This weekend I watched the 48 HOURS' episode of the disappearance of Royal Caribbean cruise passenger George Smith from the Brilliance of the Seas in July 2005.
There were no alarms that sounded when Mr. Smith was thrown over his balcony railing ten years ago. No signals were sent to the bridge alerting the navigational officers that a person had gone over the rails. Of course, Mr. Smith didn't fall into the water but landed onto an overhang over the lifeboats where he lay, bleeding, for some time. The cruise ship had a second opportunity to rescue him before he fell over the side and into the water. But there was absolutely nothing resembling an automatic man overboard system on the cruise ship in place.
The cruise ship plowed forward in the dark waters ignorant that a guest had disappeared in its wake.
I reflected on the last ten years and asked myself whether cruise ships are any safer today. The answer seems to be no for many passengers and crew members.
This weekend a 27 year old Brazilian crew member, working on the Norwegian Sun as an entertainer, went overboard in the early morning hours in Alaska. I was one of the first to write about it, after several crew members contacted me after hearing nothing about the troubling incident on the NCL cruise ship.
The Associated Press soon published a story. It included details which explained the time-line of events which, in my opinion, just added more disturbing facts to an already disturbing story.
The crew member reportedly jumped, says NCL, at 4:16 A.M., however NCL didn't notify the Alaskan State Troopers of the overboard until after 5:00 P.M. - a delay of around thirteen (13) hours. NCL explained that its ship security was notified around 2:00 P.M. of the missing crew member with the implication being that it didn't know what happened any earlier and that it had to literally rewind the surveillance film and see if any of the ship's cameras showed anyone going overboard.
What kind of cruise ship can't figure out that a ship employee had gone overboard for 13 hours, an even longer delay than in George Smith disappearance case ten years earlier?
The blame is on NCL, no doubt, for such an embarrassing display of incompetence. The victim's group, International Cruise Victims, which formed in January 2006 following the George Smith debacle, helped introduce legislation which led to the requirement of automatic man overboard system as part of the 2010 Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) of 2010. NCL obviously didn't have a functioning system on the Sun this weekend.
But this is not just another story about the cruise industry ignoring the law. The U.S. Coast Guard is also at fault. The AP story said that the Coast Guard had abandoned the search within just five hours.
By the time that the AP had published its first first story on Friday evening, the Coast Guard search had already been over for 24 hours as 10 P.M. on Thursday. A five hour search? The Coast Guard stopped searching before the public even knew that the crew member had gone overboard.
My law partner reminds me that the crew member was not going to survive 13 hours in the cold waters of Alaska, even in the summer months. But this is why cruise ships need a man overboard system in the first place.
The Coast Guard has been working hand-in-hand with the cruise lines during the rules making procedures to water-down the automatic man overboard requirements that President Obama had signed into law in 2010. The Coast Guard and the cruise industry are bedfellows. They enjoy a cozy relationship where the senior Coast Guard officials view the cruise lines as a nice place to work for the big bucks after they retire from service. It's no coincidence that the new CEO of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) is a former Coast Guard Rear Admiral.
The Coast Guard has discounted the IVC's comments and lets the cruise lines, like NCL, handle the man overboard issue as they see fit. So if the Sun didn't have the alarms, signals, radar and thermal detection technology needed to detect a man overboard at night, it's no big deal according to the Coast Guard.
Do U.S. citizens care if "foreign" crew members disappear at sea? One person leaving a comment to an article speculated that the Brazilian probably jumped in order to swim to shore in order to enter the U.S., saying he's just "another illegal alien."
NCL issued its usual hollow press statement after the incident, saying that “our thoughts and prayers go out to the individual’s family during this difficult time.”
Surviving family members of both passengers and crew members don't want after-the-fact platitudes in a corporate press statement. They want the cruise lines to install state-of-the-art overboard systems and the Coast Guard to require them on all cruise ships.
Photo Credit: CBS' 48 HOURS (top); Richard Martin via Flickr / Wikepedia Creative Commons 2.0 (bottom)