The Deadly Secret Cruise Lines

In August 2004, Merrian Carver, a 40-year-old mother of one from Massachusetts, boarded a ship with Celebrity Cruises that sailed from Seattle to Alaska. She chose to travel alone while her daughter stayed with her ex-husband in England. She never made it home.

After not being able to get in touch with her mother, Carver’s daughter contacted her grandparents — none of them knew she had taken a cruise. Days later, they filed a missing person report with police in Massachusetts, and it was weeks before police came upon a credit-card transaction showing she had gone on the cruise, said Kendall Carver, Merrian’s father.

Her family would later discover, based on its own private investigation, that a steward on the ship had allegedly reported her missing shortly into the trip to no avail and that most of her belongings had been disposed of, Kendall Carver said based on information from a deposition of the steward the family’s lawyers arranged.

Among the belongings that were lost was a brown envelope, the contents of which are still unknown, Carver said. (Royal Caribbean Cruises, the parent company of Celebrity Cruises, did not comment directly on these allegations in a statement provided to MarketWatch.)

To this day, the Carver family still doesn’t know exactly what happened to Merrian, who was the oldest of four daughters and was described as an over-achiever, despite a nearly year-long search that consumed almost all of the family’s time.

“You can drive yourself crazy,” said Kendall Carver, who is also the chairman of International Cruise Victims, a nonprofit support organization he co-founded with other family members of individuals who died, were injured or went missing while aboard cruises. “After a year I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to move on,’ and I decided to work to change the industry.”

Royal Caribbean Cruises said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation determined that there was no evidence of foul play in Merrian’s disappearance and that claims against the company were dismissed in court. “We continually review and update our policies, allowing us to learn from past experiences and still keep our guests’ safety and security top of mind,” said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean Cruises, in an email.

Since 2000, nearly 300 people have gone overboard from cruise ships and ferries, according to data collected by Ross Klein, a professor in the School of Social Work at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, who tracks operational incidents involving cruise ships. Additionally, Klein estimates 49 people have gone missing like Merrian Carver while traveling or working on cruise ships in that time — many of these individuals are also presumed to have gone overboard.

Carnival confirmed the 129 incidents Klein had tracked that occurred on the various cruise lines it owns, including Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line and Costa Cruises. Other cruise line companies either declined to confirm the figures for man overboard incidents or did not return a request for comment.

The Carver family’s experience is not unique. In May, a 61-year-old American man went missing and was presumed to have gone overboard while on a cruise through the South Pacific, according to a report from the Australian Associated Press. About a month earlier, a 32-year-old Georgia man went missing after he was seen jumping from a cabin balcony while on a cruise in the Bahamas, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

These are just a couple of the 13 incidents of people going overboard so far in 2017 while traveling on cruise ships, Klein said. Currently, only three of those 13 people were rescued alive, he added.

In any given year, roughly 19 people on average go overboard while aboard a cruise ship, based on data released in April by cruise industry consulting firm G.P. Wild in a report for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade group representing cruise lines. This report only found 150 incidents of people going overboard between 2009 and 2016, nearly 30 fewer cases than Klein recorded during that time-span.

The discrepancy is in part because the G.P. Wild report only included incidents on ocean-going cruises that were reported by at least two independent sources, said Peter Wild, managing director and founder of G.P. Wild, in an email. Comparatively, Klein included in-shore vessels and ferries, as well as some instances where there was only third-party news report on an incident.

Of course, the number of people who have gone overboard or missing is a tiny fraction of the millions of people who travel by these ships every year. In 2015, more than 23 million passengers traveled on cruise ships worldwide, representing an increase of nearly 62 percent over a 10-year period, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

But those figures are small consolation for those left behind as the number of man-overboard incidents persists. The question of why people continue to go overboard and how to solve the problem is the subject of intense debate between the cruise industry and families who have lost loved ones.

