Triumph Passenger's Carnival Cruise from Hell

Arriving in Alabama, the ship looked like a floating refugee camp. Dave Martin/AP

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 Yucatán 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.

Carnival Triumph
Sewage seeped down the walls, urine soaked the floors. Matt Crusan

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? Experts at recent congressional hearings on cruise safety tallied 79 cruise-ship fires between 1990 and 2011. And, says Walker, "I've counted 11 more fires since then."

If last year's Costa Concordia disaster, which cost the lives of dozens of people when the ship went down off the west coast of Italy, didn't turn down the dials on the $35 billion industry, which caters to 20 million people every year, the Triumph is unlikely to leave a lasting impression, once the news cycle moves on. (The Costa Concordia was also a Carnival ship.)

Going to sea has always had an air of adventure. But the impressive-looking cruise ships, which cost around half a billion dollars to build and can hold as many as 8,500 passengers, are meant to cushion the extremes of seafaring. However, the culture of the maritime industry is in many ways stuck in the past and in need of the kind of reforms that in recent decades have made vast improvements in the auto and aviation industries.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the entire U.S. fleet of Boeing 787s over fire-safety concerns. Where was the maritime equivalent of the FAA when it came to the troubled Triumph, which passengers say had a history of problems before it went adrift in the Gulf of Mexico?

Jim Hall, head of the National Transportation Safety Board during the Clinton administration, says the industry is watched over by "paper tigers" like the International Maritime Organization and suffers from "bad actors" much like in the poorly regulated motor-coach industry, which saw its latest fatal bus crash in Southern California earlier this month. "The maritime industry is the oldest transportation industry around. We're talking centuries. It's a culture that has never been broken as the aviation industry was, and you see evidence of that culture in the [Costa Concordia] accident," says Hall.

Ships may seem and feel American but are mostly "flagged" in countries like the Bahamas or Panama in order to operate outside of what he says are reasonable safety standards. "It is, and has been, an outlaw industry," says Hall. "People who book cruises should be aware of that."

After all, how many fires are acceptable? The Carnival corporation is not alone when it comes to cruise-ship fires, but the Triumph was the fourth fire on a Carnival ship in recent years that resulted in a loss of power. There was the Carnival Ecstasy fire in 1998 that blackened its entire stern (luckily it caught fire within site of port in Miami). There was the Tropicale fire the following year that left that ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico for two days with a tropical storm approaching.

In 2006 a fire on the Star Princess, which was operated by a subsidiary of Carnival, Princess Cruises, damaged 100 cabins and led to litigation over the death of a passenger who suffered inhalation-related cardiac arrest, settled before trial. (Princess admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.) Then there was the Carnival Splendor generator fire in 2010, which left thousands of passengers enduring days without power in the waters off Mexico before the ship was towed to San Diego.

"There were multiple problems on the Splendor. If it had been an airplane, there would be congressional hearings about them ... This is a whole system run amok," says Kendall Carver, whose daughter disappeared while on a Celebrity cruise, her case still unsolved. Carver now heads a growing organization called International Cruise Victims.

The cruise industry vehemently disagrees. Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen says: "After studying the Carnival Splendor fire, we implemented a number of processes centered around fire prevention, system redundancies and protection, and training of our personnel."

Still, there have been more fires. After the Splendor got in trouble, there was a fire aboard the Costa Allegra in the Indian Ocean in 2012, just a month after the Costa Concordia crash.

Gulliksen says that Carnival is "unable to comment on pending litigation" but that the company will be examining how "to avoid the loss of propulsion in the event of an engine fire." But Miami attorney Charles Lipcon, who is leading the class-action complaint, is not convinced that the company has been learning from the past. "I think they just took a gamble," he says. "They played Russian roulette with their passengers, and they lost."

