Richard Liffridge, 72 – Cruise Ship Fire, Star Princess Passenger, March 23, 2006, Time of Death 3:00-6:00.
On March 23, 2006, my family suffered a devastating loss. My father, Richard Liffridge, and Victoria along with two other couples planned a cruise to celebrate their collective March birthdays. On March 11, 2006, my father celebrated his 72nd birthday. As part of his birthday, he and his friends planned a seven day cruise. This was my father’s first cruise and he was excited about celebrating his birthday with his friends.
On March 19, 2006, my father, Victoria and their friends boarded the Star Princess at Port Everglades, Florida. One month prior to their trip, as part of their usual ritual, my father sent me a letter outlining the cruise itinerary. According to my step-mother and their friends, they were having a wonderful time until early on the morning of March 23, 2006. It was at that time that a fire broke out aboard the Star Princess Cruise ship.
The fire was severe and fast moving affecting passenger decks nine through twelve. Over 100 cabins were destroyed by the fire including those of my father and his traveling companions.
My father and his wife Victoria dressed quickly, but thick black toxic smoke began to fill the corridors and began to seep under the doorway of their cabin. Once they opened their cabin door they were unable to see or breathe due to the thick black and suffocating smoke. They then got down on their hands and knees with wet towels wrapped around their faces for protection and began to crawl towards the nearest exit. They remembered an exit being located close to their cabin and began crawling in that direction. Once they reached the exit, they could feel heat on the door and knew it was not safe to exit at that location.
The corridor continued to fill with smoke. There was no emergency lighting to aid them or any emergency response team to assist them. Victoria held on to the back of my father’s T-shirt as he attempted to lead them through the corridor to safety. My father and Victoria became separated. Their visibility was zero. They were grasping for air, but their lungs were filling with smoke.
Victoria attempted to make her way to my father but could not locate him. She was unable to call out his name as the smoke filled in her lungs. As she tried to reach out for my father, she then heard him say, “Vicky, don’t let me die.” She wasn’t able to call out, but kept trying to find him in the dark.
Approximately nine hours later, I received the most devastating phone call from my brother, Phil, telling me there had been a fire on the ship and Dad didn’t make it. How could this be? My father was healthy, active and enjoying a cruise with his wife and friends. I felt like my life came crashing to an end. I literally fainted and when I could speak, I was surrounded by my co-workers. After telling them what happened, a few of them had heard about the fire and even printed an article that was on the internet. The cruise line claimed that my father had died from a “heart attack.” The article contained a toll free number for family members to call for more information. I immediately called the number and was told they didn’t have any information. An hour later, I called back and insisted on someone giving me information on where my step-mother was and what exactly happened to my father. I was put on hold so they could verify my information. Finally, someone provided me with the number to the Jamaican hospital where Victoria had been taken.
I was able to speak with Victoria at the hospital and she told me, as best she could, the events that had unfolded hours earlier. Victoria asked me, at that time, had the cruise line contacted me since I was listed as my father’s emergency contact person. I stated no. I was shocked to learn that the cruise line had my contact information in case of an emergency and did not use it.
As hours turned into days, six days to be exact, there had been no contact from the Princess Cruise line. At this point, my father’s body was still in Jamaica. The cruise line continued to report the cause of my father’s death as a heart attack. A subsequent autopsy revealed the true cause of death was “asphyxia” due to inhalation of smoke.
Princess Cruise line, in an attempt to accommodate the passengers aboard the ship, offered a full refund and a 25% discount on a future cruise. They also provided transportation back home as well as lodging during that transition. However, Princess Cruise Line would not commit to paying the cost of bringing my father home. Seven days after the fire, my father was flown back to Atlanta where we began to make preparations for our final goodbye.
Five months later, we still have no answers. What we do know, is that my father died from smoke inhalation trying to escape a death trap. The death trap was caused by easily combustible materials, no emergency lighting, no fire extinguishers in the corridors and no sprinklers. We do know that the fire originated on an external stateroom balcony sited on deck 10 on the vessels port side. We know that the ship was a Bermuda registered cruise ship and was not required to have fire extinguishers, sprinklers or smoke detectors on the external areas of the ship. We also know that it took 1 ½ hours to fight the fire due to the construction and partitioning of the balcony areas. We know that highly combustible materials were used on the balconies and the balcony partitions were of a polycarbonate material that produced large amounts of dense black smoke.