For the past many years, I have watched cruise lines respond to each disappearance at sea by blaming the passenger.
Selling Dreams of Carefree Vacations
Cruise lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to create the illusion of carefree vacation getaways where hard working Americans can relax, let their guard down, and forget the worries of city life. Passenger "disappearances" are inconsistent with the cruise industry’s marketing image which sells tickets.
When a passenger "disappears," there are a number of possible explanations. Was foul play involved? Did the passenger act carelessly due to alcohol? Was the intoxication due to the cruise line’s negligence in over-serving the passenger to make the targeted profits for the cruise? Or was the disappearance due to a plan by the passenger to end his or her life?
The possibilities are many but the cruise lines’ conclusions are few. Cruise ships are quick to attack the passengers’ character and to steer blame away from themselves when a passenger goes overboard.
Merrian Carver – Royal Caribbean Cover Up, Stonewalling, and the Big Lie
When 40 year old Boston resident Merrian Carver "disappeared" from the cruise ship Mercury operated by Royal Caribbean’s subsidiary brand Celebrity Cruises, the cruise line tried its best to cover the incident up. It didn’t report Merrian missing to either the FBI or the Alaskan State Troopers, even though the cabin attendant reported her missing early in the cruise. Merrian’s Dad, insurance executive Ken Carver, began a serious investigation. Royal Caribbean responded by lying to Mr. Carver and disposing of evidence. Mr. Carver didn’t go away and the story went public. The The Arizona Republic published an excellently researched and written story. In response, the cruise line reached into its bag of tricks and pulled out a good excuse: " . . . there is very little a cruise line, a resort or a hotel can do to prevent someone from committing suicide."
Aside of the speculation fueled by the cruise line’s lawyers and PR team, there was no competent evidence whatsoever for Royal Caribbean’s self serving announcement to the media. If it was a suicide, why did Royal Caribbean work so hard to cover the incident up and lie to Mr. Carver? Indeed, there is now an issue whether a crew member was involved in Merrian’s death.
George Smith IV – Attack the Victim
I witnessed the same type of corporate thuggery while representing Jennifer Hagel whose husband George Smith of Greenwich Connecticut disappeared under suspicious circumstances during the couple’s honeymoon cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas. For months the Hagel and Smith families patiently waited for information explaining the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the healthy and handsome 26 year old man.
But when their frustration forced them to the press for answers, the cruise industry’s response was quick and brutal. Michael Crye, representing the International Council of Cruise Lines ( the predecessor to today’s Cruise Line International Association – "CLIA") told an AP reporter investigating the story " . . . its difficult if someone chooses to do harm to themselves . . ."
Carefully Planned Hit and Run Attacks By Cruise Line PR Departments
These type of statements are not random or insensitive rants from low level employees. The cruise lines’ PR departments carefully craft the announcements and issue them only after being run through their legal departments. The Merrian Carver "suicide" theory was issued by the Royal Caribbean corporate communications director only after being reviewed by the cruise line’s outside legal counsel. When the cruise industry faced embarrassment over Royal Caribbean’s mis-handling of George Smith’s death, out trotted Mr. Crye – the vice president of the cruise trade organization and himself a lawyer. Mr. Crye issued the he-did-it-to-himself statement on behalf of the entire cruise industry (CLIA’s motto is "one industry – one voice"), without a shred of evidence justifying such a conclusion.
Amber Malkuch – Holland America Lines’ Attack Is Business as Usual
The recent disappearance of Washington resident Amber Malkuch shows that little has changed. Amber was 45 when she sailed on the Holland America Line ("HAL") cruise ship Zaandam. On August 3, 2009, Amber disappeared. The usual protocol when a passenger disappears should be for the FBI or the state law enforcement authorities to board the vessel at the next port and to conduct an investigation. The period of time leading up to the cruise ship’s arrival at the next port is critical because the cruise line controls the scene of the disappearance, the witnesses and all of the evidence. Before the authorities can conclude whether the "disappearance" resulted from an accident (due to the ship’s negligence, or the passenger’s carelessness or intoxication, or a combination of factors), foul play or suicide, they must first review the evidence and interview passengers and crew members.
But on August 4, 2009, before the Alaskan State Troopers concluded their investigation, a member of HAL’s PR department and CLIA’s PR team, Sally Andrews, announced to the media that Amber probably took her own life. The "suicide" conclusion was picked up by all of the major news outlets and reported prominently on FOX News and other news stations.
This surprised not only Amber’s friends and family, but it dumbfounded the Alaskan State Troopers who had yet to review photographs and video, conduct interviews or analyze toxicology reports. The Anchorage Daily News reported "Troopers Miffed at Cruise Line’s Rush to Judgment." The Seattle Post Intelligencer quoted a representative of the Alaskan State Troopers saying:
We’re the people actually looking into the exact cause of death . . . We’re the ones doing the interviews and looking at the evidence . . . And if we haven’t been able to make a determination, how can the cruise line who isn’t trained?"
Who Do You Trust? The Alaskan State Troopers or the Cruise Line?
Does Holland America Line care about what the evidence reveals? In the world of cruise line PR (perception vs. reality), what matters most to the cruise lines seems to be the public’s perception that cruise ships are safe rather than the reality that perhaps they are not.
Determining the cause of passenger overboards is the role of experts – the U.S. Coast Guard, the F.B.I., and other law enforcement authorities – not the cruise lines’ PR departments.
Kendall Carver – photo of Merrian Carver
Kevin Wolf (AP) – photo of Maureen Smith, Michaeil Crye, Jennifer Hagel
Seattle Post Intelligencer – photo of Amber Malkuch