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Cruise captain feared panic

As his crew fought a fire in the engine room all night, passengers were told little in order "to keep them calm," the captain says.

By RICHARD DANIELSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2000


TAMPA -- The captain of the Tropicale cruise ship testified Tuesday that he kept information about a raging fire from passengers because he worried they might panic and jump overboard.

Capt. Vito Garuccio said he feared the fire Sept. 19 in the engine room could have led to an explosion, which is why he relayed little information to passengers.

"The reason I didn't say anything to the passengers was to keep them calm, to save their life," the Italian-born captain told U.S. Coast Guard officials during an investigative hearing into the cause of the fire. He said his decision came from years of commanding ships and from crisis management training.

Tourists who came off the ship two days later complained that the lack of information made their trouble-plagued cruise even worse.

Garuccio said Tuesday that he suspected fuel was burning as soon as he saw the thick, black smoke billowing out of the ship. In 37 years as a sailor and officer, he had learned that most engine room fires lead to the loss of the ship unless they are put out immediately.

So Garuccio, 55, issued a "Mayday" call, ordered passengers to their muster stations and had the lifeboats prepared. He also quickly decided against using water or foam to fight the fire, which had engulfed an auxiliary boiler in the engine room.

Instead, he decided to seal the engine room and flood it with halon gas to extinguish the 7-foot flames.

"I have only one bullet on board to fight the giant, and that's the halon," Garuccio said. ". . . I was afraid if I didn't attack or if I didn't extinguish the fire, I might have an engine room explosion."

The Tropicale was heading from Cozumel, Mexico, to Tampa, and Garuccio was getting ready for dinner about 6:10 p.m. when he learned of the engine room fire. By 6:50 p.m., the halon gas appeared to have extinguished the flames, and the smoke had turned from black to gray to white.

About a half-hour later, though, the smoke turned black again, leading Garuccio to believe that there was a leak allowing oxygen to get in the engine room. Later, ship's officers found that a bulkhead had gotten so hot that it buckled out from the deck, creating the gap that Garuccio suspected.

The second time, the flames were less intense, and the ship's fire crews put them out with water and foam. It took until about 10 p.m., and even then small flames continued to pop up in the boiler's turbocharger until the wee hours. Crews used a hand-held fire extinguisher to knock those down.

Passengers were not allowed back to their rooms until 5:20 a.m. Again, Garuccio said, he did not want to sound another alarm or have to send ship's personnel room to room in the middle of the night if the fire flared up again.

"I preferred (passengers) to be far from the problem and in a place where I could control them," Garuccio said.

The fire damaged a control panel in the engine room and rendered the boiler incapable of warming sludge-like heavy marine fuel that is burned in the ship's engines. And that left the Tropicale at the mercy of Tropical Storm Harvey, which the ship had been trying to outrun on its return to Tampa.

Passengers later said the ship's problems included overflowing toilets, inoperable air conditioning and uncertainty about what was going on. In response to Coast Guard surveys, less than 10 percent of the cruise's passengers felt their lives were at risk during the emergency, but 95 percent said they had not been told what to do in case of fire. Twenty percent said they had communication problems with the ship's crew during the fire.

On Tuesday, a Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman said Garuccio merely prepared for the worst, he and disagreed with the conclusion that passengers' lives were in danger.

"You had a very experienced captain here who acted with a great deal of caution and prudence in every move he made," Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher said. "Any fire on board a ship is a serious fire if you allow it to get out of control. The captain did not allow that to happen."

The hearings are scheduled to resume today. A Coast Guard report on the fire is not expected to be complete for several months.

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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