Yesterday the first media source which reported that a cruise passenger went overboard from Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas was Cruise Critic. Notwithstanding its name, Cruise Critic is not remotely a critic of the cruise industry. It’s one of the cruise lines greatest fans and supporters. It will publish cruise line PR statements without question or hesitation.
When Cruise Critic broke the story, Royal Caribbean’s PR department had already fed Cruise Critic a statement claiming that another passenger witnessed the 21-year-old American go overboard at about 9:25 p.m. EDT. "The ship’s Captain immediately stopped the ship, turned around, and alerted the U.S. and Bahamian Coast Guard," read the cruise line statement.
The next time entry mentioned by Cruise Critic was 3:30 a.m., when the U.S. Coast Guard assumed control of the search and released the Allure of the Seas as well as Carnival’s Fascination and Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas cruise ships which had joined in the search for the missing woman.
The impression created by Royal Caribbean and its friends at Cruise Critic was that Royal Caribbean "immediately" notified the proper authorities and "immediately" searched the waters for the young woman and that the search lasted six hours from 9:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. until the Coast Guard released the cruise ship to continue with itinerary.
What Cruise Critic didn’t mention was that, based on an article in the Sun Sentinel newspaper, Royal Caribbean was notified of the 9:25 p.m.overboard at 9:30 a.m. but the cruise line delayed two hours until 11:30 p.m. before notifying the U.S. Coast Guard. The Sun Sentinel article was based on comments directly from the U.S. Coast Guard.
But no other news sources mentioned the two hour delay; instead, CNN, Miami Herald, CBS FOX News, and others published the false and misleading cruise line statement that Royal Caribbean "immediately" stopped the cruise ship and notified both the U.S. and Bahamian Coast Guards following the 9:25 p.m. incident.
Coast Guard regulations and the requirements of most cruise ship safety management systems (SMS) required by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) state that the vessel must notify the Coast Guard and other vessels in the vicinity if the overboard person is not "immediately" located in the water. Once a man overboard is reported, most SMS cruise line policies require a prompt reduction of speed of the ship, a "Williams Turn" to head the ship back to the location of the overboard person, the deployment of extra look-outs, the use of spotlights, and preparation to deploy life craft. While this is happening the captain can order a muster and head count if there is any doubt about whether a passenger went overboard.
It is inexplicable that the cruise ship would sail on if an eye witness reported the overboard to the cruise line at 9:30 p.m. Two hours later, the ship would be 30 – 40 miles away not even considering the effect of the current on the person overboard. The chances of drowning would increase substantially and the search area would increase dramatically due to the delay.
The Allure is the world’s largest cruise ship with 5,400 passengers and 2,300 crew members aboard. A search of this huge ship would take many hours. Did the cruise line really ignore the man overboard report and sail away? Why search the ship or order a muster and head count if an eye witness saw the woman go overboard as initially reported? It is against basic maritime protocols.
In cases like this, wild speculation follows a delayed rescue attempt. Was this a suicide, foul play or the results of excessive serving of alcohol?
I don’t believe that people wanting to commit suicide take the time and incur the expense of booking a cruise, buying an airplane ticket, packing a big suitcase, and then flying across the U.S. to South Florida for a week long cruise to the Caribbean with the thought of killing themselves.
But readers commenting on the cruise message boards at cruise fan sites like Cruise Critic have already labeled the case a suicide or 100% her fault for partying. Sites like Cruise Critic perpetuate the cruise line’s misleading PR campaign by ignoring the cruise line’s two hour delay and then letting its readers assassinate the woman’s character.
Unfortunately, there is no independent police authorities onboard cruise ships to gather the true facts and conduct an objective and timely investigation. Cruise lines investigations are often conducted with the cruise line’s reputation and legal interests in mind.
This is a real disservice to families of missing passengers who need transparency in such a time of despair.
September 19, 2012 Update: Royal Caribbean tries to justify why it delayed stopping the ship and notifying the Coast Guard. Coast Guard ends its delayed search. FBI now involved.