The "Miracle on the Elizabeth River"

First responders work to control the fire aboard Spirit of Norfolk after the evacuation, June 7 (Norfolk Fire-Rescue)

Published Jun 27, 2022 4:46 PM by Capt. Peter Squicciarini

On June 7, the dinner cruise vessel Spirit of Norfolk experienced a mass conflagration fire onboard during a daytime underway cruise on the Elizabeth River. The vessel was a complete loss and burned for several days before all the hot spots could finally be extinguished. I observed the vessel after the fire and to say it was totally destroyed, almost “vaporized” in its interior, would not be an exaggeration.

Onboard were nearly 100 passengers and crew. Many of them were grade-school children on a school outing with parent chaperones. The “Miracle on the Elizabeth River” was that not one passenger or crew was injured, and all were rapidly evacuated to another passenger vessel nearby. Akin to the U.S. Airways flight 1549 “Miracle on the Hudson” with Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, I’d say.

This incident could very easily have turned into a mass tragedy. From the first sight of smoke until flames took mere moments. The Spirit’s master, Captain Ryan Nadeau, responded instantly and correctly. The Spirit’s crew performed professionally. I have heard the USCG recordings of the VHF Channel 16 distress calls and Captain Nadeau sounded confident, deliberate, and professional. Captain Nadeau requested assistance from vessels on the river near the Spirit. Tugs from the close by Norfolk Naval Base raced to assistance with firefighting water. Captain Nadeau quickly positioned the vessel to minimize the deadly effects of smoke and flames. Spirit’s crew handed out life jackets quickly and kept the 100-plus passengers, again mostly children, calm. Precious time was saved to evacuate everyone from the Spirit without any injuries at all. When you have a raging fire onboard time is your enemy and time is precious. Time saves or costs lives. In the tragic fire onboard Spirit, perfect and professional actions saved time and many lives.

But there is also more to the “Miracle on the Elizabeth River” that day. Other passenger tour vessels were underway off the Norfolk Naval Base where Spirit’s fire broke out. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation by the passenger vessels on the Elizabeth River that day. The master of Victory Rover, Captain Brandon Peter, saw the Spirit in distress and heard the mayday call. He raced the Victory Rover up alongside the Spirit and perfectly coordinated with Captain Nadeau. I have seen the video of the two vessels together evacuating the Spirit’s passengers. I saw smoke and flames. Children were being placed in life jackets and lifted over the Spirit’s handrails and across and down to Victory Rover’s top deck. Spirit’s crew and those parents who were passengers looked like they had drilled for this many times. All passengers and crew were evacuated before Captain Nadeau himself left his vessel. Just like Captain “Sully” on the Hudson. A potential, almost to be expected, deadly tragedy was miraculously averted.

Everything went right that day. The positive ending is a testament to the professionalism of the passenger vessel industry and both long- and well-established cruise vessel companies. Spirit was operated by City Experiences by Hornblower, and Victory Rover is operated by American Rover Cruises of Norfolk, VA.

I always preach that training makes the last minute of a crisis count. Fire onboard is an immediate crisis. It is a “come as you are” emergency. Minutes separate life and death. Of note in the Spirit’s fire is that the passenger vessel industry is serious, professionally trained, run, and crewed. There are routinely thousands of passengers and tourists on these vessels every day and night. If there had been widespread injuries or tragically any deaths on Spirit that day, the passenger vessel industry’s reputation could have been damaged, perhaps beyond recognition, as the fire destroyed the Spirit

Unlike the tragedy aboard the Costa Concordia - where Captain Schettino abandoned ship immediately, leaving passengers and crew behind - the Spirit’s captain and crew didn’t abandon ship before the passengers. Everyone involved that day upheld and were imbued with the honor and tradition of professional mariners. I salute them and the passenger vessel industry!

Captain Peter Squicciarini is a professional mariner and a retired U.S. Navy Captain. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.