Carnival from Hell

Article excerpt

Byline: Eve Conant

The warning signs before the triumph disaster.

On the afternoon of February 7, Matt and Melissa Crusan boarded the cruise ship the Carnival Triumph in the port of Galveston, Texas, wearing their vacation best. For weeks, the middle-aged couple had been looking forward to four leisurely days aboard the ship as it sailed south toward its destination of Cozumel, Mexico.

Like a floating Las Vegas, the ship had a "Great Cities" theme, with a Paris dining room, a London ditto, a Rome lounge, and the Club Rio. A few days later, however, the impressive-looking vessel was gaining infamy as the "Floating Petri Dish" and the "Ship of Stools." And the Crusans had become lead plaintiffs in a class-action suit over a weeklong ordeal that began in the pitch dark on Sunday morning February 10, when the ship's crew and 4,200 passengers scrambled to the muster stations for life vests after a fire broke out in the machine room.

Matt, a retired Marine, describes those moments as "chaos." However, it was what came after that is really burnished in his memory. While the crew was able to extinguish the fire without too much damage, the power, sewage, heating, and air-conditioning systems were no longer working, and the ship was adrift off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico.

What unfolded next is, by now, familiar to most Americans, the images hard to forget: the tilting boat with sewage seeping down the walls, urine-soaked floors, and passengers sleeping outside in the cold and rain to avoid the noxious fumes inside their cabins.

But it wasn't just the discomfort that upset the Crusans--the plastic bags leaking diarrhea and vomit, Melissa's two bouts of food poisoning, the four-hour lines for onion sandwiches, and the hours in the emergency room hooked up to IV drips once they came home. Or how their three young sons, watching TV, worried that their parents were going to die. (One traumatized son even wrote a loving goodbye poem in case he never saw them again.) Or even how, in what appeared a brazen attempt at PR, a so-called "surf 'n' turf" lunch was cobbled together on their last day, Matt's lobster brownish-gray around the edges, before his wife--sick on her mattress on deck--was ordered to drag her mattress back to their room, along with the other passengers, lest the TV cameras catch sight of what looked like a floating refugee camp.

What really bothers Matt Crusan is that he believes Carnival knew--or should have known--that the boat was "not seaworthy." "In my industry, when you have violations over and over again, it's called systematic," says Matt, who works as a consultant for the DEA in controlling illegal substances. "I believe there is clearly negligence here."

And that's the central allegation in the class-action suit, which reads like a laundry list of other offenses, from exposure to human waste to Carnival allegedly "acting wantonly and/or recklessly" by failing to tow the boat to the nearest point of call and instead bringing it to Alabama for repairs "motivated solely by financial gain and Carnival's convenience."

As Matt puts it: "Will it take a whole ship of people to die before they'll pull a ship for repairs?"

The Triumph debacle may have devolved into a media circus and late-night television joke. But cruise-industry watchdogs say it's something more serious: a troubling indicator of pervasive safety problems in a booming industry with little oversight. This isn't just a story about how a paradisiacal vacation turned into a floating hell.

James Walker, a leading Miami attorney who once represented the cruise lines and now represents passengers and crew, says his worst cases "tend to involve loved ones coming home in body bags," and that crews regularly work long hours, months at a time without days off. "And they push their ships just as hard as their crew." The bigger question that people should be asking, Walker says, is, why are so many ships catching fire and losing power? …