The devastating fire in Carnival Splendor’s engine room that completely disabled the two year old cruise ship – and left the vessel drifting at sea with 3,299 passengers and 1,167 crew aboard – made worldwide headlines last week. We read about the emergency rations that the U.S. Navy dropped off, the challenges with non-working toilets, power outages and cold food, and watched on video as Splendor was towed to San Diego.
What we haven’t heard as much about is the story behind the fire itself – at least until now. In a Cruise Critic exclusive, we talk to Essex-based John Heald, Carnival’s storied cruise director, for a behind-the-scenes question and answer session (don’t miss Heald’s blogs about the experience as well).
Cruise Critic: What were the most important lessons you learned from the Carnival Splendor fire? Personally? Professionally?
John Heald: The most important thing that I’ve learned throughout this situation is that all of the drills and safety briefings we conduct each and every week — that admittedly some of us moan about — proved to be priceless. For everyone who sometimes ridicules the many safety briefings and lifeboats drills required of all crew, the Carnival Splendor situation reinforced just how important they are.
The Carnival Splendor situation gave me new insight as a cruise director and the role that I play during an emergency. Additionally now that I am a father, I also put myself in the position of all the moms and dads on board and tried to do all we could for the children, opening up our kids’ facilities, providing food stations, etc. And, finally, it gave me a newfound appreciation for our wonderful team, both aboard ship and at our shoreside offices. On board the Carnival Splendor, 1,167 crew members from 50 different nationalities came together and acted together as one, going above and beyond their job descriptions to help each another.
Cruise Critic: How has your career thus far prepared you for something so outrageously unusual as the Carnival Splendor fire and aftermath? Were there specific experiences that prepared you for this? If so, what were they and how did they help you?
John Heald: In 24 years at sea, I’ve been through a lot — but never so much at once! My experience certainly helped me get through the four trying days on board. The training both as a crew member and sailor I’ve received over the past 24 years helped me not only to better understand my role but also everyone else’s jobs, as well. Understanding what other employees are responsible for on board definitely helps me in my position as a cruise director.
Cruise Critic: Looking back, what would you do differently?
John Heald: Not sure I personally would do that much different. As I mentioned in my blog, I think I would have handled the location of the dining venues early in the cruise as we ended up with long lines but otherwise I can’t think of anything except for maybe packing more underpants.
Cruise Critic: What were you most proud of?
John Heald: Everyone on board not only performed their jobs admirably but did things outside of their job normal descriptions – dancers helping with suitcases, photographers bringing people up and down the stairs, even our President and CEO Gerry Cahill helping guests with luggage in San Diego. It was a massive, massive team effort and one that I am extremely proud of.
Cruise Critic: Will Carnival, not to mention other cruise lines, create new guidelines for preparing for this kind of emergency as a result of Splendor in terms of lighting, food reserves, etc.).
John Heald: I’m sure there are lessons to be learned from all aspects of this emergency but overall in the face of what happened everyone did a fantastic job. There were no injuries and everyone made it home safe – a true testament of our handling of the situation.
Cruise Critic: How many days of emergency provisions does Carnival typically keep onboard?
John Heald: We typically keep 7 plus two days of food onboard routinely and an extra day during the hurricane season in the Atlantic The problem wasn’t that we didn’t have enough food, it’s that there was no power to run our refrigerators or cooking facilities. Under normal circumstances we had more than enough food but without power, we had to request some additional provisions.
Cruise Critic: Why didn’t Carnival/captain evacuate the ship? We understand that other cruise vessels were within a day’s steam away.
John Heald: Although the conditions on board were certainly challenging, the guests were never in any danger and the ship’s emergency systems operated properly. The fire was confined to the aft engine room and did not spread to other areas of the ship. The U.S. Coast Guard will tell you that the very best life boat is the ship itself. You don’t abandon the ship unless it is in immediate danger and it wasn’t.
Cruise Critic: If passengers want to pack their own (limited!) emergency supplies, what would you suggest (flashlights? Etc.)
John Heald: I honestly can’t think of anything that guests would need to bring as everything that they would need is on board. Maybe for their own comfort — should this unlikely event occur in the future — they could bring a flashlight but again everything they need for their safety is on board. No Spam is served, though, so they can bring their own if they’d like!
Cruise Critic: Why such a fascination with skivvies?
John Heald: You mean underpants? Good question! It is a British thing passed on in the Heald family from generation to generation.