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The Boston Globe

Business

Most cruise ships lack backup systems

When the ship was towed into port, the endless hours for passengers of sleeping on deck and going without electricity and toilets were finally over.

‘‘It was really hell,’’ said Bernice Spreckman, 77, of Yonkers, N.Y. ‘‘I used my life jacket, which was flashing with a little light on it, to find a bathroom.’’

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She was not among the 4,200 people aboard the Carnival Triumph who this month endured five days of sewage-soaked carpets and ketchup sandwiches. Her trial at sea came in 2010, on another ship run by Carnival Cruises, the 4,500-passenger Splendor.

On both boats, fires broke out below decks, destroying electrical systems. A preliminary Coast Guard inquiry into the Splendor found deficiencies in firefighting operations, including manuals that called for crew members to ‘‘pull’’ valves designed to turn. More than two years later, the final report about what happened has yet to appear, a reflection of what critics say is a pattern of international regulatory roulette.

The Splendor, based in the United States, was registered in Panama, meaning the Panamanian Maritime Authority could lead the investigation. But after the fire, Panama chose to have the Coast Guard take over. Officials in both countries apparently spent months trading drafts of their reports. An official in Panama said its authority completed the review in October 2012; a spokeswoman said the Coast Guard has not ‘‘finalized’’ the report. In the Carnival Triumph case, the regulatory scene will shift to the Bahamas, where it is registered.

Industry officials point out that cruise vacations are extremely safe for some 20 million people annually. But most travelers do not realize that, because of cost, nearly all ships lack backup systems to help them return to port.

And safety troubles may increase, experts say, as operators introduce new megaships like Oasis of the Seas, operated by Royal Caribbean. It can carry 5,400 passengers and 2,160 crew — one-third more than on vessels like the Splendor.

More than a decade ago, experts began calling for improved safety, but ship operators did not add backup systems. Only about 10 cruise ships have such equipment.

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