And the last in my 4 part series – Cats, Cars, Coffee & Cruises. If you haven’t read the other ones. Here they are:
Back to Part 4: Cruises
In May of 2013, we were going to be celebrating our 10th Anniversary. It was hard to believe that Joy had put up with me for 10 years, so it was worth celebrating.
At that time we were operating a small cafe in an office building, and were feeling a little run down. The cafe along with life in general, had us feeling like we were ready for a vacation.
We were so excited!
I remember leaving the cafe at 3 PM on a Thursday afternoon, May 23, 2013, jumping in the car, heading for Baltimore, Maryland where we were set to depart on the Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas. Our first cruise.
We were going to drive straight from London, Ontario to Baltimore where we had booked a park & cruise hotel. The ship was scheduled to leave the next day in the afternoon.
The drive was long and rainy, winding through small town after small town. We finally pulled into the parking lot of the Super 8 in Baltimore at 12:05 AM.
Morning came too quickly and we went downstairs for the continental breakfast and to find out what time the shuttle for the cruise port was leaving.
Around 10:30 AM, the shuttle picked us up at the hotel and we headed to Port of Baltimore. I snapped the photo below as we were pulling into the cruise port on a rainy Friday morning. The weather wasn’t great – but that didn’t matter. We were on our way to Florida and the Bahamas!
Before leaving though, we had a muster drill. Basically, in order to satisfy maritime safety requirements, every ship must have a safety drill that tells people what to do in the event of an emergency. We learned where our lifeboat was, how to put on the life jackets and so on.
It seemed like a formality that we just had to get through before we could be on our way.
Time to Set Sail!
Around 3 PM on Friday we set sail. The atmosphere on the cruise ship was fun, light and exciting.
That evening we went to dinner and were so excited to experience all that the cruise had to offer. Exceptional food, exceptional service, lively entertainment. It was all there.
After waking up the next morning, we were in full vacation mode! Barely a care in the world. We were at sea, no land in sight – it was a good time. We explored the ship, relaxed, ate lots of food and watched live music all day long.
The second morning we docked at our first stop – Port Canaveral, Florida.
We had not planned to do anything at this stop, because there isn’t much to do there. There’s the beach, but we’re not beach people so we decided to take a shuttle to the mall to pick up a few toiletries that we had forgot to pack.
Later that day, we went back to the ship, got ready for dinner and then watched a show in the theatre. After the show, we decided to go to the ’70’s-themed party scheduled in the Centrum – A large, open, multi-level atrium.
It was so fun!
Watching people dance and making a complete fool of themselves was entertaining. It’s hard to believe that the staff are able to put on such a fun show week after week.
At about 11 pm we went to bed, tired after a long, fun day.
The 2:45 AM Wake-Up Call
Joy is a light sleeper. She awoke to some commotion and noise in the hallway, but because of the party earlier that night, she assumed it was some drunk people finally getting back to their room.
She got up and opened the door to see why it seemed to be taking them so long to get into their room and that’s when I woke up.
As soon as I woke up, I recall a strange smell – like burning plastic. Outside our door were a few crewmen dressed in service technician outfits and they quickly said:
“Ma’am, stay in your room – everything is fine.”
At the moment that Joy was starting to close the door to our room, the crew opened a hatch to a service area…
…and our room quickly filled with smoke.
It was a surreal experience and I just remember saying in a panicked tone:
WE NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE NOW!
We were in an inside room, the very last cabin on the 3rd deck. There were no windows or balcony so I knew it was urgent that we get out fast.
We quickly grabbed a few things in the dark (crocs, shirt, passport, phone, wallet) and then we were out of there!
I’m not much into running, but I think I actually ran.
Here’s the thing – Did you notice there was no mention of pants or shorts in the items that I picked up? I had been wearing boxer shorts – a pair I really liked to wear to bed that I had purchased…in 2003…just before we got married.
Yes – these were 10-year-old boxer shorts!
No holes or anything (and I was wearing briefs underneath if you must know) but still, boxer shorts.
On our way down the long hallway to the mid-ship exits, we banged on a few doors. The service guys were also banging on doors telling people to get up.
