In March of 2006, the Star Princess was sailing just off the coast of Jamaica. She had 3813 people on board in total and as far as everybody was concerned, this was a totally normal cruise.
What Caused The 2006 Fire on The Star Princess?
The Marine Accident Investigation Branch concluded that the cause of the fire of the Star Princess in 2006 was mostly likely a cigarette butt drops from a balcony. The cigarette butt set fire to the balcony furniture, partitions, and flooring causing the fire to spread rapidly.
At the time, smoking on a balcony was allowed but throwing cigarette butts obviously wasn’t. Guests were told to put their cigarettes out in an ashtray.
Maybe the person dropped it, or intentionally threw it, nobody knows.
Leaving Personal Items on The Balcony is Always Against The Rules
The cigarette butt didn’t immediately burst into flames but it smoldered for around 20 minutes on the balcony. It isn’t clear if there were other items on the balcony but there may have been.
Cruise lines do tell guests not to leave anything on the balcony but often people will leave clothes on here to dry or they may just forget to bring things in when they come in from sitting on the balcony.
In this situation, a book or a towel could cause a BIG problem, as the ship was sailing near Jamaica the temperature was 25c (77f) and the humidity was 92%.
If this had happened somewhere cold, the cigarette may never have caught fire in the way that it did.
On most cruise ships now if you leave things on your balcony your cabin attendant will bring them back into the cabin for you. That’s just one of the things that has changed in recent years.
The First Report of a Possible Fire Happened on Deck 14
It was just before 3 AM that a crew member smelt burning on deck 14. The area was checked and they didn’t find a fire.
A little later a guest staying in cabin B2541 set off the fire alarm after they saw the glow of the fire from their balcony.
The fire started on a balcony on deck 10 but because of the high winds once the fire took hold it spread very fast. It spread along the ship and also up to decks 11 and 12.
A little after 3 AM the captain decided to slow the ship down and to change course slightly in order to reduce the winds.
At 03:20 the general emergency alarm was sounded.
On every cruise ship it is a legal requirement that all guests complete an emergency drill when they embark. the ship. Thanks to this the guests knew what they needed to do when they heard the alarm. The guests grabbed their life jackets and went to their muster stations.
To learn more about what happens at a muster drill, and how these have changed since the Coronavirus pandemic, check out this post: Muster Drills Have Changed For The Better (REVIEW of New After Covid Process)
The lifeboats and liferafts were prepared as a precaution.
The below shows where the fire started and where it spread to.
The Guests Attended Their Muster Stations as Instructed
A person who was on board at the time said the following:
The guest goes on to say that:
I think it’s important to mention just how highly the guests praised the crew of the ship for dealing with this situation.
The crew guided to guests to safety, entertained them, fed them, and generally made sure that everybody was okay.
I’m sure they were also scared but the guests onboard reported how calm and organised everything was.
Balcony Doors Shattered
The heat from the fire on the balconies was so hot that it shattered the glass in some of the balcony doors and the fire spread into the cabins.
It was later determined that the balcony cabin doors weren’t the self-closing type and this is something that should have been in place and is now on.
The passengers in cabins 316 and 322 on deck C were in their rooms when the glass smashed, I can’t even imagine how scary how must have been.
The glass used in the balcony doors was double glazed with a thickness of 25mm which had been impact tested but was not fire rated.
The cabins are built in big metal boxes so thankfully the spread of the fire was limited when it came to the inside of the ship. The cruise line also stopped the ventilation inside the cabins to slow down the fire.
The Smoke Was The Biggest Problem
Although the fire didn’t spread, the smoke still did, the smoke was the biggest problem for the guests trying to evacuate, and the crew trying to make sure everybody was out of the area.
The balcony partitions and balcony furniture were burning and creating a cloud of thick smoke. The partitions were built of polycarbonate and the tiles on the floor were made of polyurethane.
The balconies were classified as ‘outside spaces’ so they had slightly different requirements when it came to fire safety. The partitions and tiles wouldn’t have been able to be used inside the ship because of the smoke they make when they are burnt.
The idea of a fire starting on the balcony wasn’t really something that cruise lines had thought too much about.
On cruise ships, the crew have to complete fire safety drills and have plans in place but there wasn’t a ‘fire on the balcony’ drill that was carried out.
Do Cruise Ships Have Fire Crews and Fire Equipment onboard?
All modern cruise ships are equipped with fire safety gear and crew members whose job it is to tackle the fire. The equipment includes multiple sets of safety clothing, breathing apparatus, and hoses used to put out the fires.a
These will be crew members who have other jobs onboard, they don’t keep a full fire brigade on board just in case but they have had a lot of training and I think they deserve a lot of praise for how they dealt with this fire.
