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'Why didn't Spirit of Norfolk have a fire suppression system?' Coast Guard investigator asks during hearings on engine fire onboard the yacht

The general manager of the company that owns Spirit of Norfolk testified for the first time as the hearing into the 2022 yacht fire continues.

NORFOLK, Va. — Why didn't Spirit of Norfolk have a fire detection or suppression system on board? That's the question Coast Guard investigators asked during Monday's hearing into what caused a fire onboard the pleasure cruise.

More than 100 people were on board the yacht when the fire broke out on June 7, 2022.

On Monday, Jolene Price-Thompson, the general manager of City Cruises -- the company that owns Spirit -- answered questions from Coast Guard investigator Keith Fawcett about safety management onboard the yacht. 

“Do you know why the Spirit of Mount Vernon was fitted with a fire suppression system or a fire detection system and the Spirit of Norfolk was not?" Fawcett asked.

Price-Thompson responded: “Those decisions were made at the national marine level so I can’t answer that question.”

Fawcett then asked: “Is there anything to your knowledge that would have prevented the Spirit of Norfolk from being fitted with a fire suppression or fire detection system?” 

Price-Thompson replied: “Again, those decisions are not made by me so I can’t answer that question.”

Price-Thompson said she went to the pier at Naval Station Norfolk where crews towed the still-smoking Spirit. 

“There were alarms going off on the pier. Firefighters were scrambling. You could feel the tension on the piers," she said. “There are a lot of emotions that we’ve all felt that were tied to the events of June 7th... intense sadness, anger, frustration.”

Fawcett also questioned the chain of command for reporting incidents and safety concerns on the Spirit of Norfolk. He also briefly probed the service history of the vessel, including a survey the day before the fire.

“Were there some days towards the end of May where the vessel did not operate? And early June?" Fawcett asked. "For example June 6th, the vessel had a survey.”

Price-Thompson also answered questions from investigators about who opened the door to the engine room after the fire started. She said there was an “incident” once fire crews opened the hatch.

“There were some firefighters who were in peril," she said, explaining she later asked a fire chief about it.  

“He looked at me and said, ‘Are you talking about during the mayday event when someone opened a door they shouldn’t have been opened?’ And my response was, ‘Yeah, it’s a self-contained area. Why would that door have been opened?’ And the conversation just kind of fizzled at that point,” Price-Thompson said.

The fire quickly spread from the engine room to the rest of the ship. It took firefighters four days to fully extinguish the flames.

Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials are investigating the cause and response in hopes of preventing something like this from happening again. They’re examining what - if anything - could have been done differently.

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