I recall one guy walking out into the hall in his boxer-briefs and nothing else. Then he saw what was going on, yelled to his wife and kids to get up and they left right away. I would see him later on, wearing just that…boxer briefs, and nothing else. At least I had a shirt on!
We knew that during a fire, taking an elevator isn’t the best move, so we walked up the 2 flights of stairs, from the 3rd deck to the 5th.
The ship was suspiciously quiet because, up until this point, the alarm hadn’t sounded.
It was as soon as we reached the top of the stairs that there was a series of loud beeps on the PA system and the captain came on.
We heard “bravo, bravo, bravo” and then an announcement basically letting people know that there was a fire onboard and that this was NOT a drill. It was an emergency and everyone needed to grab their life jackets and assemble at their muster stations immediately.
We tried to go to where our assigned lifeboat was located, but we were stopped by a staff person who indicated that we couldn’t go down there, toward the back of the ship.
All the lifeboats were down, doors open and everyone was being given life jackets to put on if they didn’t bring the one from their room.
As I looked toward the back of the ship, I could see plumes of smoke billowing into the moonlight. That’s when I knew it wasn’t a small fire!
The captain came on the PA again to announce that if you could not get to your muster station due to fire, to go to the theatre.
The first thought that came to mind at this point, was of the scene from the Titanic when people were watching the entertainment while the ship was going down.
I was thinking – “Are they going to play ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ as this baby is burning?”
It was a quick thought – and then we just complied with the request and headed for the theatre at the front of the ship.
We got into the theatre and then they closed the fire doors. I would say there were maybe 200 people in the theatre, waiting, basically locked in.
I would like to point out that the staff were INCREDIBLE. I could not point to one mistake, one incident of bad service and despite the fire, I didn’t feel like we were in serious danger. I would give them a grade A in handling an emergency.
About every 15 minutes or so the Captain or the Cruise Director would make an announcement as to what was happening. For a long time, they just kept saying that they were trying to get to the fire, that they were fighting the fire and so on.
At one point I had to pee – big surprise.
The bathrooms were located outside the theatre, and in order to leave once you had been accounted for, you had to be escorted to the bathroom. Since we had already been counted in the headcount, they had to keep tabs on us.
As I went out, I looked out the door and noticed 2 things.
#1 We were going pretty fast for a big ship.
#2 There was another cruise ship that I could see in the distance, maybe 2kms away.
We were told at one point that a Carnival ship that had been ahead of us, turned around and was waiting to help if we needed to bail. They also mentioned that a Coast Guard ship was outside as well, which was reassuring.
As we waited in the theatre, sipping on glasses of water provided by staff, they started to go around and ask people if they needed anything from their rooms. I decided to test things out and see if our room was still there by asking for them to retrieve some medication for me.
About 15 minutes passed and a staff person came over and sat down. I felt like he was a doctor, about to deliver bad news.
He basically said – “you know that your room is really close to the fire – right? Well, we aren’t able to get to your room because they’re fighting the fire right there”
Great – our room is destroyed. That’s all I can think.
And I’m still in my boxer shorts…
The Fire is Out!
Finally – the announcement that we had all been waiting for! The fire had been extinguished.
There were cheers of excitement and relief. It was 8:00 AM by this time and people were getting restless.
As soon as the fire was out, it was almost like business as usual. They made another announcement saying that we were about an hour away from docking at an unplanned stop in Freeport, Bahamas – and that breakfast was being served in the Windjammer.
At this point, they started to call out room numbers and sections of the ship that were re-opened. One by one they said the deck numbers and the blocks of rooms until it got to our section of the ship.
That announcement never came. Our room was in the section of the ship that was closest to the fire. We later found out that the fire was on the other side of our cabin wall!
And…I’m still in my boxer shorts.
After realizing that our hallway was the only section of the ship where people were not allowed back to their room, we decided to go to the Guest Services desk and ask what we were supposed to do.
As we were explaining ourselves, a deck supervisor overheard and said that he could escort us back to our room.
We followed him, going down the 2 flights of stairs from the 5th deck down to the third. As soon as we got down to the 3rd deck, the air was different. All you could smell was damp smoke. Going down the long hallway to the very last cabin, the carpet got wetter and wetter as we went along until we reached our room.
He opened the door for us, but because the power to that section of the ship had been turned off, we had to use the flashlights on our phones to see.
