Surviving the Azamara Cruise Ship Fire: Why Character Counted

I usually don’t blog about “travel” and stick to parenting/education issues, but I had an experience this week that I feel compelled to share.

It al started when my husband and I decided to finally get away from it all and take a relaxing cruise on the Azamara Quest- part of the Royal Caribbean Cruises (a Norwegian-American firm based in Miami). The cruise itinerary was amazing: Hong Kong to Indonesia to Singapore with interesting ports of call. So we put our airline miles together, flew to Hong Kong, boarded the ship with 600 or so other passengers, went through the required muster drills, started to relax, and then came the tweak.

It happened at 8:19 pm, during dinner on a lovely quiet Friday evening somewhere outside of Manila (some 75 nautical miles south of Tubbataha Reef, Palawan I’m now told).  Suddenly, a “BRAVO-BRAVO-BRAVO alert” blared over the central speaker system and within seconds you knew this was no drill. The captain, Leif Karlsson, rushed out of the dining room, cooks jumped out of the kitchen, our dining room – on the fifth floor of the ship – was quickly filling with smoke .

There was no doubt there was a crisis and our safety was in the hands of a captain and his crew.  Believe me, unsteady thoughts ran through my mind. We’d all read recent news of slew of disturbing travel stories: the sea captain abandoning his Italian cruise liner after it keeled over; fire striking a sister ship in the Indian ocean and towed to shore a month later; a pilot having a meltdown and escorted off his plane by law enforcement; and scores of disgruntled passengers disturbed by how companies mishandled cruise disasters and refused to take responsibility or even help.

I’m sharing a different kind of story about a travel emergency with a far different outcome. It’s one that the hospitality industry should learn from: how character counts in a company before, during and after an emergency. Competence, responsibility, work ethic, compassion all played a key role in how things worked out and began immediately. 

Within minutes our captain was talking calmly over the speaker system explaining there was an engine fire, what fire fighters were doing to try and control it, and urging us to stay cool and go to our designated muster stations. Well-trained muster captains immediately ordered everyone to assemble at their stations, handed out life vests, and accounted for passengers. Crew attended to with special need passengers and asked others if medications were required. Others handed out water and towels and voiced concern for us– all while an engine room was engulfed in flames and a ship was quickly filling with smoke. The captain continued to give quick updates which helped keep passengers calm.

Then cheers roared when we heard that the fire was extinguished quickly to be replaced by somberness as we were told that several crew had suffered severe smoke inhalation in fighting that fire – one man seriously injured. We were too far out for a helicopter to evacuate him for medication attention and it would take quite some time for another ship to reach us. The fire knocked out the main ship’s power. Air conditioning was out. Refrigeration for food would soon be a problem. And we were drifting in waters that were not the safest (think “pirates”), and didn’t know what to expect.

But then came the unexpected wonders of people and an extraordinary crew.  We may have been stranded, but glorious stuff began to happen.

Passengers from 25 different countries began to bond-United States, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Canada, Scotland, England, France, Denmark, Poland, Russia – you name it. We shared stories, toasted each other with rounds of drinks, played trivia, enjoyed one another’s company and rallied around a crew (who was now “sleeping” outside because their rooms on lower decks were unbearably hot). We began a  fund to try to help the injured crew.

Miami offices – headquarters for Azamara – started contacting our families and offering every service they could to help passengers. Larry Pimental, President and CEO of the company, was already in the air flying from Miami to meet the ship in the first port we could get to. The crew began to put on BBQs on deck since the kitchens were largely inoperable. The cruise director arranged fun activities. We were told not to worry about travel concerns -Azamara was chartering planes to fly us back to Singapore once we arrived in a port – all accommodations were arranged. This all transpired as the captain slowly attempted to restart up second engine. Then finally success-as we began sailing slowly 6 knots – 6.9 miles an hour. The most welcomed sight two days later were two coast guard Manila ships cruising along side us as protection.

We arrived a few days later into Sandakan port in Borneo around 10:15 pm met by ambulances, police, buses, ten express buses, consular teams and embassy officials-including Britain, Canada, Germany, Malaysia and the US-to help. For the next two nights we were treated with the most extraordinary hospitality by the Malaysian people: “We’re so sorry to hear about your ship” and “What can we do?”

CEO Larry Pimental greeted each bus and passenger with apologies for the inconvenience, but also assured us that not only would we receive a 100 percent refund for the cruise and another cruise as an option.

What we all witnessed was enduring character: a positive, diligent crew; a competent, caring captain; an ethical, responsible CEO, and a compassionate, resourceful staff. And their character is what clearly made the difference in our outcome.

Most passengers are now in Singapore – staying in five star hotels with meals and incidentals included. The cruise line sent other representatives from Miami to help us with any needs and assure our safe passage home. We continue to receive updates about the ship and the crew. Our biggest concern for most of us is the injured Mr. Escobar. Azamara arranged a hospital plane equipped with a doctor and nurse to fly him and his family to Manila. We are all praying for his recovery.

Yes, this was an inconvenience, but accidents do happen – and we survived.  I watched a CNN report from my hotel room in which an attorney “offered to represent any passengers on the cruise.”  I shake my head in disgust. From my view, this cruise line was admirable and proactive from the top CEO, to a most competent captain, to his exemplary crew. If only more companies would operate with such strength of character. Imagine that! It’s a trait often amiss.

Thanks to all of you who emailed and tweeted your concerns. My husband and I are fine. My words of wisdom: take those muster drills seriously, always carry a small flashlight, and be flexible with your travel plans. Craig and I are having a great time right now getting to know a lot of wonderful folks from 25 countries and I just took a stroll to the Raffles Hotel to have a Singapore Sling! Not all adventures are planned.

Provided by @2012 Michele Borba

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