Don’t Cruise Ships Have Spinklers?
If you have cruised on a modern cruise ship you might be wondering why the balcony sprinklers didn’t go off.
Most new cruise ships will have fire detection devices and sprinklers on the balconies in the case of a fire like this happening.
Back in 2006, this wasn’t standard on cruise ships and the Star Princess didn’t have any on the balconies. There were mist systems inside the ship but they didn’t really work as planned.
Sprinklers and detectors were added to the Star Princess’s balconies before she set sail again making her safer than ever before.
What Changes Were Made After The Accident?
After the fire Carnival Corporation who own Princess Cruises made changes to all of their ships, removing the flammable partitions and tiles as well as adding new sprinklers.
This happened on 81 ships in total which is 26,400 balconies.
Although it’s sad that this tragedy happened, the improvements to cruise ship safety that came, as a result, may have saved many more lives.
The Fire Burnt For Over an Hour
The fire spread for 1.5 hours and in total 297 cabins were damaged or destroyed.
The Star Princess had 1298 cabins in total meaning that 23% of the ship’s cabins were damaged.
The ship’s crew used 7 rigged hoses to fight the fire, due to the location this was difficult as the partitions on the balconies were still in place.
The fire was mostly fought from the inside of the cabins and the broken parts of the balconies.
One passenger who was found unconscious died of smoke inhalation and 13 others had to be treated for the effects of the smoke. It was around 4.30 that the fire was declared as being officially out.
Following the disaster, a number of safety improvements were made to the ship and cruise ships of the future. The aim was to make sure that the balconies were held to the same high fireproof standards as the rest of the ship was.
If the balconies were of the same fire safety quality as the internal areas of the ship it’s very unlikely that this fire would have caused the damage that it did.
After The Event, Princess Created Mock Balcony Fires (In Controlled Enviroments)
After the accident, the Princess did some tests.
They set up a pretend balcony and wanted to see how fast a fire would spread on the current materials.
They set fire to a towel on the back of a chair and it only took 2 minutes 22 seconds for the privacy panel between the balconies to be on fire and 3 minutes before the floor was on fire.
If a fire like this were to happen again it’s likely that the balcony fire detectors would notice the fire very quickly, the sprinklers would be activated and the fire wouldn’t ever spread beyond the single balcony.
Changes have been made since the accident about the materials that the dividers and balcony furniture can be made of.
The Next Morning The Ship Docked
It was around 10 am in the morning that the ship arrived in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
The guests were at this point allowed to return to their cabins if they were on the starboard side of the ship. Amazingly when the guests were allowed to leave the muster station the crew had made sure that breakfast was ready for them.
The guests whose rooms had been damaged by the fire were disembarked and taken to a hotel.
Guests Were Well Compensated
All passengers were given a full refund for the cruise and had their airfare paid for to get them home, they were also given 25% of their cruise fare as a credit to use on another cruise.
Temporary repairs were made before the ship headed over to Germany to be prepared properly.
Smoking Was Later Banned on Princess Ships
In 2012 Princess banned smoking on balconies completely. The majority of other cruise lines did the same around this time but Costa Cruises, AIDA Cruises, TUI Cruises, and Fred Olsen cruises still allow guests to smoke on their balconies.
To learn more about the smoking policies of the above cruise lines, check out this post: Cruise Line Balcony Smoking Policies – On These 4 Lines You Can
Whenever I talk about smoking being allowed on cruise ship balconies some people will always that it’s ‘disgusting’ or that it’d put them off cruising with a cruise line but despite what feels like the majority wanting smokeless balconies, there are a few very determined, and vocal people who want to be able to smoke on their balconies.
Smoking on Balconies is Still a Debated Issue
Some people argue that ships should have smoking balconies, and non-smoking balconies but that really only deals with the problem of secondhand smoke.
Which although not nice, it isn’t as big a problem as the fire risk.
It could be argued that it wasn’t the smoking on the balcony that caused the fire but the fact that the smoker threw their cigarette butt overboard.
The thing is though, if you take away the cigarettes from the balconies, they are far less likely to end up starting a fire in this way.
I don’t smoke and never have but I would hope that most people would agree that reducing the risk of something like this happening is always a good idea.
When the cruise line was analysing the accident they talked to other passengers and found that many said that discarded cigarette ends had also landed on their balconies. It’s unlikely that this was an isolated event, it was just the first time it had gone this wrong.
As far as I can see, the person who started the fire was never found.
The starting point of the fire wasn’t ever conclusively found but all analysis of the accident decided that in the absence of any other evidence, it was probably a cigarette butt dropped from a higher deck.