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Disney magic of a different sort

Published Sep. 2, 2005

We were on the fifth day of a seven-day Caribbean cruise aboard the Disney Magic, a party of 10: my husband and I, two daughters and their spouses, and four grandchildren, ages 15, 13, 10 and 10 months. For six, it was their first cruise. It was probably my 20th.

There were 2,580 passengers aboard _ 1,040 were children younger than 18 _ and we were asleep in our cabins when, at about 4:30 a.m., voices came through the speakers connected to the shipwide P.A. system. I heard a voice say what sounded like "Foxfarten aftflaven!"

The only thing I recognized was the word "aft" _ the rear of the ship _ and I felt reassured because our cabin was in the bow, or front.

Soon there was another announcement: "red code alert." That was followed by a series of announcements, made by both the captain and the cruise director, telling us that there was a fire on board and that attempts were made to bring it under control. We were told that it was located in the aft funnel of the ship.

Capt. Hans Mateboer then announced that some cabins around the funnel were to be evacuated as a precaution.

Our cabin phone rang. Our younger daughter, Jennifer, 29, was calling from her cabin down the hall.

"Mom, are you freaking out like we are?"

I told her no, I wasn't, but I was waiting to hear that the fire was under control.

"Has this ever happened to you before?"

No, I admitted.

I urged her to be calm. In the meantime, Matthew, the 10-year-old, who was sharing a cabin with my husband and I, began whimpering in his bunk. His mother, in the adjacent cabin, came and assured him that we were all okay.

Parents would assume this role for much of the next two hours.

Then we heard the captain call for all crew to man their muster stations _ the public areas passengers are assigned to before boarding lifeboats. Finding the muster stations, and correctly donning your life jacket, is a requirement on every passenger ship within hours of leaving port. Most vessels stage the lifeboat drill _ just the assembly _ before the ship leaves the dock.

Hearing the captain's order to the crew, we flipped on the lights and moments later we heard the universal general alarm _ seven blasts of the ship's horn. At 5 a.m., it was especially scary.

We were directed to head to our muster stations. We hurriedly dressed in warm clothes _ most of them packed away _ put on our life jackets and found our way to Deck 4, midships.

The muster procedure for the 3\-year-old Disney ship, unfortunately, seemed uncomfortable compared with lifeboat drills on other ships. Here, we had to stand in straight lines, tallest people at the back, and then these lines were squished together, starting against the ship's outer wall.

You can endure this sort of thing for the typical 10-minute drill, but now we were stuck in this formation for who-knows-how-long. Kids were crying, tempers were short and some of the crew were as nervous as the passengers. I was getting more apprehensive.

The weather was balmy, so we were spared that discomfort. Loudspeaker announcements continued describing the progress in fighting the fire. The captain assured us that we were not in danger but that we were being kept out of harm's way. The ship had been slowed to almost a stop, so as not to fan the fire with wind.

Gradually, the on-deck atmosphere of fear moderated as we realized that our lives were not in danger. As I explained to my grandson: "Look at it this way, Matt, the worst that can happen now is that we get into that boat overhead, take a ride over to another cruise ship and have some hot chocolate."

Parents holding toddlers and babies were allowed to settle down onto the deck with their sleeping children. Crew members told jokes to the older children.

One little boy had brought along a cherished possession _ a Game Boy Advance _ and was quietly occupying himself.

Some of us reminded those who were having visions of Titanic that this was not the North Atlantic but the Caribbean Sea. I also explained that other cruise ships were nearby, ready to assist if needed. (The incident occurred about 200 miles northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, popular with cruise ships, and three of them had diverted and were standing by.)

The sky began to lighten as sunrise approached _ what a wonderful spirit booster! The soothing voice of cruise director Jacqui Perry also was helpful.

Fortunately, we had only waited for about a half-hour when Capt. Mateboer announced that the stack fire was under control. Then he announced that the entire ship was being "swept," making sure that it was safe throughout.

Finally, sometime after 6 a.m., we were allowed to return to our cabins. We were told to stay off decks 9 and 10, which did not have cabins.

Whew! Talk about emotionally draining. In actual time, the whole episode had only taken a little over two hours. But it certainly did seem longer.

While some of the men in our family reunion of 10 tried to find coffee, our teen granddaughters, Sara and Stephani, climbed right back into bed. So did daughter Jen, her husband, Steve, and their baby.

The other four of us, plus Matt, were too pumped for sleep. After all, now the sun was up and we had a Disney character breakfast scheduled at 8.

And, yes, that breakfast did go on. In fact, the ship's crew did a remarkable job of setting everything right that morning. Almost all activities went on as scheduled. There were some logistical challenges: The pool shaped like Mickey Mouse's head was closed to allow for clean-up around the funnel; passengers were allowed to use the other two pools.

Soon parts of Decks 9 and 10 were opened to passengers and many of us went up to take a look at the damage. Some Disney illusion is at work on the Magic and its twin, the Disney Wonder. The ships appear at first glance to have two large funnels, but the forward funnel is actually a cover for an ESPN Sportsclub. And the aft funnel, which matches the forward funnel,actually has decorative covers around its sets of plain engine smokestacks.

On the aft funnel, we could see the metal tubing and insulation around four of the eight smokestacks had burned away. Some of the decorative cover had melted as well.

However, the captain announced that the integrity of the smokestacks was not compromised and that the damage was actually cosmetic. The best news of all is that we would be continuing our scheduled full day at sea on the way to Castaway Cay, Disney's private beach on a Bahamian island.

A number of officers were on the upper decks to talk to passengers about what had occurred. Most passengers I spoke with found this very reassuring.

Of course, for that entire day, practically no one talked of anything else. Lots of naps were taken that afternoon.

When we returned to our staterooms with sandy feet and burned noses after our day at Castaway Cay, we were greeted with a letter from the president of Disney Cruise Line that informed us that each cabin had been given a $100 shipboard credit in gratitude for being supportive through the crisis.

At the final show that evening, Mateboer was given a standing ovation by the crowd. He explained exactly what had happened and why he had made the decisions that he did.

"I know there are those who said we did not need to evacuate the cabins. I know it was very stressful. But there were a lot of smoke alarms going off all over the ship and and I decided that everybody should be at their assembly stations and accounted for."

He then noted that while he had been in relative comfort on the bridge, "There were those out there fighting the fire who put their lives in danger," and he brought out on stage all 100 crew members who are also trained as firefighters. They received thunderous applause.

It was a great way to bring closure on an unfortunate incident. And I thought it showed class.

I now think it is remarkable how well everyone _ both passengers and crew _ handled themselves during this emergency. My older daughter, Paula, said she had to keep calm because she had to keep her children calm, which maybe is why everyone behaved a bit better: for the children.

The Disney Magic was commissioned in 1998. It sailed as scheduled March 16, after a U.S. Coast Guard inspection.

I've been cruising for about 25 years, in ships big and small, and I've often wondered what would happen if there really was an emergency at sea. I've experienced that now. I've seen that the systems work _ that the lifeboat drills do pay off, that crew members really do their jobs, and that passengers do indeed rise to the occasion. It's comforting.

Will I cruise again? Of course. The sooner the better.

_ Cynthia Boal Janssens, past president of the Society of American Travel Writers, has homes in Estero and in Michigan.