Cruise passengers return to Baltimore after harrowing voyage

They left Baltimore on Friday by cruise ship and came back Tuesday by charter jet. The passengers from the Grandeur of the Seas arrived safely and with sea stories to last a lifetime.

A fire near the stern of the 917-foot Royal Caribbean International ship early Monday morning forced it to make an emergency detour to Freeport, Bahamas, and cut short the vacations of 2,224 passengers. It's the latest in a string of mishaps that have besmirched the reputation of the cruise industry.

Many of the first arrivals at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport told similar stories of being awakened by announcements and pounding on their cabin doors, only to be shaken by the smell of smoke and orange glow in the sky that signaled something serious.

They also praised the ship's crew and said they will take the cruise line up on its offer of a free cruise down the line.

"The crew was great," said Chuck Baynes of Abingdon, who traveled with his wife and two sons. "They had never been through anything like that before, but they're well trained and they got it all squared away."

Cindy McNeil, who had traveled from her home in Oklahoma to Baltimore for the cruise with her two daughters, and her husband, Joe, an Annapolis native, agreed.

"They were just awesome. They were so professional," McNeil said of the crew. "They were calm. They were upbeat."

However, some of those closer to the fire's heat did not share that experience.

Shayne Parsons of Millersville, whose cabin was directly above the fire, had praise for the firefighting crew, "but as soon as the fire was out, it was as if we didn't exist. We were just a number."

Parsons and about 100 other passengers displaced by water and smoke damage were taken ashore and put up at a hotel.

"At 1 p.m., we checked off the boat and we did not see anyone from Royal Caribbean again until well after 8 p.m. We were on our own with no direction," said Parsons, a Navy contractor, who paid $4,500 for a vacation for two.

On Tuesday, they were hustled from the hotel and told they were to board a 5 p.m. flight home only to find that they were on standby with no departure time.

"Things happen. I'm not upset about the fire at all," Parsons said. "But we've been treated like animals."

A Royal Caribbean spokeswoman did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Passengers said that confusion on board erupted when the announcements came shortly before 3 a.m.

"My survival skills kicked in. I put on long pants and a sweat shirt, not knowing what the weather was going to be at sea at night," said Rachel Beser, 25, who was on the ship with eight friends from her college years at Towson University.

Many other passengers had no time to dress, and stood around in their pajamas or underwear for hours until the fire was out, Beser and others said.

Jennifer Dodson, who was part of the informal college reunion, said when she saw the glow of the fire, "I knew it was big, that this wasn't a trash can on fire."

Baynes said his family gathered in the ship's theater area, and his sons went back to sleep. But as time passed, he began to wonder why the fire wasn't out.

"I'm like, 'This is no small deck fire. Something's going on,'" he said. "Then they called in the Coast Guard."