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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cruise passengers released from ship that ran aground: ‘It is a freaking madhouse’

Four days after a Norwegian Cruise Line ship got stuck in the Dominican Republic, passengers were offloaded

The Norwegian Escape cruise ship sits at the Taino Bay port in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic on March 15 after running aground. (Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty)
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First the massive cruise ship ran aground in the Dominican Republic on Monday afternoon. The ship’s hull had sustained minor damage after it “made contact with the channel bed” during its departure from Puerto Plata, Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement.

Then, for days after the Norwegian Escape was refloated early Tuesday morning, passengers waited on board as it sat in port and wondered when they would be able to leave.

Thursday night, they got confirmation: Everyone still on the 1,069-foot-long ship would disembark the next day, starting at 4:30 a.m. Long lines for coronavirus tests followed. By Friday morning, social media posts showed hundreds of people standing in line at the Puerto Plata airport after being shuttled from the vessel waiting for charter flights throughout the day. Another passenger posted video from the port and said she was waiting there before her flight.

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“They literally dumped us off the ship with no further assistance after that,” one woman wrote on Twitter. “It is a freaking madhouse at the airport.”

The ship left Port Canaveral, east of Orlando, on March 12 with stops planned in Puerto Plata, St. Thomas, Tortola and the Bahamas. It was supposed to return to Florida on Saturday.Instead, Norwegian canceled the remainder of the voyage and chartered flights to take people to Orlando; the first left Wednesday, with the rest on Thursday and Friday.

In emails and on social media, passengers said there were no representatives from the cruise company at the airport to help travelers who were being flown to Orlando.

Late Friday, the situation got worse for some passengers who remained in the Dominican Republic, according to social media posts and messages to The Washington Post.

Toni Huffman, 37, of St. Augustine, Fla., said in a message that she was supposed to fly out at 8 p.m. Friday. But after standing in line for two hours, she learned there was a problem and she would be on a flight Saturday morning. Around 8:30 p.m., she said she had just arrived at a hotel and was hoping to find food because her group’s last meal was breakfast on the ship. She estimated that several hundred people were in a similar situation.

A Norwegian statement Saturday said the cruise line was “in the process of returning guests home as quickly as possible.” One of Friday night’s flights was canceled due to a mechanical issue with the plane, according to the statement, and everyone was put up at a hotel.

“They will return home later today,” the statement said.

Some who had already made it to Florida said they were paying out of pocket for hotel stays until their previously scheduled trips home, with no word from Norwegian on reimbursement.

“No NCL rep at Orlando and no assistance,” passenger Ben Wills wrote in a message to The Washington Post just after midnight Thursday. He said no one was working at the American Airlines counter in Orlando, the wait time to rebook a flight to Reagan National Airport on the phone was two hours and the cost would have been more than $1,700.

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“We’ll get a hotel room, on our dime,” said Wills, a public relations strategist from Washington, D.C., who has a flight home scheduled Saturday. He said neither his insurance provider nor a cruise line representative reached by phone had answers; he was awaiting a call back from a manager Friday afternoon.

The cruise company did not respond to questions from The Washington Post about the reported confusion at the airport in Puerto Plata or arrangements for passengers — especially if they had not booked flights through Norwegian — once they returned to Orlando.

Jason VanDyke, 38, of Kalamazoo, Mich., said in an email that he would rent a car and had reserved a hotel room for Friday and Saturday night before his flight home Sunday. He said he would call the cruise line in a week to ask for reimbursement.

VanDyke tweeted about the grounding and its aftermath throughout the week, complimenting the crew and staying generally upbeat. He praised a surf and turf dinner on Thursday night, his 10th wedding anniversary. But by the end, he was less enthusiastic.

“For as good as this week went I’m pretty upset with how today has played out,” he said in an email Friday morning.

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A letter from the captain posted Tuesday on Twitter by VanDyke says passengers would get a full refund as well as a credit for a future cruise. The letter told guests who had booked their own flights to work with airlines to make any updates home from Orlando, and directed them to contact travel insurance for reimbursement. It said passengers would disembark between Wednesday and Friday.

The ship finally left Puerto Plata on Friday afternoon once passengers had disembarked. Norwegian said in a statement that the next voyage, scheduled to leave Saturday, was canceled “so that the necessary repairs can be made.”

Norwegian did not respond to questions about what caused the ship to run aground.

The incident was a reminder of the cruise woes — fires, rough weather, overboard cases and norovirus outbreaks — that dominated headlines before the pandemic moored the global fleet in March 2020. Cruise lines have been sailing again from the United States since last summer with coronavirus precautions in place.

According to a report by the consultancy G.P. Wild for the Cruise Lines International Association, there were 13 minor incidents involving stranding or grounding between 2009 and 2019.

The same time period saw 27 “significant operational incidents” involving stranding or grounding of ships. In most cases, the incidents were considered significant because they resulted in a delay of more than 24 hours. The most high-profile, the grounding and capsizing of the Costa Concordia in Italy 10 years ago, killed 32 people on board.

Information was still scarce on what caused the Norwegian Escape’s grounding. But marine experts interviewed by The Post offered insight into the factors that are often at play and what investigators will consider.

Paul Foran, a marine consultant and former captain and instructor, said investigators would look at the ship’s draft — the distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull — in comparison with the water depth in the channel. Investigators probably would review logs and interview everyone involved to see what they were doing at the time, and check that information was entered correctly in an electronic chart display system.

“There’s an awful lot of information that has to be passed along,” he said.

Foran said a captain and his navigational team would need to evaluate factors including weather that might affect the water depth, the cycle of the moon and the flow of the current in making their departure plan.

Often, a local harbor pilot with experience in a particular port will guide a ship as it enters or leaves a port; it was not clear whether one was aboard the Escape when it struck the bottom.

Joseph Farrell III, director of business development at Fort Lauderdale-based Resolve Marine, said cruise ships are designed to be “some of the most maneuverable ships in the world.” But — also because of their design, with multiple decks rising high above the water — they can be affected by wind.

“Despite the high maneuverability that they have, they are susceptible to being altered by winds more than any other vessel,” he said.

While it’s not unheard of for cargo ships to “bump into something,” those incidents often don’t garner widespread attention, Farrell said (that is, unless they get stuck). But on a cruise ship with thousands of passengers, “guarantee someone’s going to post something.”