Making the most of a cruise gone bad

On May 24, my wife and I embarked on our first cruise aboard the Royal Caribbean ship Grandeur of the Seas to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary. Having deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the Maryland Army National Guard, I had been overseas for our fifth anniversary, and this year I booked a cruise out of Baltimore to help make up for it.

I was a little hesitant to do so. Last year, while deployed to Afghanistan, I booked a cruise for my two weeks' leave. I planned to meet my wife in Barcelona, Spain, and we would embark on our first cruise aboard the Costa Concordia for a one-week tour of the Mediterranean.

Needless to say, our cruise never happened. The Costa Concordia ran aground outside Italy a few weeks prior to our scheduled trip, with horrific loss of life. In the aftermath, I found Costa cruise lines to be uncommunicative and extremely difficult to deal with. The experience came very close to turning me off of cruising entirely.

After setting sail, my wife and I enjoyed two days by the ship's pool, and then turned in late on Sunday. Around 2:30 on Monday morning, we awoke suddenly to the sound of the ship's intercom system announcing that all passengers should report to their muster stations immediately. A few seconds later, a crew member began pounding on our door. Opening the door, I was immediately hit with smoke and the thick, acrid chemical smell of burning plastic. The voice on the intercom announced: "This is not a drill."

My mind immediately flashed to my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. When a rocket or mortar attack on our base was imminent, an automated siren and alarm would sound with the words "Incoming, incoming." We had been trained on how to respond: We would hit the ground and cover our heads. After we heard explosions, we would grab our body armor and head to the nearest bunker and wait for the "all-clear" signal. This was essentially what the army calls a "battle drill." At that moment, what was going on aboard our burning ship was essentially a battle drill, and it was executed heroically by the officers, staff, and crew.

Securing our life vests, my wife and I moved immediately into the crowded hallway to our muster stations. Along the hallway every few feet was a Royal Caribbean crew member pointing the way for passengers in various states of undress and consciousness. We were shepherded to our muster stations calmly and efficiently, and the crew sprang into action. Cooks, dancers and art gallery specialists immediately began to get a by-name accountability of every passenger. Waiters, housekeeping staff and blackjack dealers began to lower and prepare the life boats in case they were needed. Carpenters, electricians and plumbers valiantly donned firefighting equipment and risked their lives to fight a raging fire for almost three hours.

All along, the captain gave regular updates, keeping passengers fully informed about the progress of the firefighting, the status of the Coast Guard, where we were headed, and how far we were from port. When a passenger became faint, almost immediately a mobile medical team arrived to assist. Later, when the captain announced that the fire had finally been put out the crew and passengers spontaneously erupted into applause.

The crew who had been up all night fighting fires and caring for passengers then kicked into hospitality mode and went above and beyond the call of duty. Within an hour, cooks managed to prepare a hot meal. Unlimited Internet and phone service were provided, and customer service representatives began addressing individual passenger issues.

When it was officially announced that the cruise had to end, the captain informed us that we would be getting a full refund, plus a credit for a free cruise. We were also told that we would be flown the next day on chartered aircraft back to Baltimore. Until we left Tuesday evening, the crew continued to provide outstanding service with grace and undeniable pride in their ship. From opening up the restaurants to providing live music and putting on comedy shows, our time was made to pass as pleasantly as possible. On Wednesday around 1 a.m., my wife and I disembarked at Baltimore Washington International, where we were met by representatives from Royal Caribbean and, much to my astonishment, a jazz trio playing live music in the baggage claim area.

Although this obviously wasn't what we had in mind for our first cruise, the attention to detail, professionalism and genuine care and concern of the officers, staff and crew saved lives and ensured that we all returned home safely. It is because of them that my first cruise will not be my last.

Adam Tiffen lives in Fairfax, Va., and has served in the Maryland Army National Guard for 12 years. His email is adamtiffen@hotmail.com.