MIAMI -- An officer who was aboard the cruise ship Scandinavian Star during a March fire surprised federal safety investigators at a hearing Tuesdaywhen he told them of an earlier, unreported fire on the same vessel.
The revelation prompted James Burnett, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, to call for an accounting of all fires on cruise ships sailing from Florida ports.
'I think it has become quite obvious to us that we have something here that can not be sloughed off,' Burnett said during a break from the hearing. 'Too many warning signs.'
The disclosure by staff captain Glan Phillips came during an otherwise routine hearing into the cause of and response to a March fire aboard the Star, which is operated by SeaEscape Ltd.
The Star was returning to St. Petersburg March 15 from a two-day cruise to Mexico when fire broke out in the engine room shortly before midnight. A leaking fuel line caused the blaze, which injured two crew members and one passenger.
About 700 passengers and crew members were on board at the time.
The disclosure marked the second time safety board investigators learned of a fire aboard the Star during routine testimony.
During a three-day hearing in June into the March fire, another crew member told investigators of a minor blaze breaking out aboard the Star just days before. Broken lubricating pipe caused that fire, which was quickly controlled.
Phillips testified Tuesday that a 1985 fire caused extensive damage to the ship, but no injuries. Hot grease from a deep fryer that malfunctioned caused the blaze, he said.
'I think that will be an area that we will probably want to make further inquiry,' Burnett said.
SeaEscape officials in Miami were unavailable for comment.
In an opening statement, Burnett noted that in the past five years the board has investigated four fires on cruise ships operating from Florida ports.
Three of those fires occurred aboard SeaEscape liners, including an August 1984 fire that killed two people aboard the Scandinavian Sun.
Burnett also noted the failure of a fire extinguishing system and an emergency generator aboard the Star when fire broke out in March.
The failures hampered efforts to battle the blaze and evacuate passengers from cabins, according to testimony.
'The failure of the vessel's safety systems highlights the potential for a catastrophic loss of life in this accident and future vessel fires,' Burnett said.
In other testimony, the motorman who discovered the fire in the engine room said he reported the blaze to the watch engineer instead of shutting off a fuel line that was feeding the fire.
Motorman Alberto Acosta said he thought of closing the valve, but followed the chain of command and reported the blaze.
By the time he returned, fire prevented him from reaching the valve, Acosta said through a Spanish translator.
Burnett said he expects the board to issue a report early next year.