Adventure on the High Seas (First-hand account of the fire on the Grandeur of the Seas, May 27, 2013)Posted: May 29, 2013
*This is my personal account of the events occurring on the Grandeur of the Seas on Monday, May 27, 2013. My words cannot be quoted or used in any other reports without prior contact and consent from me, as well as linking directly back to this blog. Please feel free to comment or contact me for further information.*
I wanted to be writing to you sometime next week, after 7 days filled with crystal-blue ocean and Caribbean sunshine. I wanted to be nursing a sunburn. I wanted to tell you about this beef carpaccio:
this sour cream panacotta:
and about the deliciously soft, springy gluten-free bread, and the roasted duck with a port wine and current sauce, and the prime rib, and the Roman salad, and the Bailey’s-caramel-banana creme brulee that were so good, I forgot to stop to take pictures. I will tell you about all of this food, very soon. But first, I am going to talk about the reason that I am home and writing this post on Wednesday, two days before we were due to return to port.
For anyone who has not yet heard, a fire broke out aboard Royal Caribbean International’s cruise ship: the Grandeur of the Seas. M and I, my mother and her friend J, and E and A were on that ship. The fire broke out on the mooring deck of the ship between 2:30-3:00am. Investigation of the cause are ongoing. The ship was carrying over 2,200 passengers and close to 800 crew members and was en route from the first port in Port Canaveral, Florida to the second port at CocoCay, Bahamas.
We woke up to the captain’s over the loudspeaker. Our inner cabin on the aft (back) of the second deck is pitch black, and all that I can make out through his calm, but thick Norwegian accent was “muster”. Muster Stations–our assigned positions for boarding life boats in case of an emergency evacuation. We had run a muster drill first thing upon boarding the ship– lining up at Muster Station 10 (the aft-most station on the port (left) side) on deck. We stood in lines of six on the fifth deck, 250 passengers at a station, memorizing the faces of our muster team: an auburn-haired woman, A, we would soon learn was part of the cruise director staff, and a petite Australian, J, whom M quickly pegged (correctly) as part of the performing cast.
That was a first-day drill–a precaution. I never expected to be recalling the drill procedure at 3:00 in the morning on day 3. M and I stumbled to pull on sweatshirts and shoes. We both had the forethought to quickly use the bathroom in our suite (the best decision of the night). The captain’s voice was still calling guests to move to their assigned muster stations. I opened the door to find J, our room attendant, in his life jacket, knocking on doors and urging passengers out. That is when things started to sink in. We grabbed our life jackets and SeaPass cards, M had the good sense to grab our passports. We entered the slow flood of people dutifully climbing to the fifth deck.
When we reached the deck, we turned to the left to reach our muster station–the final station on the port side–and hit a wall of crew members. We could not go to our muster station, we needed to go to the front of the ship, then to the interior to the casino. The fire was in the aft of the ship, two floors below our muster station. So there was the culprit: a fire. We quickly found our way to the casino, some part of my mind marveling at how quickly the other passengers at the muster stations moved aside to make a pathway through the crowds. We checked in, listening as the muster leaders tallied and rechecked their station lists until all of our group was accounted for. Over the next hour, along with regular updates from the captain over the intercom, the details began to come together. The fire started on the mooring deck at the back of deck three, where the anchor and mooring ropes are stored. The ropes caught fire and blazed–our muster leader told us she knew that the fire was serious when she looked back at the water in the ship’s wake. The whitecaps were glowing amber, reflecting the firelight.
We were in for a long night. Soon after our muster group was accounted for, the crew members encouraged passengers to find seats and began handing out glasses of water from the bar. The captain updated us at regular intervals, even if he was just broadcasting to say that there had been no change. At one point, the captain announced that they were lowering the life-boats to the boarding level, in preparation only to save time. The captain assured us that it was only a precaution, and that we were not anywhere near taking the next step of physically evacuating the ship itself. From what I had heard, many people outside at their original muster station became alarmed at this point–understandably so. I realize that we were actually incredibly lucky–because our group had been moved to a secondary muster station, we had the good fortune to be inside. We were sheltered from the elements, and allowed to sit down. We could hear the captain’s announcements clearly–between his accent and the wind, I’m sure his announcements were difficult to discern outside on deck. That was also some cause for the greater degree of worry outside on the deck. Ultimately we were at our muster stations for over four hours. It took near three hours to put out the fire completely and then another hour to inspect the ship’s public spaces before they could open the fore (front) of the ship to passengers, allowing us to find seats and get breakfast.
By 9:00am, all guests were allowed to return to their rooms. Several state rooms were without power, some suffered water damage from the fire-fighting, others had smoke damage. We were never told if the power outage was due to damaged electric lines, or if it was turned off as a precaution, given the water damage. Our room was on the second deck, one floor below where the flames broke out. About twenty feet down the hall from our door, the fire hose had been brought out to help fight the fire. The hallway smelled faintly of smoke, mostly drifting down from upstairs, but our rooms was perfectly fine. I know our ordeal was much better than most. Being moved to the casino, as I mentioned, kept us out of the elements, away from the smoke, and in more comfort than the majority of passengers kept outside on deck. Several outside became chilled and seasick. Later into our holding positions at the muster stations, the crew began to bring in older and more infirm passengers inside.
