More than ten million people a year take a cruise from a US port.
One company that sails out of the Port of LA is defending itself in a lawsuit that claims the lives of thousands of passengers may
have been put at risk. Ana Garcia investigates.
Captain Bjoern Eidissen remembers, "I will never forget that moment 9:05 in the morning.”
Local news from across Southern California
It was Sept 2nd 2005-Labor Day weekend and the cruise ship Monarch of the Seas had just returned to San Pedro after a trip to Mexico with more than three thousand, four hundred people on board.
“It was a four day cruise,” says passenger Monya Wright of Woodland Hills.
But the relaxing cruise came to end while passengers disembarked the ship.
“All these fire trucks and ambulances and everything started coming.” Says Wright.
According to this Coast Guard report, hydrogen sulfide gas escaped and filled the engine room. A county health investigation determined a leaky pipe being fixed, burst and released the poisonous gas. Within minutes 3 crewmembers were dead and 19 others were rushed to the hospital.
Ana Garcia asks, “You were the second in command when the accident occurred?”
“Yes” says Captain Bjoern Eidissen.
Capt Bjoern Eidissen was among those injured. He describes the scene shortly after the ship docked in San Pedro. We interviewed him from his home in Norway using a webcam and skype.com
Captain Bjoern Eidissen says, “It was ten eleven people lying on top of each other.”
Captain Eidissen remembers seeing, “Two doctors and nurse and everybody was unconscious.”
The deadly gas leak happened at the end of Wright’s cruise-but she thought there might have been a problem from the beginning.
Monya Wright says, “I know we smelled it the first night”
Attorney john hickey says, “That afternoon cruise should have been canceled.”
Miami attorney John Hickey is suing the ship’s owner: Royal Caribbean International on behalf of Captain Eidissen. The lawsuit alleges Royal Caribbean failed to warn people on the ship of the dangerous gases.
Mr. Hickey says, “When I say unsafe, I mean unsafe not only for the crew but for thousands of passengers.”
Hickey says the company wrongfully fired Captain Eidissen and didn’t adequately cover treatment for his injuries.
But in court records, Royal Caribbean denies all the allegations and blames Eidissen’s own negligence for causing his injuries by failing to wear required safety gear and delaying his own medical care.
But passenger Monya Wright still wonders if passengers were ever put at risk.
“We were never told there was a significant problem on that ship.”
When county health investigators measured the levels of hydrogen sulfide gas in the engine room “five hours after the incident” the levels were at 100 ppm, parts per million. Well above Osha’s limit of 20 ppm.
Captain Eidissen contends the ship should not have sailed that afternoon.
Representatives from Royal Caribbean say the ship was safe to sail. The Monarch of the Sea’s crew didn’t let the new passengers board until after 5p that day way after testing and certification showed the ship was gas free. They also say sailing was delayed until after midnight after the Coast Guard and LA Fire Department thoroughly examined the ship and gave their approval for its sailing.
That’s the big question, should it have sailed?” Asks Attorney Jack Hckey. “How can you fix it in an afternoon?”
The US Coast Guard inspected the Monarch of the Seas in San Diego just 4 days after the deadly accident and found deficiencies with temporary hoses used in semi-permanent repairs. Yet determined the vessel was in substantial compliance and could continue sailing.
Mr. Hickey says, “That does not sound sufficient, were talking about methane and hydrogen gas. Temporary fixes will not do.”
Royal Caribbean says, “All repairs were done in coordination… and with the approval of appropriate authorities.”
We asked the Coast Guard to explain how the Monarch was “considered safe” to sail using temporary repairs for an accident so serious it killed 3 and injured 19? The Coast Guard says they are still investigating, 4 years later and can’t comment.
Eidissen’s lawsuit goes so far as to claim, lethal hydrogen sulfide gas was, allowed o leak into work areas and passenger cabins for months through the ship’s air conditioning and ventilation systems.
Royal Caribbean disputes that and says, “air testing equipment on board the ship… confirmed…that at no time were there any reports of dangerous gas levels within crew or guest accommodation or public spaces.”
Royal Caribbean says that’s not true and says Eidissen’s “claims are fraud”.
In fact,the company blames the Captain for the accident because he “disobeyed orders.”
But were there warnings much earlier of a danger below? According to this confidential internal report we’ve obtained, six months before the deadly accident a motorman was sent to the hospital after inhaling chemical fumes.
Attorney Hickey says, “That’s a red flag.”
Royal Caribbean confirms the incident occurred, and says 2 people were injured, but its “investigation…. could not… determine if this and the deadly gas leak later “were related.”
We’ve uncovered another potential safety issue. According to this report, the Monarch’s master, or main, captain had a history of alcohol abuse. According to this FBI investigation, unrelated to the accident and 5 months later, some crewmembers claim Captain Joern Klausen had been drinking so heavily the staff was concerned about his ability to operate the ship and the Captain was
sent to his room to sleep it off.
Two days later he was found dead in his cabin. According to the autopsy report, Captain Joern Klausen died of gastritis with contributing factors of early pneumonia and water intoxication syndrome due to alcohol withdrawal. In other words the Captain May have drunk an excessive amount of water after being intoxicated.
Captain Eidissen says. “That kid was under a lot of pressure.”
Eidissen says he was not on the ship when Klausen died and says he never saw him drink on the job.
I spoke with Klausen’s brother in Norway and he insists the Captain drank only socially and would have never been intoxicated while working.
While we were investigating these potential safety issues, Royal Caribbean sent an invitation to the media to tour their new LA based cruise ship replacing the Monarch of the seas which has been reassigned to Florida. We took them up on their offer.
“Cruise safety is our number one priority,” says Vicki Freed.
We asked Senior VP of Royal Caribbean Vicki Freed about the deadly gas leak and Captain Klausen’s death and alleged drinking on the ship.
“Ana, I can’t even comment on that. I wasn’t with the company at that time. What I can tell you is that we put safety as our number one priority aboard our ships.” says Vicki Freed.
Royal Caribbean says it was caught off guard by our questions and asked for time to respond. A month later, the cruise company sent us a 5-page response. It says the lawsuit is “baseless” and they have “fully cooperated with, and assisted in the investigation of the incident.” It says all its ships “meet or exceed safety and security requirements”.
Passenger Monya Wright does not feel reassured. She says, “Obviously it put people at risk”
On the allegation of the Monarch’s captain drinking on the ship the company says: “we take such issues seriously” and says “Captain Klausen was not performing bridge duties at the time” and that “navigational command of the ship was taken over by another captain.
The Coast Guard says its investigation is continuing. Royal Caribbean is trying to get the lawsuit dismissed and Captain Eidissen carries on his fight from Norway.
Captain Eidissen says, “I just want justice and to make sure this never happens again.”