One Cruiser's Real Fire Drill

On a Caribbean cruise last month, the good times ended when a fire broke out on the Star Princess, scorching rooms and forcing passengers to spend hours at the lifeboat station.
On a Caribbean cruise last month, the good times ended when a fire broke out on the Star Princess, scorching rooms and forcing passengers to spend hours at the lifeboat station. (Associated Press/the Jamaica Observer)

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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

There are no icebergs between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

But that didn't ease my fear of cruise ships. For me, it was the poolside conga lines, hairy chest contests, all-night buffets and sequin-encrusted dinnerwear that stiffened my resolve to dismiss my in-laws' invitations to cruise with them.

But this is the year I caved. And my maiden voyage was on Princess Cruises' Star Princess, the very ship that was charred in a fire on the open sea March 23 en route from Grand Cayman Island to Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Turns out, we survived the cheesery of cruising just fine. It was that initial fear, the more reasonable human instinct to avoid being trapped on a 109,000-ton floating city in the middle of the sea, that got us.

The ship sounded an evacuation drill at about 3 a.m. that left us sitting in a lifeboat station for roughly six hours as we stared at tiny life rafts dangling off the starboard side.

The blaze that killed one passenger, injured 11 and damaged more than 100 cabins was a frightening experience that taught us everything doesn't have to be an adventure -- and anything can turn into one.

* * *

As Day 4 at sea came to an end with another spectacular sunset watched from teak deck chairs on our expansive -- and expensive -- aft balcony, I was almost ready to say cruising is good. When I wasn't playing catch with my 20-month-old son, Milo, on the Lido deck or speed-walking his stroller around the Sports deck, I lived at the spa, where I was wrapped in seaweed, scrubbed with rose petals and pedicured in a milk bath.

I began to melt away in luxury. Adventure for me became the brave act of taking our toddler to a sit-down dinner in the Portofino dining room, rather than the casual buffet.

That changed with a long, loud beep early one morning, then a voice over an intercom that said "Eleven. Port." I was still groggy and figured something had happened on the 11th floor port side of the ship that didn't concern us. Maybe a medical emergency. So I went back to sleep.

A breath or two later, I inhaled the acrid, unmistakable smell of smoke (it's a smell anyone who has worked the police beat knows, and I've pulled a dozen years chasing death and disaster). My husband jumped out of bed and went into the hallway, where he saw passengers running with their orange life jackets in hand. I opened the balcony door and saw huge roiling clouds of black smoke spilling over the upper balcony and into the night air.

For a very brief moment, I tried to decide what to take. Passports? Do we need passports in a life boat? My mind was a complete blank. I couldn't think of anything I should take besides our sweet, sleeping child, who still had a smear of mango sauce on his cheek from dinner in the fancy dining room.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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