And behold I saw a great thing – MY SHORTS!
I quickly grabbed them and put them on. By this time, it was about 11am, so I had been in my boxer shorts from 2:45am until 11am. I was so happy to be somewhat dressed again.
I went into the bathroom, retrieved my medication and then looked around.
Something I noticed almost immediately was that my hands were dirty from putting my shorts on. In fact, all of our luggage and belongings that were not in drawers were full of smoke and soot. It was great.
At this point, we were informed that we could not stay in our room so they had arranged for us to stay at a resort in Freeport and then they would fly us somewhere in the morning.
We boarded an old coach bus – about 100 people that weren’t able to go back to their rooms. It was then that we saw the extent of the damage to the ship:
We were now headed for the Pelican Bay resort. It was a pretty sweet deal actually.
They put us in a Suite overlooking the water – It was great because this wasn’t the kind of hotel that we could actually afford to stay at and the cruise line was extremely generous with the food credits at the hotel.
Later on in the evening, we were waiting in the hotel conference room for the Royal Caribbean team to come to the hotel to give us an update on what would happen next when I happened to tweet out where we were.
Within minutes, I received a private message from a producer at ABC news who wanted to know where we were.
I told him our location…and also said: “you didn’t hear it from me.”
Within about 1 hour I received another message from the same producer asking my exact location. Apparently, they had made their way over from Miami to Freeport Bahamas – I presume by helicopter or jet and they were out in front of the hotel. I mentioned that we were out back at the restaurant with everyone else.
This was somewhat exciting – I met a few people with cameras and Matt Guttman, who is a reporter for ABC News.
At the end of the day though, I decided not get to interviewed for live TV. I wasn’t ready for that kind of fame…
The Next Day
Neither of us slept well that night and then a knock came at about 6:30 am. Standing at the door was a representative from the cruise line, letting us know that they had arranged a flight to Miami and transportation to the airport and we needed to be in the lobby at 8:30 am.
We got up, got dressed and went for breakfast – which was insanely expensive, but we had credit for food.
Sure enough, at 8:30 am, a junky old Limo pulled up out front and we got in. Plywood floors – it was classy.
As we pulled up to the airport, the same reporters were there from ABC News.
We walked into the small airport and up to the counter to let them know that we were there to get on a plane, to Florida. We had no documentation that said this – but we assumed it would be pretty straightforward since they must have made arrangements to fly 2200 people back to the US.
The lady looked at us and said: “There are no flights going to Florida today.” She asked us about tickets and we explained the situation. The conversation wasn’t going anywhere…
At this point, Joy was running on nerves and she had a higher volume exchange with the woman working behind the counter and then her manager came over. Joy wasn’t yelling but she was short and direct!
Her manager pointed at a few things on the screen, hit some buttons and then said: “put them on that plane.”
She mentioned that our name wasn’t on the manifest but he said: “It doesn’t matter, put them on that plane.”
Back to Baltimore
We waited patiently in the small, hot airport for a plane to arrive – that we thought was going to Florida. The plan that we heard was that they would get us back to Florida and then once we were at a major airport, it would be easier to find us a flight back to Baltimore.
But, we soon found out that the plane that we were on was going back to Baltimore, direct. The flight attendant told us that he received a call at about 4 am, wondering if he wanted an extra shift. He was based in Atlanta, Georgia.
As it turned out, the cruise line had chartered a number of Delta planes to come and get us and take us straight back to Baltimore!
We flew back in business class which was nice.
Back on the ground in Baltimore
Since Joy and I had gotten the first seat on the plane, we were the first ones off the plane. As we came down the ramp, there were reporters and people clapping. That was awkward…
A woman rushed up to me, told me she was from Inside Edition and wondered if we had any video footage. I did have a little video of us walking down a wet hall, back to our room, but it wasn’t good enough for them…you see, I wanted money. haha. 🙂
At the airport, we were directed to a row of coach buses and we got on.
These buses were nice – they had wifi & TV screens, so I could catch up on the news.
You have GOT TO BE KIDDING!!!!
While on the bus, I could see smoke in the distance, and I could see helicopter coverage on TV, of a story that was unfolding in Baltimore at the time.
