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Cruise-ship safety in the spotlight
It should be no surprise that bad things sometimes happen on cruise ships. With a couple of thousand passengers and several hundred crew members on every voyage, these the vessels are the equivalent of floating towns.
Still, as the industry booms, safety and onboard crime are becoming hot topics:
• In the last three years, 24 people have disappeared from cruise ships, according to the International Council of Cruise Lines, a trade association that represents the major players in the industry, including Seattle-based Holland America Line.
• During that period, from 2002-2005, 15 cruise lines also reported 178 complaints of sexual assault and four robberies.
The cruise industry reported having carried 31 million passengers during that period, however, so relatively few incidents were spread over a very large number of customers.
Scores of cruises leave Seattle during the summer Alaska cruise season, carrying more than 350,000 passengers. The Port of Seattle estimates that the big ships pour more than $208 million into the local economy and support around 1,700 jobs here. (ICCL, the cruise industry trade group, claims the industry contributes $580 million and 14,312 jobs.)
"Cruising is one of the safest vacations available, with an outstanding record that demonstrates the industry's commitment to safety and security," Michael Crye, president of the ICCL, said when the statistics were released earlier this month.
James Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and the author of 16 books, who was retained by the cruise industry, said that,
"While virtually no place — on land or sea — is totally free of risk, the number of reported incidents of serious crime from cruise lines is extremely low, no matter what benchmark or standard is used."
Industry critics, however, say that because of a legal patchwork — maritime law when ships are at sea and many varied shore jurisdictions when they're in port — not all serious incidents are reported by the cruise companies and many crimes are not prosecuted. In addition, all major cruise ships are registered in foreign countries, such as Panama and Liberia, so U.S. laws and regulations do not apply to passengers or crew. Also at work is an industry imperative to keep bad news under wraps whenever possible, they say.
Shays has been pushing for greater industry accountability since one of his constituents, George Allen Smith IV, 26, of Greenwich, Conn., disappeared in waters off Turkey last summer while on honeymoon with his bride, Jennfer Hagel-Smith, on a Royal Caribbean cruise. Smith vanished after a night of partying. Blood was found on the balcony railing of his stateroom, but his body was never recovered. The incident hypnotized cable TV news channels for weeks and laid the groundwork for a congressional hearing last Tuesday on cruise safety issues.
At the hearing, the family of a 15-year-old Irish girl named Lynsey O'Brien testified that during a cruise off the Caribbean coast of Mexico in January, a ship bartender plied the teen with so much alcohol that she fell overboard while vomiting from a stateroom balcony. Lynsey was never seen again.
"I can't imagine a worse crime than plying a 15-year-old girl with so much liquor she literally died as a direct result," said one relative, Miami resident Brian Mulvaney.
As in the cases of Smith and O'Brien, many of the most serious incidents involve excessive consumption of alcohol, which when combined with sea water can be a lethal mixture on even the largest vessels. The decks on large cruise ships are often at least 50 or 60 feet above often-choppy waters. Most people who go over the side are never seen again.
Tim Sears, a Michigan man, got lucky, however. He fell off a cruise ship in the same general area as Lynsey O'Brien after a night of partying in April 2003. But Sears, who was 31 at the time, survived by staying afloat for 17 hours, eventually flagging down a passing cargo ship.
Lawrence Kaye, a lawyer for the major cruise lines, said 12 of the 24 disappearances in the last three years were judged to be suicides and one was accidental. The causes of the 11 others are unknown. Since bodies are rarely recovered, many of the cases remain mysteries.
In August 2004, a room steward on the Alaska-bound cruise ship Mercury noticed that passenger Merrian Lynn Carver, 40, of Cambridge, Mass., hadn't used her berth since the first night of the trip. His superior — later dismissed under pressure from Carver's family — told him to mind his own business. Carver was never found.
Alcohol also is a common factor in sexual assaults, which sometimes are committed by crew members.
"Like so many other tales of cruise-ship crime, Janet Kelly's story begins with a cocktail and ends with a confidentiality agreement," Time says in its current online edition. "Six years ago, on the last night of a Mexican cruise returning to Los Angeles, the Arizona businesswoman stopped at a poolside bar before dinner. The bartender, who in the days prior had been friendly but not overly flirtatious, handed her a fruity concoction that had an unwanted kick. Kelly, who is convinced that the drink was drugged, says she felt her legs go rubbery and her mind turn to mush as the bartender led her to an employees-only restroom and raped her before she passed out cold."
Kelly eventually sued the cruise line; the lawsuit led to a financial settlement and the bartender's firing. She testified at the congressional hearing, saying she believes the cruise lines do a "horrible job" of preventing crime and has little faith in their statistics.
In 1999, the U.S. attorney's office in Miami reported that three out of every four crimes on cruise ships were sexual offenses and that most involved women under age 21.
Crye, president of the cruise line council, said the industry has cooperated with Congress in collecting statistics "to further demonstrate that cruising is an exceptionally safe vacation."
Rep. Shays, however, said before the March 7 hearing that he found it "unsettling" how quick the industry was to push back at his efforts to bolster reporting requirements. "I had to tell the cruise industry that last thing to get us off this issue is pressure to get off this issue," he said. "It makes me suspect there is something there that they don't want to know about."
The Center for Responsive Politics reported that during an 18-month period ending last June, the cruise industry spent $2.9 million on federal lobbying, nearly $1 million more than Wal-Mart did during the same period.
That may be why, Time quoted Shays as saying, "there's never been any real oversight. Ever."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company