Through it all, what stood out most was the incredible care and dedication we received from the crew members. Even before the emergency, we marveled at their boundless energy and continued efforts to make sure that we were all entertained. A smile and conversation were readily available from each and every crew member. Dance breaks were common, laughter even more so. Working with entertainment professionals, myself, I was astounded by their drive and energy. This crew is available from 7:00am to past midnight, seven days a week, with the only goal to keep all of us entertained. They did a spectacular job. Now, in the middle of the night, with the smell of smoke drifting to our noses, these same crew members were here with the same amount of energy–now channeled into a calm, collected surety. Though I had a few brief moments of alarm, I was never scared. The easy smiles of yesterday became caring acts: I watched staff fetch forgotten eyeglasses, medications, diapers and formula. They held babies while their parents used the restrooms, and tirelessly made rounds through the crowd, checking with passengers every few minutes. They steadied the sick, collected every glass and bottle in the vicinity to hand out water, and–finally–sat down beside us.
It was then that we learned that most of the staff had been up since the previous morning, and were just wrapping up to slide into bed when the alarm began. Our muster leader had been awake for 23 hours straight when she spoke to us towards the end of our time at the muster stations. Through her, we also learn that most of the staff quarters were located in the aft of the ship on decks 3 and 4. Their rec room, convenience store, and bar, along with several cabins were almost certainly destroyed. We were in a dangerous situation, of course. We were worried and scared and enduring several hours of discomfort. But the crew was focusing on comforting us, and fighting the flames for close to three hours without a flicker of worry to betray that their homes and belongings were being threatened.
We brought some food down to our muster leader. She shared it with two other crew members as they stood to keep a boundary along the ship’s middle divide. When we saw her three hours later, we learned that the shared plate of food was all she had eaten. We were happy to learn that shortly after we saw her, she was relieved of her post and allowed to get some sleep and find some food. I cannot fully express just how dedicated the crew was, placing the guests entirely first and working through exhaustion to keep us in as much comfort as they could.
The ship’s engines were not damaged–she was completely self-sufficient after the fire. Aside from some power outages in select staterooms, and a few hours of slow toilets while the water pressure equalized, post-fire-fighting, the Grandeur was in operating condition. We continue to sail to Freeport, Bahamas, an industrial port that provides dry-docks for most cruise lines when their ships undergo repairs or renovations. It was only after we went off-ship and into port that we had a chance to see the true extent of the damage. Most of us stood in awe to see the blackened and gutted back of the ship. I had no idea that the fire had been that large. To think that the ship’s staff extinguished such a huge blaze, in the middle of the ocean, entirely on their own, is mind-blowing. Again, my respect and gratefulness towards this crew increased tenfold.
Finally, late in the evening on Monday, May 27, 2013, the captain informed us that they would have to stay in Freeport to repair the ship, and they would have to cancel the remainder of the cruise. We were refunded for all of the cruise, excluding those excursions we had already taken previously at Port Canaveral, Florida. Even gift shop purchases were refunded. We were also given comparable credit in a certificate for another cruise, completely free, meaning we received a combined refund/credit worth 2 entire cruise vacations. The crew returned to schedule, and while they coordinated refunds, flights, hotels, and transportation for over 2,200 passengers, they also returned to the schedule of meals, opening the specialty restaurants and reinstating the dining times. The performing cast put on an incredible aerial show that evening. As we watched in awe, the pieces fell into place–we recognized J as one of our muster leaders, and our cruise director confirmed it: these artists were also all of the muster leaders, who had led us through the entire emergency early that morning. A standing ovation was all we could give them, and it certainly wasn’t enough.
We stayed on the ship overnight and then through the day as staff coordinated with immigration and began to bus passengers to the airport for their flights. Things quickly backed-up. Though the Freeport Airport was generous enough to stay open after hours, it was clear that they did not usually encounter passengers in such force. Much of the paperwork was handwritten, we were responsible for bringing our check bags to several different places in the airport. Procedures, inevitably, slowed down the return process, and weather created some delays as well. We finally took off from the Bahamas at 11pm on Tuesday night, landing in Baltimore after 1:30am. Royal Caribbean representatives were waiting, directing us to a desk for hotel rooms, or to charter buses waiting to take us to our cars at the port parking lot. M had to shuttle E and A home before returning to take the rest of us back home. We finally arrived home at 4:45am. It was all over.
We turned on our phones to find voice messages and texts and facebook inquiries asking for interviews and photos from news sources all over the country. All of our bosses had been contacted, also M and A’s parents, by reporters looking for stories. This is a mind-boggling experience, and I am sure that I will continue to process this experience over the next few weeks. I cannot stress enough how impressed I was with Royal Caribbean. Though I had many reasons to prefer them before now, their spectacular handling of the entire situation has ensured my loyalty from here on out. We are already looking for times when we can return to the Grandeur for another cruise.
As mentioned, I do have more say about our time on board before the fire, but that will have to wait for another time. Right now, I am happy to be home and enjoying a few quiet, slow days with family and friends before returning to work.