Murder mystery on high seas

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 March, 2006, 12:00am

It could have been the script of an Agatha Christie whodunnit - the mystery of a young honeymooner tumbling from the balcony of a luxury ocean liner and plunging to his death in the Mediterranean Sea.

Now George Smith's disappearance on a European cruise last summer - dismissed as 'a non-event' by the head of the industry's biggest company last week - has prompted a congressional review of the safety of millions of passengers at sea.

Politicians are looking into claims that American cruise-ship operators have for years been hiding the true extent of crimes committed on their vessels. Reports suggest that almost 30 people have simply vanished from cruise ships in the past five years, and rapes, assaults and even piracy are seldom reported or properly investigated, victims say.

'The industry is largely indifferent,' said James Walker, a Miami maritime attorney who is representing Smith's widow as she awaits the outcome of an FBI inquiry into her husband's disappearance.

'Their cold, compassionless attitude is shocking. They are not responsible to anyone, and can thumb their noses at everyone. The industry has grown, and continues to grow, at such a rate that they're not worried about repeat business.'

By contrast, cruise industry representatives point to figures suggesting that passengers are far more likely to be victims of crime on land than they are at sea, and that recent publicity surrounding the Smith case and similar disappearances is out of proportion to the threat of harm.

'We do not intend to minimise or brush aside grievances nor shirk responsibility,' said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL). 'The cruise industry is constantly reviewing its practices and procedures to make sure incidents, no matter how rare, are handled responsibly and with compassion.'

Smith's widow and family were among those at a second congressional hearing in Washington last week (the first was in December) to support the newly formed International Cruise Victims group (ICV) in its fight for reform of the industry. Cruise lines are not required to disclose crime statistics to US authorities, largely because most vessels are registered overseas.

Royal Caribbean, owners of the vessel Brilliance of the Seas, believes Mr Smith's disappearance was probably the result of an accident after a night's drinking, and says that the company, which made a US$716 million profit last year, co-operated with every aspect of the 'very active and far-reaching' FBI inquiry in his home state of Connecticut.

Lawyers for the family say that other evidence, including a large bloodstain found below Mr Smith's cabin, points to foul play. They say that they were appalled by the suggestion of Robert Dickinson, president of Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's largest with 2005 profits of US$2.3 billion, that the incident was 'a non-event' that had nothing to do with safety.

'It shows a deeply disturbing lack of humanity,' Mr Walker said. 'Who could consider that the death of anyone on a company's premises was a non-event? It's very hurtful to Mr Smith's family.'

The publicity generated by the Smith case, and other similar disappearances, has alarmed the industry. At a conference in Miami last week, cruise line executives were keen to play up the positive aspects of cruising, and pointed out that more than 11 million people took cruises last year in complete safety.

They believe that figure will increase by 500,000 this year, bringing the passenger numbers for 2006 close to 11.7 million.

Earlier this month, Mr Crye's group released figures showing 206 complaints from passengers and crew from 2003 to 2005, a three-year period in which more than 31 million people sailed on cruise ships. There were 178 complaints of sexual assault, four robberies and 24 missing persons.

The FBI says it investigated 305 incidents from 2000 to 2005, two-thirds of them physical or sexual assaults.

Kendall Carver, president of the ICV, believes that the number of crimes is actually far higher, and that when incidents are reported, they are often dismissed or not acted upon.

His daughter Merrian, 40, disappeared during a Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska in August 2004. Mr Carver told the congressional hearing that the steward servicing her cabin reported her missing to a supervisor for five consecutive days but was told to keep quiet and continue placing fresh chocolates on her pillow at night.

'At the end of the cruise, some of Merrian's clothing and personal property was disposed of and other items were put into storage. No effort was made to report her disappearance to the authorities or her family,' Mr Carver said.

'I do not understand why a reputable corporation would attempt to cover up the disappearance of a passenger. Did some of these officials assume that families would not have the financial or emotional resources to investigate the matter thoroughly?'

The politicians also heard from a woman who reported that she had been raped after being drugged by a barman, and who later reached a financial settlement with the undisclosed cruise line, and from the grandson of an elderly couple who vanished from a Carnival ship in the Caribbean in May last year.

Mr Carver said his group would like to see cruise lines compelled to report crime figure, and for US marshals to be posted on cruise liners to improve security, as they are on aircraft.

They seem to have an ally in Republican Congressman Chris Shays, who chaired last week's hearing. 'I intend to continue my investigation into cruise-ship safety and to offer legislation that will require more accurate, more public reporting and disclosure of crimes on board cruise ships,' he said. 'Passengers have a right to know the safety record of ships they board.'

Mr Walker, meanwhile, does not believe that the politicians, who benefited from almost US$3 million in federal lobbying from the cruise industry last year, have any great incentive to act quickly.

'They'll come up with some catchy phrase that will suggest they'll make improvements. This time, I hope they really will,' he said.