Advocates for victims’ families are working to reduce such incidents. Klein has argued that independent law enforcement agents should be required on cruise ships — similar to air marshals aboard planes — to assist in on-board investigations when people go missing or alleged crimes occur. That recommendation recently attracted the attention of members of Congress. In April, a bill was introduced in the House and Senate that would strengthen cruise passenger safety laws.

This so-called Cruise Passenger Protection Act would require government authorities and agencies including the Department of Transportation, the US Coast Guard and the Attorney General to study the feasibility of requiring passenger vessels to have an individual on-board who provides “support services and related safety and security services.” It has attracted sponsorship mainly from Democrats, though Republican Rep. Ted Poe (Texas) has signed on in the House.

The legislation would build upon the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act, which was signed into law in 2010 by President Obama. That law required cruise lines to implement a host of security measures, such as installing peepholes in cabin doors so passengers could see who was in hallways, and to report alleged crimes onboard.

The law was inspired by Merrian Carver and other individuals who had been injured, died or disappeared while on a cruise ship. It received the support of the cruise industry, said Michael McGarry, senior vice president of public affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association.

The new legislation would require cruise vessel owners to notify the FBI within four hours of an incident and would prevent ships from leaving if an incident occurs while they are docked at a US port. Additionally, it aims to clarify the need for video surveillance equipment in all common areas, while also mandating that video records are kept for at least 30 days following a voyage and made accessible to individuals seeking civil actions against the cruise line.

McGarry countered that cruise line security personnel are well-trained. “Many of the security personnel on cruise ships are former law enforcement professionals,” he said. Given the security training requirements under the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, which were advocated for by the International Cruise Victims, “there is no need to supplement existing security personnel,” he said.

In the meantime, there are other safety measures cruise lines could implement, according to representatives from International Cruise Victims. “We’re still working our fingers to the bone to make sure all the regulations of that bill are complied with,” said Jamie Barnett, president of International Cruise Victims, whose daughter Ashley died on a cruise ship in 2005. “They’re not doing it.”

Cruise line critics say the industry has been slow to implement advanced radar technology, which can detect when an individual goes overboard and was recommended in the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. But while cruise lines implemented the law’s compulsory improvements, some argue that, seven years later, many other recommendations were not.

One theory why radar technology has not become standard: The 2010 law stipulates that companies integrate these systems “to the extent that such technology is available,” which critics say has given the cruising industry wiggle room to evade the requirement.

Installing radar technology along the length of a ship can also be prohibitively expensive. It can cost up to $100,000 to implement a vessel-wide system, said Jim Walker, a Florida-based attorney who has represented individuals and families who have brought cases against cruise companies. That price tag has given many companies pause in considering its application, Walker said. Others also say this technology is still too faulty to be trusted.

A spokesman for Carnival Corporation said that the company was testing man-overboard technology, but argued current systems create too many false positives for it to be practical or effective. What’s more, given that ships move at such a speed, the chance of rescuing someone who has fallen overboard are slim. (Some 25 percent of people who went overboard between 2009 and 2016 were rescued, according to the report from G.P. Wild.)

Another concern among cruise-line critics: The minimum height of railings set in the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act is not adequate. Original drafts of the law required the height of ship rails be 4.5 feet, but ultimately the law only stipulated 42 inches — or 3.5 feet — in height, Klein said. (The cruise industry was not involved in the deliberations over the railing height requirement, according to McGarry.)

The requirement is still more stringent than federal regulation for other commercial passenger vessels, McGarry said. For small ships carrying more than 150 passengers or with overnight accommodations for 50 or more passengers engaging in excursions, rails on passenger decks must only be at least 39.5 inches high.

The cruise line industry and the families of people who have gone missing or overboard disagree on the causes. The industry views the vast majority of these incidents as “the result of an intentional or reckless act,” G.P. Wild noted in its report.

