Text and Photos : Christian Fournier; View the photos on section "reportage"
This reportage (text and photos) was bought immediately by the Press Agency Sipa Press in Paris, after faxing them text and photos from Jakarta. Original photos were sent by DHL two hours later. The deal was all done. Sipa returned them 5 days later as unsaleable. This is an indecent procedure in the press world, since the news was then too "cold " to resale. They offered no explanation, no compensation. Two years later, I learned from someone on the French political scene that my reportage showed up on the French prime minister's desk and was vetoed "NO" because Paquet, the cruise line, was "persuasive enough......." So much for the French freedom of press.......
Everyone going on a cruise has to go through a boat drill. These are international maritime regulations and this exercise is compulsory for all passengers. Even if you manage to skip it, you can be sure that the safety officer on board will have a meeting with you to explain you the emergency procedures. But what about it? The crew is trained with at least one crew drill per week, the ship herself go through a complete inspection every three months by the U.S. coast guards or their equivalent in foreign countries. Why should each passenger at the beginning of the cruise, put on his bright orange life jacket and assemble on the deck areas? What is to be feared? Accidents at sea are rare, but can happen.
The following is a true story:
12th February 1992, 3:30 P.M.: the luxury passenger liner Ocean Pearl from Ocean Cruise Line / Croisières Paquet is sailing the Java Sea. The weather is beautiful and the sea is calm. For the 370 passengers on board, this is the first day of a dream vacation: a 13 day cruise from Singapore to Bangkok. The first activity of the morning was the passenger drill and the excitement is building up for the welcome gala party this evening.
Suddenly, the voice of the British Staff Captain Jeremy Kingston breaks a leisurely started afternoon; The sound of his out of breath and highly stressed voice will be imprinted in many minds:
"This announcement is for the crew only. Crew alert, crew alert. A-team to engine room, A-team to engine room."
The alarm bells start ringing all over the ship. A black smoke has already invaded the lower stairs and corridors. Some passengers are hurrying out to the outside decks. There is no panic but they look distressed. The well trained crew and staff run to their assigned muster station in less than five minutes. Shortly afterwards, the passengers are asked to go to the decks with their life jackets. Inside the ship, the smoke is getting thicker. All power is off except for the small emergency lights. Inside this dark and smoky labyrinth, the slow passengers are shown their way out to the open air. Once the passengers are safe on the decks and counted, the remainder of the crew is ordered to go to their lifeboat stations. There is no panic, just some worried faces staring at the black smoke pouring out of amidships.
Life jackets from the deck containers are distributed to those who could not get to their cabin. All lifeboats are lowered and prepared to abandon ship. Everyone waits anxiously. A lady still wears her hair curlers, having just run out of the beauty salon. A beautician still holds a comb in her hand.
Below decks, engineers and firemen are fighting in the darkness, against the fire, the heat and the smoke. They all know that fire is the greatest hazard facing any ship at sea: especially, if it starts below the water line or propagate through the air conditioning vents or reach the fuel reserves.
The pursers have carried all the passports and documents in bags to the deck, the casino manager carries all the casino funds in her shorts and looks pregnant. Two ships (small cargos) are converging towards the Ocean Pearl: the distress signals have worked. The Titanic times are long past !
The smoke escaping from upper deck is impressive. The lifeboats are ready for embarkation. Everyone fears to hear the "abandon ship" signal. Nobody knows exactly what is happening inside. The Cruise Director Joe Raad, walking on upper decks, megaphone in hand, explains that the P.A. is out of order and that the "abandon ship" preparations are just a precautionary measure. Later, the Captain himself Pierre Delery go around the decks, megaphone in hand, and announces that the fire is under control; Meanwhile, everyone must stay calmly outside.
Engineers and fire fighters, covered with black soot, soon appear on decks with hoses and start pouring water in and around the funnel in order to cool down the engines below. The two rescue ships sail away after their reassuring silent watch: the situation is under control.
The telephones and P.A. system are turned back on. More announcements are made: the fire is out but everyone must stay out on the decks. The smoke needs time to dissipate from the bowels of the ship since the ventilation is out of order. Everyone now relaxes on decks: the worse is passed. Drinks and towels are being distributed around, many crew go back to their regular duties: there is food to prepare, decisions to make, a lot of cleaning to do and most of all, power, A/C and water to restore.
There are no casualties (just one gentleman fainted: anxiety and/or heat ?). Nothing on board in the passenger and crew areas has been damaged: the fire has been confined to the engine room where it started. By 7:00 P.M., people are allowed back inside. The smoke is gone but the smell of burning remains. Only electricity has been restored: there is still no water and no air circulation but the engineers are working hard on it.
A cold buffet is served in the Orchid dining room and the orchestra plays in the Marco Polo lounge. A hot night awaits everyone on board: the A/C is not operational. Most of the passengers will spend the night outside on the decks. Their fate is being decided over the phone: the ship can not move any more on her own. Finally, the verdict arrives in the middle of the night: all passengers and their luggage, as well as five crew escorts will be evacuated at 5:00 A.M. on board the Sea Princess, another cruiseship luckily sailing a similar route.
The passengers are being woken up at 4:00 A.M. and asked to pack. A very early bird breakfast is served. It is still early in the morning but already hot everywhere in the ship. Unfortunately, the meeting with the Sea Princess is postponed to 10:00 A.M. because of delicate navigation at night for the rescuers. A long wait starts. The shock is over, questions now arise: what is left of the vacation? Pearl Cruises is paying for the flight home, refunding the entire cost of the cruise/tour vacation and offering any future Pearl cruise at half price.
Evacuation starts at 10:30 A.M., using the Sea Princess tenders from one ship to the other. It will take two hours to transfer everybody. The Ocean Pearl will be towed by a tugboat back to Singapore where she will be repaired.
There has been no panic at any time. The passengers who had done the drill the same morning, knew how to get to their lifeboat station, saving precious time. The highly trained crew were there to help the passengers and make sure that the evacuation to the deck was going smoothly. Throughout this incident, all ship's personnel performed extremely well. But most of all, everybody is grateful to the crew, engineers and to those who helped to fight the fire, to have been able to avoid a catastrophe: the intense heat in the engine room could have melted the walls of the fuel reserves.