Cruise Ships Under Attack!

| Monday, 28 May 2007

News Flash! Media reports nationwide have cruise ships under attack! Cruise ship travel means possible peril to life and limb.

That is how the teaser on our front page reads. Did we draw you in? Why would we do such a shocking thing? To illustrate something we have been seeing far too much of recently, sensationalized media attacks on the cruise industry, most specifically, in the area of "cruise victims" and "cruise crimes."

It isn't just the stories about Norovirus anymore, or the old complaints of nickel & diming. The latest "anti-cruiseade" is coming in the form of accusations of onboard crime waves, mostly sexual assaults and people going missing. Yes, we have even read reporters write that they believe people have been "beaten up and thrown overboard."

The only thing we can say about articles like this is that THEY are overboard, over the threshold of journalistic integrity and stooping to fear-mongering of the worst possible kind. And so, because it is an extremely difficult and complex topic, we have delved into the world of "cruise ship crime" and the reality of it all.

We used this headline to help you understand how low some in the news media have stooped to bash the cruise industry these last few weeks. We at CruiseMates are shocked by these desperate news outlets willing use people who believe they are victims to help them get eyeballs for their web sites and shows, no matter how inaccurate or sensationalistic. We think it is abusive to the tens of thousands of good people who work in the cruise industry daily trying their best to make people's live better.

Let's get real for just a second here. How common is crime on cruise ships? By most general estimates by cruise lines, and having been on several cruises (well over 100) myself, I estimate the average cruise ship experiences a few crimes every year. It may be a theft, it may be a form of sexual assault (usually of the less grievance kind). I don't know anyone personally who has ever been a victim of crime on a cruise ship, nor do I know anyone who knows anyone.

Cruise crime is in my opinion largely an urban myth. It is like the one about kids getting abducted at Disneyland by people who get them in the bathrooms, shave their heads and change their shirts and have them in their cars within five minutes. I have heard that story, and I looked it up on the Internet to see if it is true. It is not, and neither is cruise ship sex crimes.

"Cruise Ship Crime Victims!" Cue the scary music with sounds of doors slamming, or are they gun shots, one cannot really tell. We have a serious news report here full of incendiary phrases like "cruise victims" and "cruise ship crime." It's as if cruising itself has become an act of violence. The featured "guests" are Miami attorneys who make a living suing cruise lines, and other cruise line adversaries, solely there to express their desperately distorted view of cruise ships as not much better than a walk through the projects after midnight.

To say that these news reports are one-sided and sensationalistic doesn't even begin to describe them. They are lies, damn lies and "statistics" which are skewed and distorted by these reporters to reach a pre-determined negative conclusion without a trace of real investigative reporting at all. Exactly why are they are so intent on pushing this unfounded attack? I think it is mostly about personal lawsuits and pressuring the cruise lines for settlements through influencing public opinion.

The Truth About Cruise Line Safety Let's not be naïve or disingenuous. Crime happens everywhere. But is there a fresh rash of crime happening on cruise ships now? Is it conspicuously dangerous to the average cruiser? And worst of all, is there a concerted effort to cover up cruise ship crime and keep it out of the papers as these report suggest?

The first part of the answer to that question is, "if there is a cover-up, it certainly isn't working very well," because the news media is full of stories about cruise ship crime right now. The second part is "how can there be a cover-up if they haven't broken one new story that wasn't already a headline back in over a year?"

Rick Sasso, president of MSC Cruise operations for North America, calls 2005 the worst year for the cruise industry ever. A rogue wave hit the Norwegian Dawn (no fatalities and the cruise line was officially cleared of all culpability by the NTSB and the Coast Guard), and the Crown Princess had a listing incident, which had injuries, but thankfully, no fatalities. In early 2006 Star Princess had a fire which resulted in the only passenger death due to cruise line fault on a CLIA ship in the last 20 years.

2005 was also the year of the George Smith disappearance (technically still an unsolved murder or suicide). There was no evidence of actual foul play, at the time they believe he went over the side only loud sounds like furniture dropping were heard, no voices. A blood stain was apparent on the deck right outside his cabin.

What the Heck is a "Cruise Victim?" The cruise bashers have all kinds of statistics to tell you what is wrong with cruising. But let's be honest, their statistics are made up by people who are not real statisticians. Statistics are great persuaders, aren't they? Did you know that the average person has only one testicle, and most people drown in rivers that average just six inches deep?

