Passengers await help on crippled cruise ship
SAN DIEGO (AP) -- The nearly 4,500 passengers and crew of the Carnival Splendor have no air conditioning or hot water. Running low on food, they have to eat canned crab meat and Spam dropped in by helicopters. And for at least another 24 hours, they have no way out.
What began as a seven-day cruise to the picturesque Mexican Riviera stopped around sunrise when an engine room fire cut power to the 952-foot vessel and set it adrift off Mexico's Pacific coast.
No one was hurt and, by Tuesday, U.S. Navy helicopters were ferrying 70,000 pounds of supplies, including the crab meat, croissants, Pop Tarts, Spam and other items, to the stricken ship.
Mexican tugboats, meanwhile, were rushing out to the vessel to begin towing it 150 miles to the port of Ensenada, about 50 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Splendor could reach the port as early as late Wednesday.
Accidents like the engine room fire are rare, said Monty Mathisen, of the New York-based publication Cruise Industry News.
The last major cruise accident was in 2007 when a ship with more than 1,500 people sank after hitting rocks near the Aegean island of Santorini, Mathisen said. Two French tourists died.
"This stuff does not happen," he said. "The ships have to be safe, if not the market will collapse."
The Splendor, which left from Long Beach on Sunday, was 200 miles south of San Diego at the time of the engine fire, according to a statement from Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines. It began drifting about 55 miles off shore.
The 3,299 passengers and 1,167 crew members were not hurt and the fire was put out in the generator's compartment, but the ship had no air conditioning, hot water, cell phone or internet service.
After the fire, passengers were first asked to move from their cabins to the ship's upper deck, but eventually allowed to go back to their rooms. The ship's auxiliary power allowed for toilets and cold running water.
Bottled water and cold food were provided, the company said.
The temperature in the area was 62 degrees and there were scattered clouds, according to the Coast Guard.
Toni Sweet, of San Pedro, Calif., was frustrated when she couldn't reach her cousin, Vicky Alvarez, aboard the ship. She said she called her cell phone and did not get an answer.
"We know everything is fine, but we're just worried," Sweet said. "She was nervous about going on a cruise ship even before this happened and now with this, I don't think she'll ever go again."
Carnival spokeswoman Joyce Oliva said the ship's command is able to communicate with outsiders on a backup system.
On Tuesday, U.S. sailors loaded cargo planes with boxes of crab meat, croissants and other items for the stranded passengers. They were to be ferried to an aircraft carrier at sea, where helicopters will pick them up and drop them on the ship.
The U.S. Coast Guard deployed aircraft and ships, and the Mexican Navy was also helping but did not release details of its contribution The U.S. Navy diverted the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan from training maneuvers to help.
The Splendor only had enough food to last through midday Tuesday because refrigerators on the ship stopped working after the power was knocked out, Navy Commander Greg Hicks said.
Hicks said 50,000 pounds of food had already been delivered by Tuesday afternoon.
"Without being there and I'm glad I'm not, I think they're probably uncomfortable," Coast Guard Capt. Tom Farris said. "They're being protected from being burned by the sun and kept warm."
The tugboats were expected to arrive back at the port with the ship around 8 p.m. PST Wednesday, Coast Guard Petty Officer Kevin Metcalf said. Metcalf said the tugs and a Coast Guard cutter escort must move slowly because the ship is so big.
From Ensenada, passengers will be driven 50 miles by bus to the California border, said Oliva, who added that she was unaware of any safety concerns from passengers or their families about traveling by land in Mexico.
The country is mired in a war between drug cartels and the military.
Ensenada Port Capt. Carlos Carrillo said some bus companies that normally work with cruise ships docked at the port already take passengers to the border, but officials were discussing taking extra precautions. Among them are federal police escorts to ensure they arrive safely to San Diego, across from the Mexican border city of Tijuana, he said.
Oliva said Carnival is working out the logistics and she did not know the details.
Ramon Inzunza, owner of the tour bus company Calibaja Tours, said he was helping Carnival find 90 buses with permission to cross the border and was asking the Mexican government to urge U.S. authorities to allow the bus drivers to cross.
Carnival Corp.'s stock was down about 1 percent Tuesday.
Mathisen commended the cruise line for its handling of the situation, saying officials responded quickly. But he said the accident could damage an industry already hurting from a drop in trips to Mexico because of the drug violence.
It also will be costly for Carnival, which is refunding passengers, offering vouchers for future cruises and may have to dry dock the ship if the damage is extensive.
Once passengers are dropped off, the Splendor will be towed back to Long Beach, Calif., a journey that will take days. That's why the passengers will be dropped off in Mexico first.
"We know this has been an extremely trying situation for our guests and we sincerely thank them for their patience," Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill said in the statement.
Jessica Wilson/ KETKnbc.com