Carnival Triumph
A surf ’n’ turf lunch was served, the lobster brownish-gray around the edges. Matt Crusan

On previous Triumph cruises, passengers noticed that the ship was riddled with problems. Austin, Texas, native Paula Wilson booked a December cruise on the ship as a college-graduation present for her 23-year-old daughter, Chelsea. Once mother and daughter arrived in Galveston, she says, they were told they'd face a delay of four to six hours. Then, as they boarded, crew members "slid this piece of paper at us saying we might want to read it," Paula recalls. "I saw other people just stick it in their pocket like junk mail. But the message said we wouldn't make our port in Cozumel because of engine problems. Since we couldn't pick up enough speed we'd only make it to Progreso." They had booked excursions in Cozumel and were disappointed, but not as much as the bride-to-be "who broke down in tears in front of me." She was getting married in Cozumel and was no longer headed to her own wedding.

Paula and Chelsea pressed on to Progreso, "which had nice ruins but was kind of a slum," says Paula, whose daughter felt nervous about engine malfunctions and what felt like irregular speeds on the ship, according to Paula. "There were problems on that ship way back in December. They should have done something about it," she says.

About a month later, other passengers recounted similar experiences on the Triumph such as repeated delays over mechanical problems and failing to reach Cozumel as promised.

Carnival spokesman Gulliksen says early malfunctions were repaired and had nothing to do with the February 10 fire. "Carnival Triumph previously experienced an electrical issue with one of the ship's alternators. Repairs were conducted by the alternator supplier and were fully completed on February 2," followed by comprehensive and third-party testing. "There is no evidence at this time of any relationship between this previous issue and the fire that occurred on February 10."

Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Diaz, however, says that the previous malfunctions "are one of the many factors we are considering in the investigation, along with whether the fire-suppression system worked, the actions of the crew, and much more." Since the ship is flagged in the Bahamas, the Bahamas Maritime Authority will be in charge of the investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board will help with the investigation but has only 10 marine-safety investigators to deploy. "People imagine this will be like an aviation investigation, but it won't," warns Hall, the former chief of the safety board. Diaz, though, is undeterred. "An 'autopsy' isn't exactly the right term, but we are doing as thorough an investigation as possible."

In the days since the cruise ship finally arrived by tow in Mobile, Alabama, hundreds of passengers have been calling into Lipcon's office for the class-action suit, with complaints including lung and respiratory problems, urinary tract infections, diarrhea, and panic attacks.

One passenger, Faleice Byer from Texas, has been diagnosed with bronchitis, possibly caused by a fungal infection. During a phone conversation, her voice was hoarse, and the 65-year-old apologized as she broke into several violent coughing fits. For Byer, this had been a "girlfriend cruise"; her two friends are now both taking antibiotics for diarrhea. "This was supposed to be a fun cruise, and," she says, coughing, "it started out that way." After the ordeal, it took her 18 hours to get home from Alabama.

For now, Carnival has canceled upcoming cruises on the Triumph as the investigation gets under way.

Donna Hess, though, has her own opinion of what happened. On January 28, she and her husband, Bob, boarded the Triumph for a short cruise. Unknown to them, a Coast Guard inspection of the ship that day had noted that a short-circuit in the high voltage connection box of a generator had caused damage to cables. (The Coast Guard would not comment "on specifics of the data" in the report.) Though they had a hard time understanding the captain's accent over the crackly loudspeaker, once they were already moving, they understood that their destination had changed from Cozumel to Progreso.

And the destination mattered. While terminally ill, their adult son Marc had told them that he wanted to visit a splendid beach, but he died before he was able to. The couple, both 65, were traveling with Bible verses in hand, hoping to scatter his ashes in the beautiful waves off Cozumel. Disappointed, they eventually returned to the U.S.—unable to fulfill their son's final dream. Because of a propulsion problem, their return to Galveston, Texas, was severely delayed. As they crept along slowly, Donna recalls thinking that they were "on a vessel that wasn't seaworthy." When she turned on the television a few weeks later and saw the coverage of the Triumph adrift, it brought it all home, she says. "That boat needed to be fixed."