Cruise ship in storm: Royal Caribbean apologizes to passengers

[Breaking news update, posted at 8:23 p.m. ET]

Royal Caribbean, which operates the cruise ship that is returning to port after being battered by rough seas, apologized Wednesday to its passengers and said: “We have to do better.”

The cruise line said the storm the Anthem of the Seas encountered was much worse than predicted.

“Even so, it is our responsibility to eliminate every surprise we possibly can,” Royal Caribbean said.

Four injuries were reported among the 6,000 passengers and crew members, the cruise line said.

[Previous story, posted at 7:20 p.m. ET]

As a U.S. senator questions why a cruise ship would sail its more than 6,000 passengers and crew into what is being called an “extreme storm,” a father on the boat said Wednesday that passengers were informed of the storm early in their journey.

“We were told there was some weather. I don’t know if he said a storm or not,” Asher Lipman told CNN during a phone interview from the ship. “The captain was either going to outrun it, get ahead of it, so it wasn’t going to be a huge impact on us.”

Lipman is on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas with his 10-year-old daughter, Charlotte. His wife, a CNN employee, has been in close contact with him during the harrowing ordeal.

“We’re limping into port,” Lipman said of the ship, which is en route back to Cape Liberty, New Jersey, where it is scheduled to dock at 9 p.m. ET. “I can only imagine the kind of damage that happened to the ship.”

Royal Caribbean said Anthem of the Seas encountered rough seas off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, while sailing Sunday from the New York area to Port Canaveral, Florida, in what was intended originally to be a seven-day voyage to the Bahamas.

It said the ship suffered damage to some public areas and cabins but “remains seaworthy.” None of the injuries was serious, the cruise line said. The company decided Monday afternoon the ship would return to Cape Liberty.

Lipman’s trip was supposed to be a celebration of Charlotte’s birthday, but it quickly turned into a terrifying experience Sunday.

“It made me think of the announcements from 9/11 a little bit, because (the captain) said, ‘Everyone stay in your stateroom. Don’t travel the deck. It’s dangerous. Things are falling,’ ” Lipman recalled.

Lipman now questions the decision to continue on the original itinerary despite the storm.

“It’s a little disappointing. I think a lot of people on the ship share this sentiment that this was a lapse in judgment on either Royal Caribbean’s part or the captain’s part,” he said.

He’s not alone. Fewer than 24 hours after the incident, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida called for an National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

“The thing about this storm was that it was forecast for days. So why in the world would a cruise ship with thousands of passengers go sailing right into it?” Nelson said from the Senate floor Monday. “I want the (NTSB) to come up with answers very quickly and make an admonition to mariners: When the storm is brewing, you don’t go out of port.”

As early as Thursday, the National Weather Service’s ocean prediction center in Washington forecast winds of 46 to 57 mph and 23- to 31-foot seas on Sunday night in the area where the ship encountered the storm, CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray said.

Nelson’s office says it wants the NTSB to take a hard look into why ships such as the Anthem of the Seas are venturing into such extreme weather.

The NTSB, meanwhile, released a statement saying the incident involved a Bahamian-flagged ship in international waters, and “we are actively engaged with our U.S. and international partners to determine what would be the best course of action, in accordance with established international protocols.”

The agency acknowledged that it had received Nelson’s request that it review the “incident as part of its investigation into the El Faro accident,” in which a Florida-based cargo ship traveled into a hurricane and sunk near the Bahamas in October.

“The Anthem of the Seas incident may provide us an additional opportunity to learn best practices that cruise line operators employ for operating in heavy weather,” the NTSB said.

Royal Caribbean has said the winds that the Anthem of the Seas encountered were higher than what were forecast.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoy off the Carolina coast recorded a gust of 76 mph, above hurricane-force, and waves of 30 feet, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said.

Some passengers said on Twitter that in-house TV reports in their staterooms indicated winds of 120 mph to 150 mph.

The ship “leaned way over as the captain fought the winds,” passenger Greg Cribbs said.

The cruise line has not responded to CNN’s calls, and emails requesting additional details on why the decision was made to continue on the original itinerary despite the storm.

The ship is expected to reach Cape Liberty on Wednesday night. Lipman and his daughter are eager to get back on land.

“It’s been a trying experience, and I think we’re ready to get home and see my son, my wife and our dog and move on,” he said.

Passengers will receive a refund for their trouble plus half off a future cruise fare, Royal Caribbean tweeted.

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