In fact, it’s nearly physically impossible for a passenger to accidentally fall off a ship, an industry spokesman said. “Safety regulations such as uniform minimum railing and balcony heights, structural barriers and other requirements prevent passengers who are acting responsibly from simply ‘falling’ off a cruise ship,” McGarry said.

But critics argue that causes are likely more varied than cruise lines let on. Some passengers jump overboard “in the dead of night” and are not seen again, Walker said. (In a 2013 written testimony for the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Klein estimated that 11 percent of cases were confirmed suicides.)

Many point the finger at the presence of alcohol, particularly as many cruises have introduced all-inclusive drinks packages. “It causes crimes, and it causes people to fall overboard because they’re drunk,” said Kendall Carver. The cruise industry says it’s folly to blame alcohol. Rules regarding the drinking age of those on board vary from company to company — some cruise lines will only serve people over the age of 21, while others will allow people between the ages of 18 and 20 to order drinks with a parent’s written consent.

Klein noted in his 2013 Senate testimony that there were at least two incidents where people allegedly went overboard while throwing up as a result of drinking too much and “reinforces the need for stringent rules for the responsible service of alcohol.”

“All indications are that 3.3 percent of cases involve murder,” Klein alleged in his testimony according to his research. Incidents of foul play are often linked to the high rate of sexual assault onboard cruise ships. Since the beginning of 2016, the US Department of Transportation has recorded 78 alleged incidents of sexual assault, 16 assaults that resulted in serious bodily injury, eight cases of missing people and four suspicious deaths. Other contributing factors Klein cited were a fight with a significant other, a loss at the casino and falls.

The cruise line industry disputes some of these theories: “Cruise lines encourage guests to consume alcohol responsibly and train crew members on protocols to avoid over-service,” McGarry said. “There is no known linkage between the consumption of alcohol and incidents of man overboard or any direct and known relationship between incidents of man overboard broadly and crime allegations.”

If a person goes overboard, dies or goes missing, cruise line employees are typically called upon to begin an investigation while awaiting law enforcement officials, McGarry said. “If a passenger is suspected of going overboard, the crew is professionally trained to conduct a search and rescue operation until investigative authorities can arrive at the vessel,” he said.

Then there’s the issue of how these incidents are investigated by law enforcement to see if a crime was committed. In the United States, Florida is currently the only state that permits local, state and harbor police to board a cruise ship to investigate crimes on vessels that have docked in the state, Walker said. In other states, investigations are left to federal authorities.

If a ship docks somewhere outside the US, but an American citizen is involved in the incident, it’s less clear who will investigate. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has the authority to investigate violent crimes against Americans or American interests, which can include incidents on US-affiliated vessels or involving US citizens, according to an FBI spokesperson.

If the FBI is not involved, the investigation will often fall to law enforcement from the country where the ship is registered — the vast majority of cruise ships are registered in countries other than the US for a variety of reasons, including taxes. In some cases though, an investigation may not turn up all the answers, even if the FBI is involved. That was the situation with Merrian Carver.

Royal Caribbean Cruises never could determine whether Merrian Carver had gone overboard or exited the ship when it made port, Gary Bald, who was then senior vice president and chief global security officer for the parent company, told ABC News in 2009. The cruise company eventually settled with the Carver family out of court for an undisclosed amount and terminated the supervisor who failed to relay the steward’s report about her disappearance, according to ABC News.

Eventually, the family hired private investigators to conduct their own search, and later hired lawyers to depose members of the cruise’s staff. In all, it took Carver’s family four months of anguish and $75,000 in legal and detective fees to run its own investigation.

This year, Kendall Carver received the Ronald Wilson Reagan Public Policy Award from the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime for his advocacy work. A few weeks ago, he and other members of International Cruise Victims traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress and increase support for the Cruise Passenger Protection Act.

Carver has accepted he may never see his daughter again and wants to continue helping victims’ families. “If I’ve got one skill it’s listening with people. I can empathize with them, I’ve been there,” he said. “That’s what the victims’ families want.”

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