Cruise from hell had its bright side for Breckenridge couple |

Cruise from hell had its bright side for Breckenridge couple

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Summit Daily/Mark Fox

BRECKENRIDGE – Just after 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, Breckenridge resident Karen Martiny awoke to a strange shuddering feeling coming from under her cabin on the Carnival cruise ship Splendor.

Unconcerned, Martiny fell back to sleep. But moments later she was shaken awake as the luxury cruise liner, which had sailed smoothly south from the California coast toward Mexico through the night, began to vibrate again.

When an accented voice came shouting over the ship’s speaker system, blaring “Alpha team, alpha team, generators,” into the cabin moments later, Martiny knew something was wrong. What she couldn’t know then was the vibrations she’d felt we’re caused by an electrical fire in the engine room that would kill the ocean liner’s power and leave the ship and almost 4,500 people on board adrift at sea for the next four days.

Trapped on a powerless boat, miles from the Mexican coast, Martiny, her husband, Vic, her parents and the thousands of other passengers and crew members spent the next few days without hot food, cold drinks, air conditioning, hot water, elevators or, for several hours, working toilets. But for the Martinys and many other passengers on board, the experience was an adventure, made bearable by an upbeat staff, frequent reassuring updates from the cruise director and the right attitude.

“There were just a few people that said I’ll never go on a cruise again,” Karen Martiny said. “To me that’s like if you were in a car accident and say I’ll never drive again. But overall I think most people came away with a positive outlook.”

By 7 a.m. Nov. 8 on board the Carnival Splendor, the smell of smoke was drifting up from the engine room into cabins at the back of the ship. Though the causes of the fire are still under investigation, cruise director John Heald writes in his blog that “the fire teams had seen some electrical cabling was on fire … and that was not good news at all.”

Passengers in cabins at the rear of the ship were evacuated to upper open decks. Eventually all passengers were sent to the outer decks as smoke drifted into the lower cabin halls and the smell filtered throughout the ship.

“My mom and I were shaking,” Karen Martiny said. “Because I didn’t know if there was going to be a fire, if there was an explosion, are we going to sink and have to get in the lifeboats.”

“I didn’t want to get out of bed,” Vic Martiny said.

Heald, in an effort to keep passengers calm, continued to give 10-minute updates, though little information was available. There were reports of heavy smoke, but passengers were promised there was no fire and nothing to worry about, Martiny said.

Below deck, the electrical fire had been extinguished, but flames flared up again, creating smoke so thick fire crews couldn’t get through, Heald reported on his blog. No injuries resulted from the fire he said, but one passenger and one crew member suffered panic attacks and received medical treatment.

Hungry and chilly, the Martinys sat with other passengers on the decks throughout the day, munching on bananas and cheese sandwiches and waiting for news from Heald, whose updates continued to come sporadically over the loud speaker. Without power, guests couldn’t flush toilets, unventilated rooms grew hot and the crew struggled to feed thousands of hungry passengers without the use of elevators to transport food and kitchen supplies or appliances to cook. The ship was equipped with an emergency generator, but it provided only limited services, according to Heald’s blog. Cell phone and wireless services went down along with the more essential facilities.

“The worst part of the whole day was the toilets not flushing, -that was terrible,” Karen Martiny said. “I think everybody was almost more worried about that than anything else, because of the health hazards. For (Monday) and pretty much all Tuesday there were two-hour waits in the line for food.”

As the hours wore on and no sign of help arrived, passengers and crew made the best of their situation.

“Everyone was awesome,” Karen Martiny said. “They stayed calm and there was no trouble at all during the whole cruise. People helped other people.”

Many passengers, avoiding their hot and smelly cabins, slept in common areas elsewhere on the ship, Martiny said. Crew members carried supplies up and down stairs and laid out games and activities to help keep passengers entertained, Martiny said.

On Monday night, toilets in the Martinys’ part of the ship began working again, to general cheers and delight from passengers in the area. On Tuesday passengers were served alcohol again for the first time since the fire, free of charge.

After more than 72 hours adrift at sea, help arrived for the Carnival Splendor and its passengers and crew. Six tug boats towed the ship back to San Diego where they arrived a little after 8 a.m. Nov. 11.

Passengers and crew debarked and were offered accommodations in San Diego for the night. Carnival Cruise Lines has reimbursed passengers for the vacation ruined by the fire, picked up the tab for their stay in San Diego as well as their airfare. The company also made airline arrangements to help passengers get home a few days earlier than they originally planned and offered every passenger a free trip on a Carnival cruise in the future. But it won’t be on the Carnival Splendor anytime soon.

The $500 million Carnival Splendor has been retired for the rest of the year for repairs, according to a statement from Carnival Cruise Lines released Tuesday. Trips scheduled through Jan. 16, 2011 when the ship is expected to re-enter service have been canceled, the statement said.

“We sincerely apologize to everyone who was scheduled to sail on these canceled voyages and look forward to welcoming them aboard in the future,” Carnival president and CEO said in the statement, “Now that we have a full technical team engaged in the assessment, we want to provide this information as quickly as possible.”

But for the Martinys, who arrived home in Breckenridge Friday, there are no hard feelings.

“It was no one’s fault. It wasn’t Carnival’s fault, they did the best they could,” Karen Martiny said. “We probably ended up spending more time together this way than we would if there had been all these activities, because we just sat around and visited. I think we’ll look back on it with more good memories than bad.”

SDN reporter Caddie Nath can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or at

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