An interview with John Heald - cruise director during the Carnival Splendor's Mexican Riviera cruise emergency.
When Carnival Splendor spent three and a half days floating adrift, dead in the water, off the coast of Mexico, it was deemed the worst event in Carnival Cruise Line's history by company president Gerry Cahill. But there was one piece of incredibly good fortune, or possibly fate. Out of a fleet of 22 ships, Splendor had Carnival's senior cruise director, John Heald, serving as the cruise director on board.
For the last few years John Heald has been Carnival's senior cruise director; reserved for bringing out brand new ships like Carnival Magic. He is also the line's "Ambassador of Fun" serving as the master of ceremonies for important corporate events such as the confetti drop over Times Square last New Year's Eve. The odds that John Heald would be onboard to handle the nightmare on Splendor were something akin to having a baseball player pitch a perfect game with his first appearance in the major leagues; the right person - in the right place - at the right time.
I had a chance to interview John Heald on Carnival Splendor's first day back in service, February 19, 2011, after almost four months of repairs in California. (Go here background on the events upon Carnival Splendor).
Paul Motter: John, The truth is that the Mexican Riviera market is possibly the slowest in the industry right now, and Carnival certainly has newer and bigger ships in service than Splendor - how did it happen that you were onboard this ship when the worst event in Carnival history happened?
John Heald: Well, it was a sheer coincidence, in truth. In 24 years of working for Carnival I had never seen the West Coast of America. I was given my choice of 10 different ships all listed on a piece of paper and I literally pointed to Splendor and said "I'll take this one."
Paul Motter: But you are more than a cruise director, you are the "star" of Carnival Cruise Line.
John Heald: I suppose so, but at the time I had been doing a lot of special events and I missed doing what I do best, just being a plain old cruise director.
Paul Motter: How long had you been working aboard Splendor when the accident happened?
John Heald: I had been onboard 10 weeks.
Paul Motter: As we all know now - the event onboard unfolded somewhat slowly. After the first reports of a fire in the engine room the captain needed a fair amount of time to assess the situation. People were reporting to him that they were trying to stop the fire but it was just smoldering. He eventually decided to assemble all of the passengers on the upper decks where they had access to fresh air. What was going through your mind at this time?
John Heald: Well, there was a lot of uncertainty at first. I had been summoned to the bridge and all I could do was wait and listen to the same reports the captain was hearing. We actually did not know the extent of the situation for a long time. The fire fighting team was telling him that there was major damage already in the engine room, but that they were not certain would happen next because the fire itself was small but deep within some cabling where they could not reach it.
[NOTE: it was reported that the fire fighting team had at one time thought the fire was out only to see it re-emerge, smoldering inside a cabling assembly they could not access.]
Paul Motter: What were you thinking while all of this was going on?
John Heald: To tell you the truth, it seemed a bit unreal at first, because these events are so rare. This was my first emergency at sea in 24 years, but when the fire fighters said to the captain "This is a serious situation, and we think it is best to get all of the passengers and crew on the top decks" (to prevent the possibility of smoke inhalation) - I suddenly realized this could be a real disaster, I actually said to myself "Oh my God, this could be 'it,' and here I am - the cruise director."
The scary thing was this - I realized that in all my years of working on cruise ships I really had no training for this situation - because you can't train for it. Yes, we have regular boat drills, but I have never had to take passengers this far along on a fire drill before, and for almost a day I honestly did not know where it was going to lead. In the beginning, yes I was feeling true fear - because I realized I was in charge of potentially the lives of thousands of people - and I mostly wanted not to do anything wrong.
Paul Motter: You were effectively writing the book on how to handle such situations as you went along?
John Heald: Yes, well said. I had to make decisions such as "how much do I tell them?" I didn't want anyone to panic, but I also didn't want to sugarcoat the situation and risk them not taking it seriously enough. How far do you go, you know? The uncertainty of it was the scary thing. I was very nervous and honestly did not know whether I would do a good job. I now hope no Cruise Director ever has to face a situation like this again. It was truly frightening to live through.
Paul Motter: Did you feel a palpable fear in the passengers? I heard reports of people crying and praying out loud.
John Heald: At first, when we were still assessing the situation there were people who were truly afraid. I saw that panic was not going to help any, so I thought deeply on my best course of action and made a few decisions.
First, I decided I would keep everyone fully and equally informed of what was happening. I was not going to tell the crew one thing and the passengers something else, because that could only lead to rumors getting started and possible panic. The next thing I decided is that I would give them regular updates, so that everyone would know the latest - at the same the people in command knew it. I realized that not knowing what is happening while waiting for developments to happen can be the worst possible situation for anyone. Finally, I decided to use one of my own personal best tools for keeping a situation under control - my sense of humor.
I chose to make an announcement every 15 minutes from 7 am to 11 pm each day. All announcements went throughout the ship from the top passenger decks on down through the crew quarters. As for the humor, I really don't remember when I realized that was the best way to go, I think it came naturally, but in the end I think it worked.
