Image: Carnival Splendor
Justina Victoriano  /  AP
Smoke billows from the engine compartment of the Carnival Splendor on Monday off the coast of Mexico. An engine fire aboard the 952-foot cruise liner knocked out power, setting the ship adrift about 200 miles outside San Diego and 44 miles off the coast of Mexico.
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updated 11/12/2010 7:02:25 PM ET 2010-11-13T00:02:25

A luxury cruise liner that limped into San Diego after a fire knocked out its power was lucky in many ways — no one was killed or even seriously hurt, a nearby Navy vessel came quickly with supplies and the mishap occurred in tranquil waters.

Yet the drawn-out tale of the stricken ship shows just how quickly things can go wrong on a giant floating city carrying thousands of people, and it's prompting a closer look at whether ocean liners are properly equipped to deal with the litany of problems that could strike: rogue waves, norovirus outbreaks and mechanical problems that disable ships in treacherous weather.

"If you want a completely predictable vacation, don't go on the sea," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of the industry trade publication Cruisecritic.com and a veteran of more than 200 cruises. "Ships are bigger and have better stabilizers than ever before, but they are still on the sea and the sea is nature and nature is unpredictable.'"

If the Splendor had been crossing the North Atlantic in the winter — instead of about 40 miles off the coast of Mexico in calm waters — things could have been far worse, said veteran maritime attorney Charles Lipcon of Miami.

"The weather in the North Atlantic, and off the coast of South Africa, can be awful," he said. "They usually try to stay close to port, so if something does go wrong they can avoid that. But sometimes they have no choice."

Another stroke of luck for the Carnival cruise: Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan happened to be in the area conducting training exercises, and its 6,000 sailors quickly came to the rescue with deliveries of food and other supplies.

Tugboats weren't far off, and they hauled the 952-foot cruise liner about 200 miles into a San Diego dock on Thursday, bringing weary passengers to shore and ending the three-day ordeal.

Related: Cruise passengers endured stench, cold food

Passengers disparaged the food and complained about backed-up toilets, yet praised crew members for calmly getting everyone to life boats that turned out not to be necessary. The blaze was extinguished quickly, and no one was hurt.

Video: Video shows smoke-filled ship’s chaos (on this page)

Concern over fires
But onboard fires have long been a significant concern of investigators, said former National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins, and it's unusual for a fire to shut down an entire engine room and take out every backup electrical system on board.

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"A fire can be quickly contained so that it won't require a ship to return to port," she said. "That raises a lot of concerns."

Interactive: Engine fire cripples cruise ship (on this page)

Four years ago, the Star Princess oceanliner caught fire on a windy night in the Atlantic Ocean as it headed toward Jamaica. One person was killed, 11 injured and 150 cabins damaged before the crew could douse the flames, which were believed to be caused by a cigarette.

As investigators try to determine what happened aboard the Splendor, Higgins said they likely will look at the ship's equipment and also the crew's response. Cruise ships have extensive contingency plans and drills that must pass muster with the Coast Guard, said Eric Ruff, executive vice president of the Cruise Lines International Association. The Coast Guard said it examined the ship's smoke and heat detection systems, sprinkler and engineering systems just a day before the engine blew and found no deficiencies.

Related: Splendor passengers get free cruise, no recourse

Investigation in Panama
The National Transportation Safety Board said the probe into the fire's cause would be conducted by Panama, where the ship is registered. Panama agreed to let the U.S. Coast Guard join the investigation because most of the passengers were U.S. citizens, and two NTSB experts will assist, the NTSB said.

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Ships like ocean liners are governed by the laws of the country where they are registered in and under whose flag they sail.

In order to raise revenue, Lipcon said, some small countries such as Panama and Liberia are known to exempt ship employees from labor regulations governing the number of consecutive days they are required to work and the number of hours they are given off between shifts. Lipcon said this has sometimes resulted in crew members so tired they pose a serious threat to the safety of passengers.

"We found a study in Australia that indicated a tired worker, someone who worked shifts of more than 10 hours, reacted the same as a person does when driving while intoxicated," he said. "That means you could have a ship run by a bunch of people who are the equivalent of people who drive when intoxicated."

He also said such countries are reluctant to conduct strenuous investigations when something does go wrong on a ship because that could result in the operator being required to make costly improvements.

"I think you'll find that Panama will just overlook the whole thing," he said of the Splendor mishap. "Otherwise they might have to spend money, and that would hurt Panama's flag of convenience business."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Newlyweds on honeymoon cruise from hell

  1. Closed captioning of: Newlyweds on honeymoon cruise from hell

    >> newlyweds jeffrey and sabrina were on that ship on their honeymoon. good morning to both of you.

    >> good morning.

    >> how good was it to get your feet on dry land again?

    >> oh, my god. it was amazing.

    >> were you guys ever worried for your safety at any time during this, or once you learned the fire was out was it more just about inconvenience than safety?

    >> the danger was more in the beginning when we didn't know anything. but we felt that all throughout.

    >> oh, yeah, it was more of an inconvenience later, like day two.

    >> you guys took some photos of your experience, just take me through it, what exactly was the worst part of what you had to face over those three or four days?

    >> well, to me it was definitely having to walk up nine flights of stairs to go get food that was rotting and it smelled like garbage. and then when the bargain was gone, it was sewer, which was all after the smoke smell finally went away. to me that was the worst part.

    >> reporter: jeffrey

    >> jeffrey , what about for you?

    >> i would say it was finding ways to make the day go so you didn't have to sleep all day. the first day we just slept all day basically. so later on we got a deck of cards and then the staff helped us out and did some activities for us.

    >> what exactly did you eat? there's been conflicting reports that there was spam, there was no spam, there was vienna sausages , what did you eat to say alive?

    >> the first couple of days we had the same thing, cereal in the morning and the fruit, but i wouldn't go for the fruit. and then salads were for lunch and dinner and then sandwiches. the first two days there wasn't any meat, just cheese and tomatoes and sauce, i didn't know what it was. and then the last day is when they had the spam burgers, the spam hot dogs they cut up, mixed up with some sort of cheese sauce.

    >> by that time you weren't asking questions, you weren't all that picky. what about the free booze? did this become one big booze cruise ?

    >> yes, towards the end, people were crawling up the stairs.

    >> they were just barely pulling themselves along.

    >> the last two days most people were just gone.

    >> they don't even know they're home in san diego yet. one of the things, i have heard universal compliments to the crew on board the ship.

    >> i would have to say the crew was amazing. john the cruise director kept everyone calm and even laughing during it.

    >> they pulled together.

    >> so carnival has basically said, we're sorry, we're going to give you a free cruise. are you going to take them up on that or are your cruising days over?

    >> we want to, but they don't understand that we just used all our time for our wedding then for our cruise that we just went on. and, you know, jack's a full-time student at uc irvine , and i work full-time, they're going to give us a free cruise, but when are we going to use it? and this was our first cruise, we're not so sure about the boat thing anymore.

    >> you would get back on the ship, wouldn't you?

    >> i wasn't terrified the whole time. the expectations were high. but i wasn't afraid at the end.

    >> you've been married for a week, you've got great stories

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