Universe Explorer Fire, Commodore Cruise Lines Fire near Juneau, Alaska – Early on July 27, 1996, while the Panamanian passenger ship Universe Explorer was en route from Juneau, Alaska, to Glacier Bay, Alaska with 1,006 people aboard, a fire started in the main laundry. Dense smoke and heat spread upward two levels from the deck on which the main laundry was located to a deck on which crew quarters were located.
Five crew members died from smoke inhalation, and 55 crew members and 1 passenger sustained minor or serious injuries. One passenger required medical treatment as a result of a pre-existing condition. Sixty-nine people were transported to area hospitals, where 13 of the injured were admitted for further treatment. The estimated damage to the vessel was $1.5 million.
During postmortem examinations on July 28, 1996, the State of Alaska Chief Medical
Examiner obtained specimens from the five deceased crewmen, which were sent to the University of Utah’s Center for Human Toxicology (CHT) for analysis. All test results for alcohol and illicit drugs were negative. Because the deceased were fire victims, the CHT conducted tests for two toxic combustion products, carbon monoxide (as measured by percentage of carboxyhemoglobin in the blood) and cyanide. All specimens had carboxyhemoglobin saturation levels generally considered to be lethal, from a low of 64 percent to a high of 87 percent.17 Cyanide was not detected in any specimen.
According to the official crew list, the Universe Explorer was staffed by a multinational crew of 274 individuals. The master was a U.S. citizen; the staff captain was a
Norwegian citizen; and most of the other licensed officers were Greek, Philippine, or U.S. citizens. About half of the crew members were Philippine citizens; the rest were of various nationalities. The common language for communication was English
About midnight, the cruise ship departed Juneau bound for Glacier Bay. The master retired to his cabin about 0240 on July 27, 1996, leaving instructions with the watch officer to call him at 0500 or earlier should any problem occur. The master said that when he left the bridge, no problems of any kind had been reported on the ship. After the master left, the navigation watch consisted of a pilot, the second officer, a helmsman, and a lookout. About this time, the ship had rounded Retreat Point and was entering the Lynn Canal.
At 0259,2 an audible heat-detector alarm sounded on the fire alarm panel on the bridge. The second officer said he noted that the panel indicated the activated heat detector was in the main laundry on E-deck. Thinking it might be a false alarm, he used a UHF radio to call and instruct the fire watch to investigate the alarm source in the main laundry. The fire watch said that he was on the Promenade deck near the swimming pool when he received the call and that, after acknowledging the radio transmission, he started toward the main laundry.
Commodore Cruise Lines, Ltd., and the predecessor of V. Ships Marine, Ltd. (International Marine Carriers, Inc.), who allowed physical conditions and operating procedures to exist that compromised the fire safety of the Universe Explorer, ultimately resulting in crew member deaths and injuries from a fire of undetermined
origin in the vessel’s main laundry. Contributing to the loss of life and injuries was the lack of sprinkler systems, the lack of automatic local sounding fire alarms, and the rapid spread of smoke through open doors into the crew berthing area.
Seven days before the fire, the United States Coast Guard inspected the vessel and noted these violations:\
FIRE CONTROL PLAN NOT UPDATED IAW IMO RESOLUTION A.654(16)
NO EXHAUST DUCTS ON SELF-SERVE LAUNDRY MACHINES.
The day of the fire, the ship was also inspected and noted infractions were:
FIRE SCREEN DOORS WERE TIED BACK TO PREVENT THEM FROM CLOSING.
On the August 13, 1996 inspection after the fire, the previous noted infractions had not been corrected and another was added:
FIRE SAFE DOORS 28B, P-25 & P-21 CANNOT BE OPENED BY ONE PERSON FROM EITHER SIDE. DOORS TOO HEAVY FOR ONE PERSON. DOORS WILL BE MANNED DURING GENERAL EMERGENCY UNTIL CORRECTED. SOLAS 74 REG 68, SOLAS 48 CH II-29