BALTIMORE — Passengers whose cruise aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas was cut short by an onboard fire began arriving back in Baltimore on charter flights from the Bahamas on Tuesday afternoon, with many praising the response of the company and crew.
"I'll never go on any other cruise line," said Craig Dzubak, 26, of Pittsburgh, who was on his first cruise. "They couldn't have handled it any better." He said he and his wife, Chelsea, were planning their next cruise while on the flight home.
Robert Alexander of Hamilton, N.J., said he was impressed by how well-prepared everyone on board was for emergencies. An actor from the ship's theater made announcements to passengers after they were evacuated from their rooms, he said.
"It just shows the training they do," Alexander said. "Our head waiter at our dinner table was one of the first responders" to the fire.
Meanwhile, the vice president of the Grand Bahama Shipyard said the ship would be repaired at his facility, though a full assessment of damage hadn't been done yet.
"We are still working with the cruise line to assess the repairs, and I sent a crew over there this morning," Reuben Byrd said Tuesday. "I'm assuming it will be a big job for us," he added.
Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez did not immediately return phone calls or emails Tuesday afternoon about the repairs. Earlier, she said she had no updates on the incident or cause.
Byrd said the shipyard didn't know about the cause, either. The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board planned to investigate. NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said the agency has sent one senior investigator to the Bahamas. No other details about the investigation were available Tuesday.
The fire began at 2:50 a.m. Monday and was extinguished about two hours later, with no injuries reported. Photos show a substantial area of the stern burned on several decks of the ship the length of about three football fields.
Martinez said President and CEO Adam Goldstein — who met with passengers Monday in the Bahamas — would not give interviews Tuesday. "We're just going to focus on getting all of our guests back to Baltimore," she wrote in an email.
The ship, which left Baltimore on Friday for a seven-night cruise, was headed originally to CocoCay, Bahamas. Royal Caribbean said the ship never lost power and was able to sail into port in Freeport, Bahamas, on Monday afternoon. It remained there Tuesday. The ship launched in 1996 and was refurbished last year.
Royal Caribbean said on its website and through social media that executives met with passengers in port. The company also said passengers will get a full refund of their fare and a certificate for a future cruise.
Aboard the ship, the captain announced that passengers needed to go to their muster stations, passenger Mark J. Ormesher told The Associated Press in an email. Immediately after, his room attendant knocked on the door and told him and his girlfriend to grab their flotation devices. The attendant said it wasn't a drill.
Ormesher, a native of England, who lives in Manassas, Va., said he and his girlfriend smelled acrid smoke as they went to their muster station, the ship's casino. The crew quickly provided instruction.
"This encouraged calm amongst the passengers," he said. Passengers were required to remain at their stations for four hours, he said, and the captain "provided us as much information as we needed to stay safe."
Ormesher, who is 25 and on his first cruise, said the air conditioner had been shut off, and as the hours passed and the ship got hot, bottled water was distributed. The crew and passengers remained calm, and helped those who needed it. Crying babies were given formula and held while their parents used the bathrooms.
After passengers were allowed to leave their stations, Ormesher said he saw water on the outside deck 5 and in the hallways. The mooring lines were destroyed he said; crew members brought new lines from storage.
The damage at the rear of the ship looked bad, Ormesher said; burned out equipment was visible.
Royal Caribbean said all guests and 796 crew were safe and accounted for. Martinez said in an email that the company was arranging 11 charter flights.
The company in a statement on its website said it is "deeply sorry for this unexpected development in our guests' vacation. We understand that this may have been a very stressful time for them. We appreciate their patience and cooperation in dealing with this unfortunate situation."
Carnival Corp. also had trouble with fire aboard ship earlier this year.
The Triumph was disabled during a February cruise by an engine room fire in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving thousands of passengers to endure cold food, unsanitary conditions and power outages while the ship was towed to Mobile, Ala. It remained there for repairs until early May when it headed back to sea under its own power.
Fran Golden, a blogger for the cruise magazine Porthole, said the two incidents are different.
"I think it's easier to make people happy when they're not stuck on a ship for four days without toilets," she said.
Still, she applauded Royal Caribbean's public relations efforts after the fire. She said sending CEO Goldstein to meet with passengers was a "brilliant move." The company also Tweeted a picture of one meeting.
"It shows that you're a responsible company. It shows that you care. It's not just, 'oh well, this incident happened,'" she said. She noted that the head of Royal Caribbean's Azamara Club Cruises line, Larry Pimentel, also met with passengers in early 2012 after a fire aboard the Azamara Quest disabled one of its engines during a cruise in Asia.
Mike Driscoll, editor of the Illinois-based publication Cruise Week, said Royal Caribbean had the benefit of hindsight and could use lessons from the recent Triumph fire in its response. He said company took charge of the response on social media, sending out photos and updates. He likened it to the company saying, "Hey, we're not hiding anything."
Associated Press writers Kasey Jones in Baltimore and Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this report. Jeff Todd reported from Nassau, Bahamas.