Cruise ship sails after fire

Blaze damages crew quarters

Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2000

Alarms sounded aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam on Tuesday morning as Carl and Susan Durnell were eating breakfast.

They headed to their cabin to get some medicine. When they went in and shut the door, they could smell the fumes of a fire, said 54-year-old Susan Durnell. A couple of minutes later they emerged to see that things had changed, said Durnell. There was smoke.

``When we opened the door, you couldn't see across the hall,'' she said.

``My husband dropped to the floor and was trying to crawl out. He said `Go!' I went. I felt I could move faster standing up than down on the floor.''

The 704-foot-long Nieuw Amsterdam caught fire at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in Glacier Bay. After about 45 minutes, the blaze was put out by the ship's crew, and the ship continued its cruise down Tarr Inlet, a section of the bay about 50 miles north and west of Gustavus. The ship continued today on its seven-day cruise from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seward.

The Durnells found each other after a scary time, which Susan Durnell couldn't count in minutes. A crew member helped her to the life boat deck. Her husband was there a short time later. The concept of time was beyond her, she said.

Today, she was looking after her 65-year-old husband at Bartlett Regional Hospital. He was in stable condition a day after complaining of chest pain following the morning fire. He was flown to Juneau on Tuesday evening and Durnell said he may be released later today.

The couple, from Apopka, Fla., are considering continuing the land-based tours they'd planned, including one to Denali National Park. They planned the trip with a group made up of family and friends from their manufactured home park outside of Orlando, she said.

Holland America Lines spokeswoman Juli Chase said the cruise is continuing.

``It's at sea headed for Seward now,'' she said. ``On time.''

She said 10 crew cabins were damaged by the fire, half as many as the Coast Guard reported damaged. All the 1,199 passengers and 566 crew members were fine, she said.

Holland America doesn't consider Carl Durnell's medical condition to be caused by the fire. The Coast Guard does.

The fire, Chase said, caused no harm to the vessel's operations, to the environment or to the passenger areas of the ship.

No damage estimate is available yet, she said, and the cause of the fire is undetermined. Initially, the company reported it appeared to be an electrically ignited blaze.

A four-person Coast Guard was flown out to Glacier Bay on Tuesday after an emergency response was called off, according to Coast Guard officials.

Erik Elvejord, spokesman for Holland America Lines, said passengers were gathered on the ship's lifeboat deck as a precaution. After the fire was out and the smoke cleared, they were allowed to return to their cabins, he said.

Lt. Troy Dixon, with the U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office, said the cabin where the fire started has been identified, but not how it started.

He said the Coast Guard's investigation isn't over. An inspector will interview crew and passengers during the ship's trip to Seward, he said. Another investigator will board the ship in Seward to help with the Coast Guard review. The ship was released to complete its cruise at about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.

In July 1996, five crew members died of smoke inhalation and another 56 others aboard were injured during a fire aboard the 618-foot-long Universe Explorer as it traveled from Juneau to Glacier Bay.

The National Transportation Safety Board made many recommendations following the fire, including installing a sprinkler system and fire alarms that sounded in the area of the fire rather than just on the ship's bridge.

That vessel was owned by Florida-based New Commodore Cruise Lines Inc.

The Nieuw Amsterdam, which is flagged a ship of the Netherlands, was built in 1981, according to Dixon of the Marine Safety Office. That date puts it under international Safety of Life at Sea regulations put in place in 1974.

Retroactive amendments to those regulations require the installation of sprinklers in ships 15 years after their build date or by 2005, whichever is later.

``It's a grandfather boat,'' Dixon said.

The safety equipment required under the international regulations - fire doors and the like - worked in the Tuesday fire, he said. A passenger cabin above the crew cabin where the fire started, he said, was fine following the fire. The ship is designed to keep a fire within a specific zone, said Dixon, and that design seems to have worked.

On Sunday, Dixon said, the ship passed an annual Coast Guard examination.

On Tuesday, Galen Brevik, a fire training specialist with the state Division of Fire Prevention, was a member of the Coast Guard's away team. He said it appears the fire started in a cabin, and scorched the ceiling and a part of two hallways. He said two squads of firefighting crewmembers were able to stop the fire.

A thin metal covering on the ceiling of the cabin was ``buckled and coming down,'' Brevik said. The fire's reach went beyond its flames, he said.

``There was quite a bit of smoke damage in that zone,'' he said.

The Nieuw Amsterdam is being sold in October to American Classic Voyages. That company is paying $114.5 million for the ship.

Holland America will replace the Nieuw Amsterdam with the Amsterdam - a 1,380-passenger liner due to be delivered in the fall.

``Nieuw'' is the Dutch word for ``new.''

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