The Coast Guard also has a database, known as the U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Information Exchange, with inspections and any deficiencies found aboard ships, dating to when the vessels entered service. A search on the exchange's website for the Triumph turns up its certifications for things like passenger safety and pollution prevention as well as inspections. No violations or red flags are immediately evident. Searching a little deeper, the most recent report shows a propulsion issue from a Jan. 28 incident involving a short in a connection box of one of the ship's generators.
Bud Darr, the Cruise Lines International Association's senior vice president for technical and regulatory affairs, said the industry is "very heavily regulated," from the way ships are designed to how crews train for emergencies. He said standards are set by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization.
But Jim Walker, a Miami maritime attorney and author of the www.cruiselaw.com blog, said, "the IMO guidelines are not law and there is no consequence if the cruise lines ignore the guidelines and recommendations. Customers have no way of knowing whether they are well maintained safely. There is no federal oversight with real teeth."
Fires — though not all as major as the Triumph's — happen virtually every year on cruise ships. There were 79 onboard blazes from 1990 to 2011, according to a list compiled by Ross Klein, a professor who specializes in cruise industry issues at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada.
In 2010, the IMO adopted rules that require any large cruise ship built after July 1 of that year to have a separate, redundant system able to maintain the ship's propulsion, steering and so forth in case one engine is disabled by fire. The rules also mandate that ships be capable of maintaining basic services such as sanitation, water, food and lights in such circumstances.
The Triumph was built in 1999 and isn't covered by the rules, as is the case for most ships among major cruise lines. Experts say the Triumph might have been able to limp into port more quickly if it had the newer systems, but retrofitting is costly and time-consuming.
"Provided the emergency generators worked and had enough power, they would have been able to return to port under their own power, but much slower," said Andrew O. Coggins, Jr., a Pace University management professor who focuses on hospitality and tourism industries.
"Once Carnival has evaluated the full cost of this incident," he added, "it might be cost effective to retrofit their older ships."
Associated Press writers Connie Cass in Washington and Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
On the Internet:
Coast Guard cruise ship inspections database: http://cgmix.uscg.mil/PSIX/PSIXSearch.aspx
CDC Vessel Sanitation Program: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://Twitter.com/Miamicurt.
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