Treasure Coast family has different kind of cruise adventure
Young Bailee Jo Mutter didn't know what time it was when the fire alarm starting blaring in the small cruise ship stateroom she shared with her two brothers, but she knew it meant emergency.
"I thought, 'Titanic!'" she admitted to me, several days later, safe at home from a cruise vacation that turned out to be the adventure of her life.
Up until that night, the Treasure Coast fourth grader had been having a ball on her first cruise aboard the Princess, sailing from Fort Lauderdale to Cozumel, Grand Cayman Island and Jamaica. Accompanied by brothers Ryan, 15, and Sean, age 5, her mother, Kelley Holmes, along with Kelley's fiancÈ, Michael Zerner, the family had enjoyed three days and four nights of pampering.
Well, almost four nights. Because it was during the fourth night of the seven-day cruise, early Thursday morning about 3 a.m. that the fire alarm started to sound. In the cabin next door, still half-asleep, Michael had heard the short, terse announcement for crewmembers that preceded the fire alarm. At the emergency signal that followed, both he and Kelley had jumped up, pulled on T-shirts, jeans and sneakers and rushed next door to the kids.
Smoke in the Air
Kelley smelled the smoke immediately when she opened the door of her stateroom. Along with the noise of alarm bells, there was the sound of hundreds of doors opening as a ship filled to capacity with 2,600 cruise passengers and another 1,200 crew members sprang into action.
Next door, her three children hustled to pull on last night's clothing and their life jackets, and the group made their way, through the narrow hallway to mid-ship, where the smoke was getting pretty bad, to the stairs in the middle of the ship, guided by calm but efficient crewmembers.
As they headed to the muster station assigned to them, the show lounge called the Princess Theatre, Michael's mind was doing the math. According to his calculations, figuring when they left Cayman and when they were due into Jamaica, they were located approximately smack in the middle of the ocean. This was not a comforting thought.
In the muster station/Princess Theatre, hundreds of half-awake people were gathering still waiting for word on what the emergency was.
"They didn't make an announcement until everyone was in their muster station, and I think that was on purpose," says Kelley, "to keep everyone calm."
"Then the captain, with his clipped English accent, announced, 'We don't want you to panic. There is a fire on board the ship. We do have our people fighting the fire. We are trying to get it under control. However, we are getting the lifeboats ready in case they are needed.'"
"A lot of people had already smelled smoke, and some had seen the fire, but for the most part, everyone was calm. The captain continued to give us updates every 20 minutes or so over the PA system," Kelley adds. "Crewmembers were at our muster station with extra life jackets for everyone who had forgotten them. There were life jackets everywhere."
Tattooed cry baby
Fifteen-year-old Ryan continues the story, "There was this one guy, he had tattoos all over his body, like he was really bad, but he was crying like a baby. He and his wife were, like, freaking out. He kept saying, 'We saw flames. It's like flares going up in the air. We gotta get off the ship.'"
Adds Michael, "They were a young couple in their 20s, and they had come from the bar to the muster station-they probably had more than a few drinks. Kelley said a few things to them, and they changed seats. It really wasn't what anybody else needed to hear while we were sitting there, waiting."
As the fire burned, Kelley Holmes and her family sat with the rest of the ship's passengers, listening to the captain's regular updates. "We are continuing to fight the battle," he told his captive audience. Then, "We are on the verge of winning." And finally, about 6:30 a.m., "I believe we have the fire contained."
The passengers were advised to stay in their muster stations, "as we are checking the cabins and making sure it is safe to return." Most passengers remained calm, but anxious. One couple couldn't find their mom and dad, who had gone to the wrong muster station, but were reunited after a few hours. Another teenage girl was crying, because she had picked up just her purse and left her room to find her mother, and now she was sure all her belongings were burned.
In the end, the fire melted locks shut and damaged about 150 cabins aboard the Star Princess, although the Holmes/Mutter family were not aware of the extent of the fire until later in the day.
Breakfast as usual: coffee, tea or toast (not burnt)
Finally, about 9 am, the crew allowed people to leave their muster stations and go out on the deck to get fresh air. Soon after, the starboard section (where the fire was not located) were allowed to go back to their rooms. Folks whose rooms were on the port side were asked to report to one of the two dining rooms for breakfast. This included Kelley, Michael and the kids.
"There we were seated, in blue jeans, T-shirts, pajamas and bathrobes, at tables with china and white linen tablecloths, and were served our regular three-course breakfast by waiters," says Kelley, who was amazed that the cruise ship meal service was continuing without missing a beat. "They served us orange juice and water and took orders for made-to-order omelets. I said to Michael, 'Did that just happen to us? Or did I imagine it?' It was so surreal."
"We saw an older guy walking by in Sponge Bob Square pants pjs and slippers. It was the strangest thing. We met another family from Wisconsin; he was an insurance agent with State Farm with his wife and two teenage daughters. He knew his cabin was right in the middle of the fire, mid-ship. He knew that everything had burned up. But he wasn't too worried. I guess he had good insurance."
After breakfast, folks lined up in the ornate foyer to make phone calls to family.
"I called my mother and told her to call everyone else," said Kelley. Then, they waited some more, while the Star Princess hustled full speed ahead to Jamaica.
The family got off the ship in Jamaica, but returned to spend their last night on the ship, because their rooms weren't near the smoke or damage. As they disembarked, they saw the burned area and were shocked.
"It's amazing that there were 4,000 people on board and a fire spreading and the crew was able to fight the fire and keep the passengers calm," says Michael, in retrospect. "It's a miracle more people weren't injured. One crewmember told me that we were about a half-hour away from having to board the lifeboats. I don't think we really grasped the seriousness of the situation and maybe that's a good thing."
The adventure became even more sobering when they spotted the big, black hearse waiting to take the body of the man who had died of a heart attack. Still, everyone was impressed at the cool and calm demeanor of the crew during the emergency and of how well everything was handled. Flights and accommodations were quickly arranged for those who needed assistance.
"It wasn't how I expected my first cruise to end," said Michael, "but I would definitely go again."
That's a good thing, because, in addition to the full refund they received from Princess Cruise lines, the family also received a 25 percent discount off their next cruise.
The Holmes/Mutter family chose to spend the weekend at a resort in Jamaica, resting and relaxing in the sun. Ironically, they caught the end of a favorite movie playing on the television that first night in Jamaica, 'Titanic.'
Bailee Mutter recalls, "It was the scene where they were floating in the ocean at the end and the water was so cold. I thought to myself, well, at least we were sailing in warm waters."
Sue-Ellen Sanders writes about family issues every week in the Hometown News. Contact her at email@example.com.