Federal prosecutors on Friday charged Norwegian Cruise Line with gross negligence almost five years after a boiler explosion on the historic SS Norway killed eight crew members and seriously injured 10 others in the Port of Miami.
The U.S. attorney's office said Norwegian agreed to plead guilty to the criminal charge, which alleges the cruise line operated the vessel in a ``grossly negligent manner that endangered the lives, limbs and property of the persons on board.''
Norwegian is liable for at least $500,000 in criminal penalties for the deadliest accident on a U.S.-based ocean liner in more than a decade. The cruise line also has agreed to carry out safety inspections of its vessels with an independent consultant.
Coast Guard Rear Admiral Robert Branham called the May 25, 2003, explosion a ``preventable tragedy.''
''Hopefully, this case will send a message to the maritime industry that marine safety should be the paramount consideration in maintaining their vessels,'' he said in a statement.
The cruise line said Friday evening that it has cooperated with federal authorities since the explosion and will continue to do so. ''The safety and security of our passengers and crew has been and always will be of the utmost importance,'' Norwegian's statement said.
A National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident, quietly completed in November, showed NCL engineers had expressed concerns since the late 1990s about the condition of the four boilers that powered the elegant ship. The massive high-pressure boilers, each holding 20 tons of 528-degree water, had a history of cracks, leaks, corrosion and repairs.
''We must realize that we have reached a point where the operation of the vessel is not safe,'' one unnamed NCL port engineer wrote in a 1998 e-mail to the company's vice president of ship operations, the NTSB report said. The engineer cited ''numerous boiler tube failures'' that were subsequently repaired.
The NTSB found the primary cause of the explosion was the fracture of a weld on a seam of a high-pressure drum. The scalding water flashed into steam, swept through the engine spaces and some adjacent crew berthing areas and killed eight crew members while injuring nearly a dozen others. No passengers were hurt.
Investigators also found questionable welds and crack-repair efforts; inconsistent water chemistry that led to corrosion; inadequate inspections from both NCL and Bureau Veritas, an international inspection agency, and an operating schedule that exposed the aging boilers to extreme thermal stresses.
In January and July 2002, a year before the boiler burst, NCL port engineers e-mailed NCL management with concerns that the ship's routes and busy schedules forced crew to fire up and cool down the boilers more rapidly than the operating manual called for.
The report was also critical of NCL's handling of persistent cracks in the boilers, which first appeared in original welds in the 1970s. Cracks were ground down until boiler walls reached a minimum allowable thickness then built back up with weld repairs. The length and width of the welds, the NTSB found, probably accelerated pitting and cracking.
At some point, copper -- an unacceptable metal for repairs -- also appeared to have been deliberately applied to cracks on the boiler that exploded.
''The only explanation for the presence of the copper is that it was introduced to mask the crack, impede inspection and avoid necessary repairs,'' the report said.
Investigators also found a lengthy gap in formal inspections, ``even though it was known that they were susceptible to cracking and were in fact cracked in 1996.''
The report found that the header, the part of boiler No. 23 that failed, had not had a material test or appropriate visual inspection since 1990.
The cruise line was charged in an ''information,'' not a criminal complaint or indictment. That means Norwegian executives and prosecutors negotiated the misdemeanor charge.
''Charges such as those today are necessary to show that companies operating and managing ships have a duty to take reasonable measures to assure the safety of all onboard -- passengers and crew,'' said U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta.
In addition, the NTSB noted that NCL had agreed to improve its fleet emergency response, safety measures and maintenance records. Though few ships, aside from Naval vessels, still rely on large high-pressure boilers for primary power, smaller low-pressure ones are routinely used to heat water or for other shipboard systems.
FAMILIES CAN'T SUE
Miami attorney Charles Lipcon, who represented many of the victims and is the author of the new book, Unsafe on the High Seas, praised the criminal charge.
''I'm pleased to see that the U.S. attorney stepped up to the plate and got involved,'' he said. But he called it ''unfortunate'' that the crew members and their families were not able to press civil lawsuits against Norwegian in federal court in Miami.
The dead and injured seamen were mostly Filipino. Their contracts with Norwegian called for settling claims in arbitration, so their lawsuits were dismissed from federal court in Miami. The cruise line negotiated settlements afterward.
A cruise industry representative called the criminal case a strong signal.
''We take safety very seriously as an industry, and we hope this gets resolved and look forward to a resolution,'' said Michael Crye, executive vice president of the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group.
The SS Norway had a storied past. It was launched as the SS France in 1960. At 1,035 feet, it was the longest passenger ship afloat and could carry more than 2,000. It was too long and too wide for the Panama Canal.
Deemed unprofitable in 1974, the ocean-liner was mothballed in France. In 1979, Norwegian Cruise Line bought it for $18 million -- its value in scrap metal -- and revamped it at a cost of $120 million. After a ''farewell cruise'' to Europe in 2001, the SS Norway returned to Miami for seven-day cruises in the eastern Caribbean. It was among the last ocean-liners powered by high-pressure steam boilers.
It has been out of commission since the boiler explosion five years ago. The company has since sold it for scrap.
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