WASHINGTON -- The smoke billowing out of the cruise ship Ecstasy clouded an important statistic, the cruise industry suggests: Of 45 million North American passengers in the past decade, not one has died in a shipboard accident.
Part of the reason, the industry says, is that before passengers can indulge in the endless buffets, entertainment and other pleasures of life aboard ship, they must strap on life vests and report for a mandatory safety drill. Those missing the roll call are tracked down by crew members.
The passengers aboard the Ecstasy had already run through their drill when the fire broke out Monday. Company officials said a spark from a welder's torch may have touched off a laundry room fire as the ship left Miami, injuring 54.
"There is a long history of safety," aboard big luxury liners such as the Ecstasy, said Diana Orban, spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group. "One of the reason incidents like this get so much attention is because they're so rare."
In general, the National Transportation Safety Board agrees, although the agency has issued a warning about 14 older cruise ships that have received exemptions from installing sprinkler systems. The NTSB is also concerned that on the 131 cruise ships operating from North American ports, smoke alarms sound on the bridge -- not in individual cabins.
The trouble is investigated by the crew before the public is notified.
"If you're in a hotel room and smoke is detected, the alarm goes off, it doesn't go off in the manager's office. We don't have that on vessels. We'd like to see that," said Barry Sweedler, director of the NTSB's Office of Safety Recommendations and Accomplishments.
The popularity of cruising has nearly doubled in the past decade, from 2.9 million passengers in 1987 to 5.05 million last year, according to Cruise Lines International. Another 20 new ships are scheduled to sail by 2000.
Surveys show that passengers like the pampering staffs, multiple destinations and all-in-one price.
"It's the best vacation value going," said John Mansy of Cruise Directors Inc., a cruise-only travel agent in Alexandria, Va. "You have everything included, from your Las Vegas show to breakfast in bed."
As cruising has grown, so, too, has its regulation. Cruise ships operate under the conventions and standards of a United Nations organization, the International Maritime Organization.
Individual ships also must meet the maritime standards of the country where they are registered. In addition, any ship operating from a U.S. port must submit to pre-construction, quarterly and annual inspections by the Coast Guard.
Passengers participate in a safety drill within 24 hours of departure. Most cruise lines complete it before pulling away from the dock.
"If anything, safety and safety regulation has increased significantly with the growth of the industry," said Cynthia Colenda, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, another industry group. "With the new vessels coming out, safety is always the No. 1 concern."
In April, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the Coast Guard, the passenger ship industry and others collaborate on research "on the adequacy of heat and smoke detectors for use in high-risk fire areas, including laundry spaces."
The recommendation followed a July 27, 1996, fire aboard the Universe Explorer while it cruised from Juneau to Glacier Bay, Alaska. Five crew members died from smoke inhalation and 55 others suffered injury after a fire broke out in the laundry room.
The ship was one of the 14 that was exempt from the sprinkler requirement. Sweedler said Universe Explorer operators recently notified the safety board that they plan to install sprinklers.
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