Star Princess rises like a phoenix

by Lew Toulmin

The futuristic “Star Princess” anchored off Stockholm, Sweden. Photos: Toulmin

After suffering a fire in the Bahamas in March 2006, Star Princess recovered in amazing time and is now “the safest ship afloat.” I was on board Star Princess for her first voyage after the repair, and I can report that there is no evidence of fire damage, service is excellent, and safety standards are very high.

According to Cruise Director John Lawrence and other sources, the fire broke out at about 3:10 a.m. on March 23 on a port side balcony amidships, then spread to other balconies, driven by wind from the ship’s 21-knot cruising speed. According to the U.K. Maritime Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), “. . . the fire was probably caused by a discarded cigarette heating combustible materials on a balcony. . .” The fire spread laterally and vertically across the ship’s balconies, severely damaging 79 cabins on three decks.

The fire alarm was sounded and passengers woke up, donned life jackets and followed crew instructions. Dr. Phillip Shields, a passenger on board, stated that, “The cruise line did a great job, and the people were relatively calm and went to their (muster) stations appropriately.”

Neptune, God of the Sea — a beautiful Roman mosaic at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Cruise Director Lawrence said that he had viewed a disturbing home videotape, taken by a passenger, showing some passengers watching the flames, laughing and not reporting the fire. . . before the fire alarm was sounded. But fire at sea is no joke — one person died of cardiac arrest and 13 were injured in this fire, and fire can destroy a vessel very rapidly.

Due to the actions of the well-trained Star Princess crew, the fire was contained and then extinguished in less than two hours, according to the MAIB, which issued a final report on the fire in October. The 2,600 passengers disembarked in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and were provided refunds by Princess Cruises, flown home and offered a 25% discount on a future cruise.

Beth Bostrom of Nashville, Tennessee, said that she was pleased by the cruise line’s response: “We were impressed. If we go on another cruise, we’d go with Princess.”

Just as impressive was the swift repair of the ship. The damaged cabins and balconies were stripped out very quickly in the Grand Bahama Shipyard in Freeport. Then the vessel dashed over to the Lloyd Werft yard in Bremerhaven, Germany.

According to Lawrence, “We chose the Lloyd Werft yard instead of the original builder’s yard of Fincantieri in Italy because we knew that it would take almost a week to sail the vessel from Italy around Gibraltar to the Baltic after the repair. We wanted the ship’s first post-repair voyage to be in the Baltic by May 15, the start of the Baltic cruising season, and we knew that week would be critical.”

In fact, just about every minute was critical.

“I arrived at the ship on May 10, just five days before sailing,” said Lawrence. “Many cabins, balconies and railings were not in place, and I thought there was no way that we could meet the deadline. But the German yard manager assured me, saying, ‘We are right on the schedule!,’ and sure enough we sailed on time. Lloyd Werft did a fantastic job.”

Changing of the guard at the Finnish Foreign Ministry in Helsinki, one of the Baltic ports visited by Star Princess.

According to Lawrence, “The most amazing part of the reconstruction was that most of the furniture, rugs, fixtures and other heavy items had to be air-freighted from Fincantieri in Italy to northern Germany in order to make the very tight reconstruction schedule.”

The expense was huge, but the turnaround was worth it. The vessel went from severely damaged to totally passenger-ready in just 53 days — a tremendous feat of logistics, management and dedication.

I interviewed a crew member who was part of the reconstruction team. He said, “We worked around the clock to make the deadline. It was amazing to see the big holes where the damaged cabins had been pulled out — then they just miraculously filled up with shiny new cabins.”

Lawrence noted, importantly, that the ship is now much safer than it was before the fire.

“The Bremerhaven yard installed smoke detectors and sprinklers on every balcony on board. At this point, the Star Princess is the only ship in the cruising fleet that has this important new safety feature, which is recommended but not required for all cruise vessels. All of the Princess fleet will have these features installed in the next few months, but at this moment Star Princess is arguably the safest cruise ship afloat.”

The ship’s literature notes that the Star Princess has over 15,000 smoke, fire and other sensors scattered all over the ship, in every space, in every cabin and on every balcony. In my opinion, a passenger on a cruise ship like this is safer, by several orders of magnitude, than he is driving on land.

The famous armored cruiser Potemkin, moored at St. Petersburg. The mutiny on board this vessel in 1905 was the precursor to the earth-shaking Russian Revolution of 1917.

MAIB Chief Inspector Stephen Meyer stated that industry cooperation with the bureau’s safety recommendations was already high and that Princess Cruises and its parent, Carnival Cruise Lines, were working to be fully compliant with the recommendations on all ships in their fleets by the end of 2006. He noted that “Carnival began replacing all 26,400 balconies on its 81 ships immediately after the incident” and that “this is a major achievement.”

Our voyage through the Baltic, “Scandinavia and Russia,” May 15-25, 2006, went off without a hitch. The ship was beautifully decorated, the staff were friendly and very service-oriented, and the ports of Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Gdansk and Oslo were terrific.

The ship is sailing this same itinerary from May to September. The cruise-only price ranges from $2,040 to $2,690 per person, double occupancy, depending on the date and the quality of the cabin, either a normal ocean-view stateroom or a balcony stateroom. You can reach Princess Cruises at 24844 Avenue Rockefeller, Santa Clarita, CA 91355; phone 800/774-6237 or visit

The Baltic is one of the great undiscovered cruising grounds, and the Star Princess is an excellent and very safe vessel in which to make your voyage of discovery.

The Toulmins received a discount from Princess Cruises but paid for their airfare, drinks, tips and shore excursions on their voyage. Lew is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from, and The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906).