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Not quite a pleasure cruise: Soldotna couple passengers on stranded cruise vessel

Posted: Monday, November 22, 2010

What was supposed to be a relaxing vacation with family and friends turned into a nightmare for a local couple who were on the Carnival Splendor cruise ship that went dead in the water off the coast of Mexico last week.

Soldotna resident Amy Garza, who was on her first cruise with her husband, Rene, said she is glad to be back on dry land.

"It's surreal," she said. "It was definitely a memorable experience."

The Carnival Splendor is a passenger ship complete with a spa, four pools, restaurants and a sports deck. Some 4,500 passengers and crew members were on board the ship for the seven-day trip to the Mexican Riviera, when an engine fire knocked out the power and set the cruise liner adrift 200 miles from San Diego and 44 miles from Mexico.

Even without the cruise ship disaster, Rene said their planned vacation seemed cursed from the get-go.

"They lost our luggage at Salt Lake, when we left Anchorage they were having plane problems," he explained.

When the Garzas got on the ship in Long Beach, Calif. on Nov. 7 the U.S. Coast Guard was doing an inspection, and while loading the luggage Carnival personnel had dropped some luggage into the water so some passengers lost their luggage.

"It was interesting in the beginning," he said.

Once on the ship, everything seemed to be in order and the first day was smooth sailing. The Garzas, who had met up with Amy's parents from Minnesota and some friends from Phoenix, settled in and had a nice meal.

But the morning of Nov. 8 was when the trouble began.

Rene, a mechanic by trade, said he felt vibrations at 5 a.m., 12 hours after they boarded the ship.

"I knew something was wrong," he said.

At that point the air conditioner had stopped working, and he could see and smell smoke. Rene said he corralled his friends and family and headed up to the lido deck.

Cruise ship workers "assured us there was no fire," he said, but "where there's smoke there's fire."

Rene said he found out later that if the fire had not been contained the passengers would have had to abandon ship. According to Carnival, a crankcase split on one of the ship's six diesel engines, causing the fire.

The Carnival Splendor was out at sea for about 24 hours before the Coast Guard showed up for relief, he said.

"The first 36 hours were extremely scary," Amy said.

"No Internet, power, water, cell phones," Rene said, listing off the lack of amenities.

There were "3,300 people and the toilets were not working ... it was pretty bad in that respect," he added.

Food, or the lack of it, was also a problem on the ship.

By the next day, the U.S. Navy had resupplied the ship with thousands of pounds of food and other supplies ferried by helicopter from the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier diverted from drills nearby.

"The wait was over two hours in line just to get some food," Rene said. And the rations consisted of beets, hot dogs, bread and cheese.

Although the cruise has been coined the "Spamcation" by some, Rene said they never did see that type of canned meat.

To supplement their small portions the cruise ship started offering free alcohol by the second day.

"The bars opened so we had some cocktails and played cards," Amy said.

The cruise ship was towed back to San Diego and the passengers disembarked on Nov. 11.

Amy said that she wanted to go on a cruise ship vacation because she had heard about how fun and relaxing they are but not when "you get stranded for four days on a boat and all you see is water."

Rene said they were compensated well for the whole ordeal with reimbursed fees, complimentary hotel and meals in San Diego, airfare back to Alaska and a free, future Carnival cruise.

At first, he said, Amy was adamant about not going on another trip. But, then she relented and decided on a future cruise of Alaska's inside passage.

They arrived back in Alaska a week ago Saturday,

"We're back in home-sweet-home Soldotna," Rene said.

Back a week earlier than expected, Rene has some more time at home before going back on shift as a roving mechanic for the North Slope Borough.

Amy, who works for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, went back to work already.

"I will do another cruise but in some time," she said. "I would like to go on a normal cruise. I hope that my next cruise goes like a cruise is supposed to."

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.



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