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Cruise passengers return to Baltimore after harrowing voyage

Most praise Royal Caribbean, but some say they were left to fend for themselves

By Kevin Rector and Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

8:19 PM EDT, May 28, 2013

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They left Baltimore on Friday by cruise ship and came back Tuesday by charter jet. The passengers from the Grandeur of the Seas arrived safely and with sea stories to last a lifetime.

A fire near the stern of the 917-foot Royal Caribbean International ship early Monday morning forced it to make an emergency detour to Freeport, Bahamas, and cut short the vacations of 2,224 passengers. It's the latest in a string of mishaps that have besmirched the reputation of the cruise industry.

Many of the first arrivals at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport told similar stories of being awakened by announcements and pounding on their cabin doors, only to be shaken by the smell of smoke and orange glow in the sky that signaled something serious.

They also praised the ship's crew and said they will take the cruise line up on its offer of a free cruise down the line.

"The crew was great," said Chuck Baynes of Abingdon, who traveled with his wife and two sons. "They had never been through anything like that before, but they're well trained and they got it all squared away."

Cindy McNeil, who had traveled from her home in Oklahoma to Baltimore for the cruise with her two daughters, and her husband, Joe, an Annapolis native, agreed.

"They were just awesome. They were so professional," McNeil said of the crew. "They were calm. They were upbeat."

However, some of those closer to the fire's heat did not share that experience.

Shayne Parsons of Millersville, whose cabin was directly above the fire, had praise for the firefighting crew, "but as soon as the fire was out, it was as if we didn't exist. We were just a number."

Parsons and about 100 other passengers displaced by water and smoke damage were taken ashore and put up at a hotel.

"At 1 p.m., we checked off the boat and we did not see anyone from Royal Caribbean again until well after 8 p.m. We were on our own with no direction," said Parsons, a Navy contractor, who paid $4,500 for a vacation for two.

On Tuesday, they were hustled from the hotel and told they were to board a 5 p.m. flight home only to find that they were on standby with no departure time.

"Things happen. I'm not upset about the fire at all," Parsons said. "But we've been treated like animals."

A Royal Caribbean spokeswoman did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Passengers said that confusion on board erupted when the announcements came shortly before 3 a.m.

"My survival skills kicked in. I put on long pants and a sweat shirt, not knowing what the weather was going to be at sea at night," said Rachel Beser, 25, who was on the ship with eight friends from her college years at Towson University.

Many other passengers had no time to dress, and stood around in their pajamas or underwear for hours until the fire was out, Beser and others said.

Jennifer Dodson, who was part of the informal college reunion, said when she saw the glow of the fire, "I knew it was big, that this wasn't a trash can on fire."

Baynes said his family gathered in the ship's theater area, and his sons went back to sleep. But as time passed, he began to wonder why the fire wasn't out.

"I'm like, 'This is no small deck fire. Something's going on,'" he said. "Then they called in the Coast Guard."

Some people cried. Others were visibly shaken. Updates from the crew came every half-hour, but nobody knew how bad things were. When the lifeboats began to descend, the tension rose.

Dodson, a Lutherville resident, and her husband, began to think about abandoning ship.

"I don't think that there was any fear that [the ship was] going down, but there was a fear that we would have to de-board to the lifeboats," Cody Dodson said.

"And then watch the ship burn," Jennifer Dodson added.

Beser said crew members began telling people that nausea pills would be handed out. Some passengers saw stretchers carried past.

"I thought I was going to lose it," Beser said, "but I kept calm."

This has been a tough year for the cruise industry, with a half-dozen mishaps making headlines. Cruise experts say company officials have learned from their mistakes.

Andrew Coggins, a Pace University professor specializing in the travel and hospitality industries, said cruise lines need to do everything in their power to woo the public. Giving inconvenienced Grandeur passengers full refunds and certificates for a future cruise is a smart move, he said.

"If the industry were to lose the confidence of the public on the issue of safety, it would be extremely difficult for the industry to recapture that confidence," he said. "So it's in their best interest to correct problems quickly and transparently."

With a half-dozen ships in its fleet of the same class, Coggins said, he expects Royal Caribbean officials will inspect the others. Any problems found with the ships or crew training will be addressed immediately.

Last week, Cruise Lines International Association announced the adoption of a 10-point passenger bill of rights covering more than two dozen member cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean and Carnival. The policy includes the right to emergency medical attention, timely information about itinerary changes and mechanical problems, and full or partial refunds for canceled or shortened trips due to mechanical failures. The bill also requires cruise lines to ensure passenger transportation and lodging for shortened voyages.

Royal Caribbean went "above and beyond what was required under the bill," Coggins said.

The set of industry standards is being published on each cruise line's website along with a toll-free number for passengers to call about shipboard operations. The association is lobbying the International Maritime Organization to adopt it.

Carolyn Spencer-Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com, said Royal Caribbean was on top of its problem, using Facebook and Twitter to announce the fire, establish a toll-free number and post photos of the damage.

"I have to commend Royal Caribbean because they were putting out answers to questions I hadn't even had yet," she said. "They went all out and it made me feel confident."

The proof, she said, will be if the cruise line retains its customer base.

Several Grandeur customers at BWI said they would use their certificates. And a Leesburg, Va., poster on the CruiseCritic forum lauded the cruise line, concluding: "All in all, as someone who is scheduled to sail on the Grandeur in September for my first cruise ever, I feel safer now knowing how well this captain and crew reacted in an emergency situation."

krector@baltsun.com

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Recent cruise disasters

January 2012: Thirty-two people die in the partial sinking of the 3,229-passenger Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy.

February 2013: Carnival Triumph strands 2,758 passengers in the Gulf of Mexico for five days after a fire knocked out power. The 14-year-old ship has to be towed to safety.

March: A norovirus sickens more than 100 people aboard Royal Caribbean's 1,991-passenger Vision of the Seas.

March: Carnival Dream is knocked out of commission by a generator failure while docked in St. Maarten. The 3,646 passengers are sent home by jet.

March: Carnival Legend, with 2,124 passengers, has engine problems and limps back to its Tampa home port, missing a stop at Grand Cayman.

April: Carnival Ecstasy briefly loses power on the final day of a five-day voyage but manages to return safely to Cape Canaveral, Fla., with its 2,056 passengers.