A passenger who disappeared from the MSC Divina yesterday marks the first person to disappear from a cruise ship in 2017.
As usual, there are no facts released by the cruise line which indicates exactly when, or why, or where, or how the person went overboard.
Based on information released by MSC, the U.S. Coast Guard stated that the passenger was "last seen by his wife at approximately 3 a.m. going out to the couple's room balcony to take some fresh air." The Coast Guard says that the "circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the passenger remain unknown." Accordingly, we have only the cruise line's version of when the wife allegedly last saw her husband, but there is no indication when the passenger actually went overboard, or when the ship first learned that the passenger went overboard, or whether the ship promptly deployed a rescue craft or other watercraft to conduct a timely search and rescue, or when the ship notified the U.S. Coast Guard to begin search and rescue efforts.
Yesterday I wrote that it sounds like MSC was not initially aware that the passenger went overboard, which is the typical situation. The vessel's online automatic information system did not reveal that the vessel slowed down, stopped or turned around to initiate a search for the missing man. MSC told the Coast Guard that, at some undisclosed time, it searched the ship and made call-outs through the public announcement system without success. This sounds like many other cruise lines which are told long after the fact that a person's loved one or friend cannot be found on the ship. This leads to ship personnel conducting a search or making announcements or reviewing closed-circuit television images to see if it they can figure out what happened to the passenger - an unduly time consuming process considering that the passenger may be struggling in the water as the cruise ship sails away.
Six years ago, President Obama signed the 2010 Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act ("CVSSA") which requires cruise line calling on U.S. ports to implement automatic man overboard systems. Before the CVSSA was passed into law, there was considerable testimony before Congress regarding why people go overboard - suicides, accidents, excessive serving and consumption of alcohol, and foul play were all discussed. But whatever the reason for the person going overboard, our Congress determined that cruise lines needed to implement state-of-the-art systems to signal when passengers or crew members went over the rails and into the water.
Since the CVSSA went into effect, cruise lines have resisted implementing the technology. There are many companies which have good systems on the market. Here is an example (photo left). Here is another. The best systems immediately alert the bridge when someone goes overboard and can track the person in the water via radar and thermal imaging so that the person can be located even when someone falls into the water at night. Many systems record the person going overboard so that there is no possibility of a false alarm.
Man overboard systems also have an important feature of detecting when someone comes over the rails onto the ship. This is an obvious and vital security precaution in this age of terrorism. If someone can go overboard without the cruise line knowing it, then it is just as likely that someone can come onto the ship without detection.
After my article yesterday, a PR representative from MSC sent me a barrage of emails demanding that I write that the "USCG was alerted by MSC Cruises as soon as the ship became aware of the potentially missing passenger; the ship, as per procedure, started search operations immediately as soon as she became aware of the potentially missing passenger; and the USCG launched its SAR shortly thereafter." But the PR person refused to state basic facts such as when the passenger went overboard, or when MSC realized it, or whether it delayed notifying the Coast Guard until after it first searched the ship, or whether it conducted any type of timely search itself.
Disturbing factual questions remain - did MSC even turn the ship around to search for the overboard passenger? Did it just conduct a search on the ship after-the-fact and finally alert the Coast Guard only when its onboard efforts were futile? Does MSC even have any type of man overboard systems in place? MSC refuses to say.
Cruise expert Professor Ross Klein's research indicates that an average of over 20 people go overboard each year on cruise ships. Over 140 people have gone over the rails from cruise ships since 2010. When will cruise lines like MSC focus on implementing state-of-the-art technology rather than on PR efforts to create the illusion that passengers are safe at sea?
January 4, 2017 Update: The Coast Guard suspended its search last night at 9:55 p.m. The Coast Guard is quoted as saying that it "searched for more than 35 hours." If this information is accurate, this means that the Coast Guard initiated its search and rescue around 11:55 a.m. (i.e., 35 hours before 10:55 p.m. the next day), or a bit earlier, on the day the passenger went overboard. This further means that notice to the Coast Guard was delayed at least 5 hours after the missing man's wife woke up several hours after last seeing him (around 3:00 a.m.) and realized he was missing from their cabin. The cruise line says that it searched the ship and made announcements for the man, apparently before notifying the Coast Guard.
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Photo credit: MSC Divina - Karl Borg - Albireo2006 - flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, commons / wikimedia; man overboard video - PureTech Systems.