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From auto pilot to 'Oh, my God?

Investigators are trying to figure out why the Crown Princess cruise ship suddenly listed, injuring 240 people.

Published July 19, 2006

PORT CANAVERAL — Federal investigators Wednesday said a cruise ship was on auto pilot when it suddenly listed sharply off Florida’s east coast, injuring about 240 people and prompting chaos among passengers.

The Crown Princess was 12 miles out of Port Canaveral heading for New York for the final leg of a nine-day Caribbean cruise Tuesday when it rolled 15 degrees.

“The vessel was on auto pilot,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. James McLaughlin. “And for some unexpected reason, it just took a roll.”

The precise cause remained a mystery Wednesday, and McLaughlin said it could take days before it is solved.

The ship will remain at Port Canaveral for several days while federal officials conduct their investigation.

Officials will download records from a device similar to an airplane black box that details the movement and crew’s action before the mishap.

The ship is owned by Princess Cruises, one of 12 brands owned by Carnival Corp. of Miami.

McLaughlin said it was unusual that first word of the problem came from the mother of a passenger who called her from the ship. Coast Guard officials immediately tried to contact the vessel, but were unable to reach it for 10 minutes, Petty Officer James Judge said.

Capt. Andrew Proctor was not on the bridge at the time of the incident, Princess spokeswoman Julie Benson said Wednesday. Benson said she didn’t know who called the Coast Guard first, but said it is standard procedure for the captain to contact authorities.

Coast Guard officials also said it’s not uncommon for a captain to assess the situation before contacting them.

The captain submitted to drug and alcohol tests after the incident. Alcohol tests came back negative Wednesday, while drug test results were still pending. Investigators said there was no indication he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Benson said Proctor has been with the company for 35 years and “has an exemplary record.’’

The ship listed so far and so suddenly that one passenger desperately clung to a railing and others tumbled to the deck and suffered cuts and bruises as water sloshed out of the swimming pools and spas.

Meanwhile, a piano player kept playing.

“My first thought was, I’m dead,” said 9-year-old Christopher Cai, who was in the pool with his father nearby.

Christopher was badly bruised on his left shin when he was tossed toward the pool’s edge. He was wide-eyed as he recalled the scene: pool water gushing down the side of the ship, onto stairways and into elevators. An elderly woman bleeding under a pile of deck chairs.

But below in his cabin, Albert Wageli, 80, said he wasn’t that concerned. Wageli, a former Coast Guardsman who is in a wheelchair, said furniture overturned and items flew off shelves.

But his 79-year-old wife panicked.

“I heard glasses breaking and my chair flew toward the bar, with me in it,” Beatrice Wageli said. “I heard a lot of people crying and water was running down the stairs.”

A man and a young girl were critically injured. Ninety-five of the injured were taken to area hospitals; all but three passengers and two crew members had been released by Wednesday afternoon. The rest were treated on board, some by passengers who were medical professionals. There were 3,100 passengers and 1,200 crew members aboard, and officials say everyone was accounted for.

Experts say it’s possible a hard turn of the rudder could cause a ship to list sharply as the Crown Princess did.

“If you turn the rudder hard to either side very quickly it’s going to throw the ship over to the side,’’ said Dennis Kruse, executive director of the American Society of Naval Engineers.

“For a vessel to list to one side that amount, it does sound like a rudder was turned,’’ said John Hanus, director of the Global Maritime and Transportation School, part of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York state.

A similar incident occurred in February on a ship also operated by Princess. The 2,600-passenger Grand Princess left the Port of Galveston but soon made an emergency turnaround because a passenger suffered a heart attack. The ship tipped sharply on its side, injuring 10 crew members and 27 passengers. The cause of that list was determined to be human error, Benson said.

Hanus and his colleague Peter Kahl, head of engineering at the academy, said there likely was no danger of the ship capsizing or taking on water.

Ships like the Crown Princess are built with stability in mind, much more so than cargo ships. Cruise ships generally have a stabilization system with fins that spread out from the hull underwater. Large ships, even aircraft carriers, can list significantly during hard turns.

Kruse said passengers on the top decks may have felt more tilting because “the effect is exaggerated if you’re high on the ship … because the ship will pivot about a point that’s low.’’

Hanus said he would like to know if the stabilization system was turned on at the time. If so, it would have slowed the tilting of the ship, but would not necessarily have stopped it.

For passenger Anna Cordeira, the incident came at the end of a nine-day cruise in which she sailed on a catamaran in Jamaica, snorkeled in Grand Cayman and tanned on an exotic beach in the Turks and Caicos.

But when she found herself clutching a steel railing on the top deck on Tuesday, “It felt like it was going to tip over — it was like a nightmare,” she said. “It was total chaos. People were lying all over the place and the buffet was just destroyed.”

Hundreds of people left the ship Wednesday. They sported bandages, arm casts and slings. They spent Tuesday night aboard the ship and were treated to free cocktails and lobster. .

All passengers will receive a full refund and reimbursement for travel and additional expenses.

Rodania Leong, 22, of London pointed out her brother’s wound behind his ear. He was in the pool when the ship listed. Leong was walking near a row of shops when she felt the violent roll.

“We just thought that someone was a bit clumsy,” she said. “The pianist kept playing.”

[Last modified July 19, 2006, 22:36:43]

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