The disappearance of a youth counselor from the Disney Wonder cruise ship this week raises the issue of who is responsible for conducting investigations when crew members disappear at sea.
Disney released the following statement to us yesterday:
"The Mexican Navy has been conducting searches since Tuesday, and we immediately contacted the FBI and the Bahamian Maritime Authority, which is leading the investigation on this matter. We have also conducted a thorough and comprehensive inspection of the ship and spoken with the crew member’s colleagues to gather as much information as possible.” Disney also told us that the cruise line notified the U.S. Coast Guard.
But what is the reality of who does what in cases like this? What is the true involvement of the Mexican government, the U.S. Coast Guard, the FBI, the Bahamas Maritime Authority, and the cruise line in these type of circumstances?
The Mexican Navy: Because the incident appears to have occurred off of the coast of Mexico, the Mexican Navy is involved. Now, some people will say that the "Mexican Navy" conjures up an image of "three men in a row boat." Such criticism, although disrespectful, may accurately characterize the small scale of the Mexican maritime operations. When you think of dramatic search and rescue operations, the "Mexican Navy" does not come to mind. Rather, one would hope that the U.S. Coast Guard, with its quick deployment of cutters, jets and helicopters, is involved.
Mexico is a country of limited resources. Its is questionable what motivation Mexico has to expend money and resources searching for a citizen of another country who went overboard from a ship registered registered in the Bahamas. Once its navy ends its search (which it has probably already done), the country of Mexico will have no further involvement.
The U.S. Coast Guard: CNN's article "Disney Cruise Employee Missing Off Mexico" indicates that while the Mexican navy is leading the search, it asked for the U.S. Coast Guard's help early in the effort. The Coast Guard provided long-range search aircraft but was not now actively involved in the search as of yesterday. The U.S. Coast Guard is an impressive and highly experienced group of men and women, but there is only so much it can do when cruise overboards occur around the world.
The FBI: CNN's article contains a revealing quote from a spokesperson from the FBI. "The FBI is not involved because it does not have jurisdiction, as the ship was off the coast of Mexico flying under a foreign flag," said spokeswoman Laura Eimiller of the agency's Los Angeles office.
This is a typical comment from the Los Angeles office of the FBI which, unlike the U.S. Coast Guard, is filled with bureaucrats with little motivation to leave their desks and head over to the port when the cruise ship returns to L.A. The fact of the matter is that the FBI has special maritime jurisdiction to investigate incidents which occur on U.S. based cruise ships around the world, especially when a U.S. citizen is involved, even though the ships fly flags of convenience.
The statement of the FBI spokesperson that the FBI has no jurisdiction because the ship was in Mexican waters is preposterous. Last month, the FBI investigated the murder of a Polish crew member from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship calling on Cozumel which was allegedly committed by a Mexican citizen, even thought the victim was employed on a foreign flagged ship and the crime occurred ashore in Mexico.
The Bahamas Maritime Authority: Under the Bahamas Merchant Shipping Act 1976, the Bahamas Maritime Authority (BMA) is supposedly responsible for investigating incidents involving Bahamas-registered ships worldwide. The BMA has been criticized for being being beholden to large shipping companies like Disney and Royal Caribbean which register their cruise ships there to escape U.S. safety rules and regulations and U.S. taxes.
The BMA has a deplorable record responding to serious injuries, deaths or crimes involving passengers passengers and crew members on cruise ships flying the Bahamian flag. Often no real investigation is performed. Often the "investigation" will consist of a representative or two from the BMA appearing at the next port of call, sometimes working with the cruise line's defense lawyers or risk management team. No BMA report concluding malfeasance of the cruise line in a passenger or crew death will ever see the light of day.
If foul play is involved, the BMA will do nothing. As the BMA concedes on its website, "in fact, reports and documents may not be used as evidence in the event of any subsequent criminal proceedings. If a criminal investigation proves necessary, the entire incident should be investigated by a body independent of the original investigating authority."
So if foul play is involved (and there is no indication of that one way or the other), then who will be involved? The FBI has already declined to get involved. No police detectives from Nassau will fly to California to investigate. No police or sheriff agencies in California (where the vessel is ported) will become involved. No police agency from Florida (where the cruise line is located) or the United Kingdom (where the cruise line is incorporated) will investigate a disappearance at sea involving a cruise ship sailing between California and Mexico.
The Cruise Line: The Wonder cruise ship is operated by the Magical Cruise Company, Limited, d/b/a Disney Cruise Line, which is incorporated in the United Kingdom for tax purposes. Although Disney is saying that it is speaking with its crew member’s colleagues "to gather as much information as possible," these statements and reports will never become public knowledge and will usually be kept away from the crew member's family. Cruises line have exclusive control of the scene of the incident, witnesses, and evidence such as CCTV tapes. Cruise lines consider their own investigation to be privileged "work product," conducted for the purpose of defending them from potential law suits. Disney usually hires some of the top maritime defense firms here in Miami to defend their legal interests.
The Crew Member's Country: An issue remains of the nationality of the crew member. Most youth counselors on cruise ships are American, Canadian, or English. If you are from the U.S. and it was your child who went overboard, who would you want investigating the disappearance? The FBI or the Bahamas Maritime Authority? If a Canadian or English citizen is involved, no one from these countries will be actively involved with an investigation.
The Bottom Line: Disappearances at sea like this fall into "no man's land." The FBI takes the "not my problem" approach. The flag state's investigation will end up in a file cabinet in an old building in Nassau. Disney's investigation files will never leave the cruise line's risk management and legal departments.
According to cruise expert Ross Klein's website, 157 people have gone overboard from cruise ships in the last decade. Many appear to be due to intoxication, negligence, suicide, and sometimes foul play, but many remain unsolved mysteries. Often there is a delay in reporting the disappearances to the authorities and the crew member's family. Uncertainly, confusion and a lack of closure are the usual outcomes. Certainly there must be a better way to investigate disappearances from cruise ships than this. The families of loved ones lost at sea deserve better.
March 25th Update: BBC News identifies the crew member as Rebecca Coriam of Chester England. The BBC article states that England's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has been "in touch with the relevant organisations and authorities" and identifies the Bahamas Maritime Authority and Interpol.
Photo credit: BBC News