The disappearance of a 47 year-old woman last week from P&O Cruises’ Pacific Dawn was one of 213 people overboard from cruise ships in the last decade and one of 7 disappearances in less than 4 months this year alone. The incident raises the fundamental issue whether it is, in fact, possible for someone to fall off a cruise ship.
I have written about nearly 200 overboard incidents since I started this blog eight and a-half years ago. The single most common comment which I hear is that it’s impossible for someone to fall off of a cruise ship. When I reported on the recent overboard incident on the Pacific Dawn, the first comment was passengers don’t just fall off of a cruise ship.
But based on some of the eye-witness accounts, that is exactly what might have happened on the Pacific Dawn.
The 47-year-old passenger from Brisbane, Australia, was reportedly with her husband on an exterior deck, about 15 feet away from where other passengers were playing table tennis inside the cruise ship. Several passengers said the woman "went outside to vomit as she was seasick," according to an Australian newspaper the Courier Mail.
One eye-witness told the Courier Mail that the woman began to vomit while leaning over a railing when she lost her footing and went overboard.
Another passenger, who expressed condolences to the family of the woman, posted a somber photograph (right) of an empty deck and the railing where the woman apparently went overboard. The low railings immediately caught my eye.
A standard sized life-ring, which you can see mounted slightly above the deck, is only 28-30 inches in diameter, which suggests that the top of the top of railing is probably no more than a total of 40 to 42 inches in height.
One of the eye-witnesses took a photograph of the railing (below right) which was published in several newspapers. The photo shows four crew members standing around the deck railing. Two of the crew members are leaning on the railing with one crew member is standing in the middle nearby the railing, which appears to barely come to the crew members’ waists and the middle crew member’s hips.
Several years ago, when I attended a series of Congressional hearings in Washington, D.C. on proposed legislation to require the cruise lines to raise the height of railing on their ships, the cruise lines refused to consider raising their ships’ railings to more than 42 inches.
The cruise industry has known for years that passengers who have puked (due to being either sick or intoxicated) over the railings on cruise ships sometimes have fallen overboard in the process. Yet, the cruise lines consistently resisted agreeing to higher railings. They felt that a higher raising would have been too expensive to retrofit on their fleet of ships.
Eventually, when the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) was finally passed into law in 2010 in the U.S., the cruise industry successfully had lobbied for the lower (42 inch) provision.
Before the Pacific Dawn even finished its cruise following the woman’s disappearance, news reports announced that P&O Cruises already intended to argue that the woman intentionally went overboard. MSN reported that although "early reports suggested the woman was suffering from sea sickness and had been vomiting over the side," a representative for P&O said "there was nothing to suggest anything of this kind" despite the fact that there were high waves and strong winds at the time. Another newspaper reported that: "9NEWS understands cruise liner P&O will claim its early investigation has concluded that ‘it appears the missing person has jumped with the husband attempting to catch her unsuccessfully.’" 9News reported that a ship’s security camera footage allegedly showed the passenger "deliberately launching herself over the side" of the ship, according to P&O.
By the time that the ship had returned to Brisbane, the cruise line had already revealed the woman’s name to the press and implied that she may have committed suicide.
It’s troubling to see a cruise line dispute eye-witness accounts, state that it intends to prove the passenger intentionally went overboard even before law enforcement boards the ship, and then reveal the name of the victim to the media.
Police "investigators" have apparently now reviewed the surveillance film and agreed with P&O’s pre-determined conclusions. But notably absent in the media statements, from either the police or the cruise line, is there any mention that the video shows the woman climbing up on the railings.
Whatever occurred on the Pacific Dawn, this would not be the first time that a cruise line may have falsely reported that an overboard passenger committed suicide.
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