Those two words are perhaps the most terrifying any passenger on the high seas can hear. On Wednesday, August 17, a ferry with 511 passengers and crew caught fire while en route to San Juan, Puerto Rico from Santo Domingo. Miraculously, no one was killed as the Puerto Rico Coast Guard and local officials rushed to the scene.
It’s a voyage the ferry makes several times a week. This time a fire in the engine room changed routine into a near disaster when a fuel hose burst and spewed dangerous fuel everywhere. The fire spread to other parts of the Caribbean Fantasy, and when the ship lost power, it drifted finally grounding off Punta Salinas. While the hull sustained no damage from the fire, pictures reveal a different story for other parts of the ship.
More than a hundred people suffered smoke inhalation, dehydration, and shock. Though passengers were evacuated into life rafts by slide, several passengers suffered broken bones in the process.
The story has a happy ending because everyone did what they were supposed to do. Owners and authorities made sure proper equipment was on board. This included enough life vests for both passengers and crew, proper functioning slides, and enough life boats to accommodate everyone on board.
The story also has a happy ending because the captain, instead of trying to play hero and guide the ship into port, properly ordered the dreaded “Abandon Ship” command. Most importantly, everyone survived because the passengers kept their composure and did not panic in the face of a terrifying ordeal.
I shudder to think what would have happened in other parts of the world where ferry disasters are far too common and the loss of life seemingly routine. You don’t have to go too far back in the news to discover how bad it could have been for travelers on the Caribbean Fantasy.
On April 16, 2014, the South Korean ferry Sewol went down claiming 304 souls, most of them school children. When its sister ship was seized and inspected, authorities discovered the lifeboats would not release, and when one finally did by hard kicking, it barely inflated in the water.
The captain and crew of the Sewol were charged with homicide when it was discovered the captain left control of the ship to an inexperienced officer while he was away from the bridge. Many of the crew shamelessly left the passengers to fend for their own safety instead of assisting them.
But wait! There’s more! The owner of the Sewol had just completed renovations so it could accommodate more passengers. Authorities gave the ship their seal of approval. Too bad they weren’t on board that April morning to witness the deaths of those three hundred children.
Little water in the ballast tanks, treacherous currents, too many passengers, and a sudden sharp turn set the scenario for a terrible disaster. The captain eventually was sentenced to life in prison. Perhaps that sentence should have been reserved for several at the top of the chain of command.
Travelers out on the sea must be prepared for such an event. But so must the owners of the ferries and the captain and crew members. Each time a ferry pulls away from the dock whether in New York City, Puerto Rico, or the Philippines, everyone from the owners of the ferry to the most fragile passengers must be prepared for the unexpected.
There can be no skimping on life jackets or life rafts. And both must be inspected regularly along with other equipment including fire extinguishers.
When authorities look the other way, they are in essence complicit in any deaths or injuries caused by failure of equipment. The Puerto Rico Coast Guard is a first class operation and has zero tolerance for cutting corners where the lives of others are concerned. The same should be said of everyone else employed in the transportation of passengers at sea.
No one died on board the Caribbean Fantasy despite the harrowing experience. I salute the captain and crew. I salute the Coast Guard who supervised the rescue of over 500 souls. But I especially salute the passengers who kept their heads and followed instructions that Wednesday afternoon.
It’s a lesson we should all keep tucked away in our memory because one day that may very well save our lives. Stay safe out there on the High Seas of Life.
The Uncommon Mariner