McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Carnival Cruise Lines knew about the risk of leaks from engine fuel hoses and recommended taking precautions on the ill-fated Carnival Triumph that later caught on fire at sea, according to court documents.
A compliance notice report sent to the Triumph one month before it departed Galveston on Feb. 7 for what was planned as a four-day cruise recommended spray shields be installed on engines' flexible fuel hoses, according to the documents filed Tuesday by Carnival Cruise Lines in federal court in Miami.
A leak from a hose on engine No. 6 led to a fire early on Feb. 10 as the ship returned from a stop in Cozumel, Mexico. No one was injured, but the fire disabled the ship. More than 4,000 people aboard endured a nightmarish tow to Mobile, Ala., that the plaintiffs' attorney called a "floating hell."
The documents, first reported by CNN, are part of a lawsuit that was filed in February against Carnival Cruise Lines and its parent Carnival Corporation on behalf of dozens of the Triumph's passengers.
Frank Spagnoletti, a Houston attorney who represents some of the passengers, said Tuesday that Carnival was negligent in maintaining the ship and allowed it to sail knowing there was a fire risk. In a response filed Tuesday in Miami, Carnival said the ship's engines passed inspection before departure and its own recommendation to install spray shields on flexible fuel lines was beyond any required safety measures.
Carnival issued a statement calling the lawsuit frivolous and noting that the U.S. Coast Guard inspected and cleared the ship before its departure. "The accident in this situation was just that - an accident," Carnival said in the statement emailed to The Associated Press on Wednesday. "To claim otherwise is simply unfounded and inconsistent with the facts."
It was the recognition of the problem — with a two month repair deadline — along with the decision to let the Triumph sail before it was corrected that galled Spagnoletti. "You've got 4,000 souls on that ship. You know that there's a propensity for fire if these fuel hoses break and yet you give them two months to fix it?" he said.
In a Nov. 22 deposition, ship captain Angelo Los said he was first notified by Carnival about problems with fuel leaks from flexible hoses in January. During the deposition, Spagnoletti showed Los the compliance notice report dated Jan. 2 that cited nine fuel leaks on Carnival Corporation's ships during a two-year period.
The compliance notice report said Carnival together with the engine manufacturer was investigating the problem and that installing spray shields would be an effective safety barrier. It described an incident on another ship outfitted with the spray shields that avoided a similar fire.
The company gave the ship until Feb. 28 to come into compliance. Los said in November that he believed Carnival had known about the problem since March 2012. The spray guards were partially installed on Triumph, but not on engine No. 6, Los said. The hose that leaked was less than six months old.
"The spray shields for the flexible fuel hoses were an additional Carnival Corporation recommended best practice to avoid fuel fires," the company said in its response Tuesday, and not otherwise required by any regulation or statute.
Carnival Cruise Lines also argued the notice sent to the Triumph was only for fuel lines above the engine room floor plates. The leak occurred on a fuel hose beneath the engine room floor. However, the January notice to Triumph does not specify that or differentiate between hoses above or below the floor.
"The leak in the flexible fuel hose was a completely unexpected accident that took place," the company said. What ignited the fuel is unknown, it said. Passengers described unsanitary conditions after the fire, as toilets stopped functioning and an unbearable stench drove many to camp out on the decks. The weary travelers finally disembarked in Alabama on Feb. 15.
Spagnoletti echoed many of the passengers in crediting the crew with putting out the fire and making the best of a horrible situation. "It was unbelievable to me that you would take 4,000 people and put them in a situation of basically Russian roulette," Spagnoletti said. "Basically every time that vessel went out they never knew whether they were going to have a fire or not."