Paul Motter: I heard a lot of people say you did a fantastic job in keeping them informed and that your sense of humor made the best of a bad situation. The jokes kept the people unified - in the spirit for getting along.
John Heald: I think it did, yes. The toughest part was the first few hours, of course, when the fire fighting team was still assessing the damage - but what came next wasn't much better, we were dead in the water, adrift at sea, with no electricity except for emergency lights in the hallways and our P.A. system. You know, even the toilets weren't working.
At that point I had a personal fear factor about the attitude of the guests onboard, because I did not know how they would react to that situation. Having no toilets was bad enough, but they were working again within 24 hours, but for three and a half days people had no lights in their cabins, cold food and could only take cold showers.
So I had a personal fear factor, but I never showed it because I did not want it to translate to the guests. I felt a personal responsibility to keep cool. I really have to give credit to the crew. They put so much effort into keeping people as happy as possible. Not one of them flagged, even when they had to form a human chain to get tons of food up to the top decks so we could feed the passengers. Remember we had no elevators. I saw crewmembers carrying people in wheel chairs up and down the stairs. They were just amazing.
You know - while Carnival gave the passengers access to cell phones so they could call their relatives and tell them they were okay, the crew didn't have that. So Carnival called the relatives of every single crewmember onboard and told them that they were okay - thousands of telephone calls.
Paul Motter: So, John, what lasting impact has this event left with you? How has it changed you forever? What did you learn or take away?
John Heald: I bloody well learned to watch the flight attendants when they give the safety speeches. And I now tell cruise passengers, "The next time you want to hide under your bed during safety drill think twice about that."
It showed me how vital a cruise director's job can be - beyond selling shore tours and drinks, I saw the real responsibility we have to keep people safe and remain in control in crowd situations.
Paul Motter: It must have been very stressful for you even though you couldn't show it.
John Heald: It really was, and I can admit it now. The worst part was not having communication with my wife and daughter. I am used to calling Heidi three times a day and emailing several times a day. The only break I ever took was to go to a dark cabin and take a cold shower.
Paul Motter: Well, John. It sounds you had a lot to do with making sure the situation did not go badly. Many passengers left that cruise saying they had a newfound respect for cruise ship workers and the cruise industry.
John Heald: I had one passenger tell me "I always thought cruise ship crewmembers were the best workers in the world, and now I know that is true."
Paul Motter: What did you do once the ship landed in San Diego?
John Heald: They wanted me to stick around for 2 weeks after the event, but after 2 days I told them "I just have to go home," and so I did and I stayed there for the holidays. I was in New York City for the New Years Eve celebration on ABC television. Carnival sponsored the confetti drop in Times Square so I had to be there. I was on camera for 10 minutes with Anderson Cooper and Ryan Seacrest. I was also in Memphis for a St. Judes Charity event that Carnival sponsors.
Paul Motter: So, now you are back onboard Splendor 14 weeks later. After 24 years this seems like a pretty pivotal event. How do you feel now and what does your cruising future look like?
John Heald: I'm taking it one day at a time, really.
Paul Motter: You have been with Carnival this whole time, but the company owns other cruise lines. Do you ever think about changing?
John Heald: I do miss Europe and I can't lie about that. I am very happy that Carnival Magic will be in Europe starting in May of 2011, but I am not happy that she is the only Carnival ship in Europe. If Carnival does not stay in Europe more in the future I may just think about leaving. I have to be honest about that.
Paul Motter: Do you think about other cruise lines?
John Heald: In truth, I am not sure my style would translate to another cruise line, but I have thought about both Princess and Cunard. If I had a choice I would go with Cunard.
Paul Motter: Cunard is the essentially British cruise line. Where do you see Carnival going as a cruise line in the near future? For example, I have heard (interior designer) Joe Farcus is scaling back or leaving all together.
John Heald: I think a whole new Carnival is right around the corner, honestly. I think you are going to be very surprised at where we go - especially starting with Carnival Breeze. Joe Farcus ("bless his heart") will have very limited involvement in Carnival Breeze as far as I know, just the showroom and one other room, possibly the casino. We have some great new people coming up; look at Jim Berra (new chief marketing officer) and Ruben Rodriguez (new executive vice president of guest experiences).
Paul Motter: Where do you see cruising going as an industry?
John Heald: We need new destinations! Grand Cayman is ridiculous - "build a bloody pier already!" Cozumel is the same; they need a bigger pier in town.
For ships - I think Oasis of the Seas and Allure are great for the industry, the other lines are also doing great things. We are seeing new cruisers all the time, but amazingly we still have to fight the old images, that cruising is just about shuffleboard and that Carnival is the "party cruise line."
Paul Motter: Well, John - thank you for the interview. I think this went very well.
John Heald: Me, too. Great questions, Thank you, too.
Paul Motter: And John, I think you earned your stripes with the Carnival Splendor event - you made a lot of good decisions and you certainly made the best out of what could have been a very bad possible situation.
John Heald: Thank you - and thank you to everyone else who has told me the same.