As the bus pulled away, taking us back to the cruise port, I decided to call our hotel to let them know we needed a shuttle ride back to the hotel from the cruise port. The lady was confused as to why we were back on Tuesday, not Friday – but she said OK, we will be there in 20 minutes.
Then the phone rang.
I picked it up and it was the lady I had just spoken with. She asked “have you watched the news here in Baltimore?” and I told her that I was watching it. She asked if I knew about the explosion – which I did.
At this point, she said “We’re on the other side of the tracks and the Police have the railway crossings closed all over the whole city. We can’t get to where you are”
Well…Isn’t this wonderful…
By this time, we have been dropped off at the cruise port and we’re sitting out at the bus/taxi stop, with our smokey luggage just waiting to go somewhere. Anywhere…
Long story short – we called a taxi because we needed to go somewhere else, even if it wasn’t back to our car yet. Thankfully the taxi driver knew of a way to get around the fire and back to the hotel parking lot. It seemed out of the way, but whatever. $50 USD later and we were back at our car.
What about our vacation?
While we were waiting for the taxi to pick us up, I had called the Hilton reservations phone number and asked if they could help us find any hotel, within 30-45 minutes from where we were – that would be around $100 per night or less.
Sure enough, there was room in a Hampton Inn about 45 minutes away in Gaithersburg, Maryland so we booked it. 2 nights.
Looking back on it now, I’m not sure what we were thinking. We wanted to salvage our vacation somewhat, so we decided that we would explore Washington DC for a few days. I had not been there before and since we were so close, we went.
It was fun for a day or two, but the busy-ness of the city had us both on edge. We were still feeling anxious.
We went to the Smithsonian and saw some of the great landmarks around Washington, but because it was a normal workday there – 5pm came and the subway turned into a sea of people. It didn’t help with our feelings of anxiety!
Just before going to bed on the second night, I was Googling other places that we could go. We weren’t too far from Amish country – Pennsylvania, so we decided to look for somewhere to stay in that area, hoping to find a place to actually relax.
At about 9 or 10pm, I found a Bed & Breakfast and it looked so compelling. I booked it as we were getting ready for bed.
I received an email back from one of the owners almost immediately and she let me know that she was out of town because they didn’t have any guests previously booked.
She did say, however, that her husband was home and that he could take care of us – but the experience might be slightly different than usual.
We were fine with that because we just wanted to relax.
Finally, some rest
The next morning we drove to Reinholds, Pennsylvania and pulled up to the Brownstone Colonial Inn. What a beautiful spot!
We went up to the front door and were so warmly greeted by Mark.
Have you ever met someone and the moment you meet them, it’s as if you have known them for years?
This was how it felt with Mark. He was so warm, so genuine. We felt at home almost immediately. We soon found out that we shared a common faith in Jesus. Mark showed us to our room and the house was beautiful. If you love old homes, this is the place for you!
We had the chance to tell Mark about our unfortunate series of events and more about ourselves, then we decided it was time for dinner. We asked if he knew of somewhere we could go for dinner so he recommended a few places and we went.
We returned after dinner to the most thoughtful thing. Mark had gone into town and purchased some roses for Joy – knowing that our anniversary had not turned out how we had planned, as well as some chocolates and locally roasted coffee for the next morning!
We slept great that night.
The next morning we woke up and got ready, then headed downstairs. We could hear someone talking softly, but we knew no one other than Mark was there.
When we entered the kitchen, Mark was on the phone with his wife Brenda, going over the morning breakfast routine. We were treated like royalty!
Breakfast was great, we stayed another night and wandered around the area, checking out what Amish life was like. It was a nice, relaxing end to a hectic vacation.
We drove home after our 2 nights there with quite a story to tell!
Beyond the story, we learned several valuable lessons about life, safety and rest…which I will possibly elaborate on another time.
How do we feel about cruises today?
We love them!
Despite all that happened, we have since been on 2 cruises with the same cruise line, with no incident. Although we take travel insurance more seriously!
As for why we still cruise on the same cruise line; We saw how prepared they were for an emergency like we experienced and it made us more convinced that we should sail with them again. Accidents happen – it’s the response that determines the outcome. The cruise line went over and above in our opinion and we’re thankful for that.
Well, folks, that’s all…
Also published on Medium.