My name is Lynnette Hudson and on March 23, 2006, my family suffered a devastating loss. My father, Richard Liffridge, and his wife 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 stepmother and their friends, they were having a wonderful time until 3:10 a.m. 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.
It has been difficult to piece together the events as they unfolded that morning. My father and Victoria were awakened by faint sounds of an alarm and static over the intercom. My stepmother got up to see what was causing the commotion when she noticed a crewmember knocking on a door across the hall. The crewmember did not say anything to her. Victoria then heard one of her traveling companions, whose cabin was located on the same deck, yelling, “the ship is on fire, the ship is on fire. Everyone get out!”
Victoria relayed this information to my father and they began to get dressed so they could escape their room. As they dressed, thick black toxic smoke began to fill the corridors and began to seep under the doorway of their cabin. After dressing, they grabbed towels and began to wet them so that they could be used to aid them in safely escaping the fire.
Once they opened their cabin door they were unable to see due to the thick black smoke. They then got down on their hands and knees with the 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 see flames coming from the other side of the door and knew it was not safe to exit at that location.
The corridor continued to fill with smoke and their visibility was zero. 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.
As Victoria was holding on to my father, the ship shifted which caused her to be thrown to the opposite side of the corridor against the wall. Victoria attempted to make her way back to my father but could not locate him. She was unable to call out his name as the smoke began to fill 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 disheartening phone call from my brother, Phil, telling me there had been a fire on the ship and dad didn’t make it. Phil had been contacted by Victoria. How could this be? My father was on 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. I glanced through the article, which stated my father had died from a heart attack. The initial cause of the fire had been reported as a smoldering cigarette. In the article that I had read, there was 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 stepmother 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 and 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 being held up by red tape. The cruise line continued to report the cause of my father’s death as a heart attack but a subsequent autopsy revealed the cause of death as smoke inhalation.
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 needlessly from smoke inhalation trying to escape a death trap. The death trap was caused by 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 vessel’s port side. We know that the ship was not 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.
It should be noted that we still have not received a note, phone call or sympathy card from Princess Cruise Line. It is as if this never happened.
Because of this unnecessary tragedy, our family has formed a non-profit foundation in my father’s name, The Richard Liffridge Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to enhance fire safety regulations as well as safety in general on cruise ships. We also hope to lobby in front of Congress to amend the Death on the High Seas Act (DOSHA).
This was a senseless tragedy that did not have to occur but my father’s death will not be in vain. My family, through our foundation, will continue to fight to ensure that others are made aware of the dangers aboard cruise ships and that this does not occur again.