We Wonder: Why Couldn't Disabled Cruise Ship Be Evacuated?

Feb 14, 2013
Originally published on February 14, 2013 8:05 pm

As the Carnival Triumph drifted for days in the Gulf of Mexico, we wondered: Instead of undertaking a slow, arduous tow to Mobile, Ala., wouldn't it have been easier — and more comfortable for passengers — to send an empty cruise ship to the area and evacuate the 3,143 passengers?

David Peikin, of the trade organization Cruise Lines International Association, said they could not comment on the specifics of the Triumph, but a lot of times these decisions have to do with safety.

"The evacuation or transfer at sea itself can pose some significant risks that must be balanced, based upon the specific circumstances," Peikin told us in an email. "A variety of factors such as: weather, sea state, present state of safety, health of the persons involved, and specifics of the available transfer mechanisms and equipment must all be carefully taken into account. A safe, but uncomfortable or sub-optimal, situation may under some circumstances certainly be preferable to undertaking a transfer of persons at sea."

Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and a cruise ship expert who runs the site cruisejunkie.com, said the decision usually comes to down to one thing: money.

He told us:

"The issue of bringing another ship aside is both an economic decision as well as logistics. There needs to be a ship nearby first off. Then the question is whether passengers can be transferred from one ship to the other (which can be done). But the overarching issue is always going to be cost — mainly the cost of losing revenue from the second ship and customer relations issues that come with disrupting another shipload of passengers' vacation."

Update at 4:46 p.m. ET. Significant Risk:

Cap. Bill Doherty, a former safety manager for Norwegian Cruise Lines and director of maritime affairs for the consulting firm Nexus, agrees with both Peikin and Klein.

First, he told us, it's highly unlikely that a cruise line would have an empty ship. Secondly, moving passengers from one ship to another in high seas is very hard.

The Triumph, for example, has no way to stabilize itself so it would make disembarking difficult. A move from one ship to another using life rafts would pose a "significant risk" of having passengers thrown overboard.

Most of these ships are handicap accessible, Doherty said, but the ships are "not set up for out-of-ordinary disembarking."

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