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updated: 4/16/2012 11:50 AM

Vacation proves a nightmare for RTA director

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  • Passengers sleep (or try to) in hot conditions on the deck of the Azamara Quest after an engine fire. Glenview residents Bill and Elizabeth Coulson were aboard the cruise ship last month when the fire set it adrift in the Sulu Sea, near the Philippines, for 24 hours.

    Passengers sleep (or try to) in hot conditions on the deck of the Azamara Quest after an engine fire. Glenview residents Bill and Elizabeth Coulson were aboard the cruise ship last month when the fire set it adrift in the Sulu Sea, near the Philippines, for 24 hours.
    courtesy of Bill Coulson

  • Bill Coulson

    Bill Coulson

  • Elizabeth Coulson

    Elizabeth Coulson

  • Video: Surgeon on distracted driving

  • Video: Cruise ship fire escape


I have a fabulous idea for a movie.

It's an adventure tale packed with drama and even moments of humor called "Shipwrecked in Borneo!" It's about a couple who plan a dream vacation only to get a rude awakening when the cruise ship's engines blow up. What follows is a fire, no electric power, seedy hotels with lizards en suite and pirates.

OK, no pirate sightings. But there could have been. And, it's all true.

Glenview residents Bill and Elizabeth Coulson are veterans of cruise ship vacations. For their latest getaway, they chose a journey on the Azamara Quest to exotic ports of call. The website promised a ship filled "bow to stern with wondrous luxuries and appointments that enhance your voyage of discovery."

That is -- until an engine fire injured five crew members and sent foul smoke spewing into the dining room.

It was one meal the Coulsons won't forget.

"We knew it was serious. The captain came on the public address system saying 'Bravo Bravo Bravo' (an alarm code), and the waiters turned pale," said Coulson, who spoke to me through emails and by phone from Singapore.

"Smoke was the real danger -- (the) dining area filled quickly with oily goo."

Coulson, the attorney and Regional Transportation Authority director, and his wife, a former state representative, covered their mouths with wet napkins and made for the open air.

Everyone milled about on deck while crew members issued life jackets. At one point, passengers were allowed back in their rooms to take a few items and Coulson grabbed what any right-thinking man would bring: "My passport, my wallet and a bottle of rum," he said.

The March 30 fire knocked out the ship's power. That's when you realize how hot the southern Philippines can be.

"We were adrift in the Sulu Sea for 24 hours, with no lights, no air-conditioning, no functioning toilets, no hot food, no refrigeration, etc. We slept out on the hard deck all night in 98 degree heat," Coulson recounted.

"You had to just grin and bear it."

He had praise for the crew. "They reacted pretty well and responded professionally. Many of them were just Filipino kids trying to save money for college."

The luxurious part of the cruise was on hold as passengers fed on nonperishables like bread and vegetables. The Coulsons retrieved food for older travelers who couldn't use stairs while the elevators were out.

When partial power came back and the captain announced, "'you can now flush the toilets,' you heard a cheer," Coulson said.

Engineers restored propulsion a day later and "we limped along at 6 knots escorted by the Malaysian Navy in pirate-infested waters," Coulson said.

"Pirates would have loved to prey on a cruise ship."

The ship docked in Sandakan, Borneo, and the Coulsons abandoned ship along with 590 passengers and 411 crew members.

The adventure continued ashore.

"We got a local hotel room -- the lizards, ants, mold, and noxious odors were included at no extra cost," Coulson said. "And, monkeys in the lobby."

The ship had left from Hong Kong March 26 for a 17-day cruise that Azamara Club Cruises canceled. The Coulsons had planned to see some exotic sights such as Komodo dragons.

"We'll have to come back," Coulson said, from a hotel in Singapore where the couple were staying until flying back on Sunday.

"At least I can now remove 'shipwrecked in Borneo' from my bucket list," he quipped. "The good news is that the Havana Club rum survived."

Travel tips

Here's some advice from the experts if you're contemplating a cruise.

Travelocity's Matt Lee suggests, "when booking a cruise, we recommend you check industry resources like the Cruise Lines International Association and Cruise Critic for the latest industry insights. Travelocity offers reviews and specific content about each ship to give you the best possible information," Lee said in an email.

"Once on the cruise it is important to pay attention to the safety drills. They can differ from ship to ship so whether you are a veteran cruiser or it is your first time cruising take note of the safety measures."

• U.S. State Department spokesman Kenneth Chavez said citizens are encouraged to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program on "so that we know how to contact them and their family in case of an emergency. Before traveling, they should always go to, read the country information for the countries they will be visiting, know how to contact embassies or consulates near them, and read other tips for traveling abroad."

Your voice

Brian Kelly of Hoffman Estates weighs in on last week's column about distracted driving. "I drive about 50,000 miles per year and the distractions I witness on a daily basis are frightening," he wrote.

"Sadly, I also have been guilty of reading an occasional text and yes, at some point in my career I've also been guilty of sending texts, speaking on the phone, eating and several other distractions that not only put me in danger -- my old behaviors put everybody in danger. I quit cold turkey. No distractions whatsoever! God knows there are enough distractions out there without creating more ourselves. Please focus on driving and driving alone. There are a lot of people out using the roads that we love and would love to enjoy their company for years to come."


• What to do with Willow Road? IDOT wants to know and will host an open house from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at New Trier High School, Northfield Campus, 7 Happ Road, Northfield. The focus is on improvements from Route 43 to the Edens Expressway. To learn more, check out

You should know

Commuters traveling on Pace in Deerfield, Northbrook and Highland Park should take a deep breath. And not smell the diesel fumes. Or at least fewer diesel fumes.

The suburban bus agency debuted two hybrid buses this month.

Although Pace has hybrid vehicles operating on its paratransit service for disabled riders, these are the first green buses out of a fleet of 688 running on fixed routes.

"We're going to test them to watch for how reliable and fuel efficient they ultimately perform in our operating environment," Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said. "We have an option to buy more in the future that has not yet been exercised. Our plan is to get some information on how well these hybrids perform in our operating environment and determine how cost-effective they are before we purchase more."

Gridlock alert

So you're hitting the road for a vacation in Cheeseland. Here's some grating news: Construction work continues on I-41 in Brown and Winnebago counties to expand lanes and improve intersections. For more information in excruciating detail, visit

• Closer to home, IDOT's painting the I-176 bridge over the Des Plaines River in Libertyville. Expect shoulder closures and delays through April 30. Happy trails.

One more thing

Ah, the power of poetry. Laird Palmer of Arlington Heights was inspired after reading about the Esurance Poems of the Road Contest in last week's column. Here's his ode to downtown traffic:

"Thought I would drive downtown to the Loop,

But arrival is a real news scoop.

The traffic in town,

make us all bow down.

Calling me a complete nincompoop."

To enter the Esurance contest visit

And make sure you send me a copy for our In Transit poetry slam.

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