MIAMI (AP) — The Coast Guard has begun unannounced inspections of cruise ships at U.S. ports, targeting those with patterns of safety problems, officials told the National Transportation Safety Board at its first-ever forum on safety on board the vessels.
Capt. Eric Christensen, who oversees ship inspection policy for the Coast Guard, also said that regular twice-a-year inspections of 140 cruise ships based at U.S. ports in 2013 found 351 deficiencies, most frequently problems with fire doors and lifeboats.
The inspection program began this month.
"There was a population of cruise ships that had the lion's share of deficiency. You want to focus your efforts on those vessels," Christensen told the board, without identifying which ships or cruise lines were involved.
"They don't know you are coming, but this is how you can summarize they would normally operate," he added. "The bottom line is, we hold substandard vessels accountable."
Cruise ships must address any safety problems identified by the Coast Guard before they can allow passengers to board at U.S. ports.
The NTSB hearing, held in Washington and webcast around the world, follows last year's fire aboard the Carnival Triumph that left the ship adrift for days in the Gulf of Mexico, subjecting some 3,000 passengers to squalid conditions. A fire also knocked out power in 2010 to the Carnival Splendor at sea in the Pacific Ocean, also stranding passengers at sea and requiring that it be towed to port.
In 2012, the Costa Concordia ship capsized off Italy, killing 32 people.
NTSB chairwoman Debbie Hersman cited those recent accidents and others aboard increasingly gigantic ships — some of which can carry 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew members — to underscore the need to ensure the safety of every voyage. She said more than 22 million people will take a cruise worldwide this year.
"When a passenger steps onto a cruise ship, they have the right to expect the safest vessel possible," said Hersman, whose agency has limited authority to investigate only those cruise ship accidents within 12 miles of U.S. coasts.
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