship’s infirmary on the fourth deck to offer medical assistance. “It was really quite impressive, the equipment they had,” Brock says. He was impressed as well by the number of injured.

“It was clear that there were lots of people and there was going to be lots of work,” Brock says. He was sent to the buffet several floors above the infirmary, and there he saw food scattered across the floor and water from the pool soaking the carpets. He also found “lots of people crying and upset.” Among the injured, he found broken bones and cuts and elderly passengers complaining of chest pains, he says.

According to the NTSB, the damage was done on a day with relatively calm seas and the Crown Princess traveling at 20 knots, close to full speed, across relatively shallow water. Soon after it left port, the Crown Princess began experiencing difficulty with its steering. The NTSB says, according to voice recordings from the bridge, that the captain and staff captain talked about the problem before they left the bridge and tried several measures to correct it.

The ship was running on autopilot when the senior officers left the controls in the hands of the second officer, according to the NTSB report. All of the navigational equipment was combined in one control on the bridge — an integrated navigation system — joining the radar, autopilot, electronic charts and Automatic Identification System (AIS). The senior officers had made adjustments to the system to limit the amount of rudder movement that could take place, but the steering problem persisted, according to the report. At one point, the captain told the staff captain the heading was “wandering all over the place.”

‘Shallow water effect’

NTSB investigators later determined that the problem was a combination of shallow water and the speed of the ship, which created turbulence called a “shallow water effect.”

“The ship moving through the water carries along a lot of water with it,” explains the NTSB lead investigator, Tom Roth-Roffy. “Operating in shallow water, you start to get some interplay between the water being dragged along and the bottom water. Essentially, the response of the ship to rudder commands would be different than in deep water. The turning diameter of the ship would be greater. If you put 20 degrees rudder on in deep water,” he says, the ship would turn more quickly than in shallow water. Outside Port Canaveral, the Crown Princess, with a draft of around 28 feet, was traveling in water slightly less than twice that deep, which Roth-Roffy says qualifies as shallow.

Left in command of the bridge, the second officer was “under a lot of stress, and he perhaps lost his situational awareness,” says Roth-Roffy. With an even-more-junior officer at his side, apparently questioning his moves, the second officer turned off the autopilot and took the wheel, turning first to port 10 degrees, then to starboard 15 degrees, then again to port 30 degrees, then starboard 30 degrees and finally port, 45 degrees, the NTSB says.

It was about 35 seconds after the second officer began steering manually that the captain and staff captain hurried back to the bridge and gave the command to center the rudder and slow the ship’s engines, the NTSB says. By that time, the decks were littered with the terrified and injured.

A call for training

In its final report, the NTSB recommends the International Maritime Organization, an international shipping safety group, make training in integrated navigation systems mandatory for all watchkeepers on vessels with those systems. Until that happens, the NTSB recommends that cruise operators voluntarily provide that training and a requirement that crewmembers prove they are proficient in using the systems. It also recommends that the operators teach crews about the effects of high speeds in shallow water.

Roth-Roffy says the Crown Princess crew had training in the ship’s integrated navigation system, but he says that a “number of factors may have contributed to less than optimum training.”