The first problem I have with the media reports is the mere use of the words "cruise victim" with never a mention of personal responsibility, as if we are talking about a children's cartoon show where an inanimate object can transform itself into an evil beast with the soul of Satan.

Technically, a "cruise victim" should be defined solely as a person who is victimized due to the negligence or actual criminal behavior on the part of a cruise line. Are there "cruise victims?" Yes, but how many "cruise victims are there? Statistically speaking, about one in ten million is generous to the cruise bashers if you look at the last 10 years. So, why is there suddenly such an upsurge in news reports bandying that phrase about?

Though I disagree with the term "cruise victim" applying to "passenger on passenger" crime, many anti-cruise people contend it should be included. So, even if it is, how bad is the entire problem?

If we stick with the professional statisticians, for example, the same ones who compile the Universal Crime Report for the Department of Justice every year, cruising is an industry that hosts over 12 million people every year, yet the crime rate on cruise ships is about 30 times safer than the average U.S. city. And that includes ALL crimes, including so-called "passenger on passenger."

If you look at individual types of crime, murder for example, you are more likely to be a victim of anthrax poisoning (five since 2001) or lighting strikes (90 per year) than you are to be killed on a cruise ship. There was one passenger death on a CLIA cruise ship in the last fives year that can be directly attributed to the fault of the cruise line - the Star Princess fire where one person died of smoke inhalation.

If we count "passenger on passenger" unsolved incidences, how much "murder" is there on cruise ships. I can think of no more than two cases in the last five years, including George Smith, where there is any evidence of foul play. The other is Annette Mizener. Assuming conservatively that 120 million cruises were taken during that period, how low a statistic is that? Also, keep in mind that there has never been a single murder trial for a case that happened on a cruise ship, and logically, not a single conviction.

So, where is the perspective in this where these "cruise crime" news reports are concerned? How does this compare to any major city, especially a vacation destination like Las Vegas, Honolulu or Miami? I don't think it even bears examining those statistics. Just click on the web site for any one of those cities' newspapers and read the headlines. I didn't just happen to mention anthrax. More people have died of anthrax poisoning in the last six years than have died due to cruise ship crime or negligence in the same period. But do you remember the media madness about anthrax that lasted for about two months? Well, same game, different name

Industry Bashing Web Sites The simple truth is that we are experiencing an unprecedented wave of cruise industry bashing right now. Completely undeserved and bolstered by just a few fear-mongers who are having their 15 minutes of fame. One is the web site by Ross Klein, a well known" anti-cruisader" who, for example, has a category of "victims" he refers to as "a comprehensive list of known cases of persons falling or jumping overboard since 1995 (including ferry passengers and crew)" Exactly how accurate could this reporting possibly be?

The first clue that there is something fundamentally wrong with it is the title "falling or jumped." Those are two completely different categories. To say a person fell from a ship implies the cruise line failed to provide the proper safety restraints. So based on that, how many people have "fallen" into the water from cruise ships? Exactly none. Not one, ever, in recorded modern history. So, why even bother putting the word "fallen" into the "statistic?" Obviously, to imply that it is possible to "fall" from a cruise ship and whether or not you do it on purpose or by accident is irrelevant.

That's right, Klein has completely removed the element of personal responsibility from his statistics. Everyone there, even if they took a flying leap through a plate glass window during a drunken rage, is a "cruise victim."

So, according to Klein and other media, here are at least five people have "fallen" from cruise ships in the last few years. Lets look at these cases:

One man had too much to drink and took a flying leap through a plate glass window. Oh, did you think I made that up? That I was "sensationalizing" about what Klein would put under the category "fallen" from a cruise ship? Sorry to disappoint you with the obvious, but wait, there's more! Another young man lost footing on a Carnival ship while urinating over the railing. A young lady lost her grip on something (we don't know what) while on a Princess balcony where she was making whoopee with a young man she had just met that night. The young man jumped in after her to save her. All of these people survived despite themselves.

Sadly, a fifth young man who went over the railing of a ship drowned and the family is now suing the cruise line. He has staggeringly drunk, on liquor that the family admits he had sneaked aboard. He had been drinking at one bar where the bartender cut him off because he was too drunk. The ship's computer system flagged his card to stop him from purchasing alcohol from any bar. Early reports of the lawsuit stated that he was able to go to another bar on the ship and buy more drinks. That was changed in later reports to "he went to another bar where he was able to obtain more alcohol." It is not known what or how he obtained it.

What is the common theme in each of these "falling" cases? All of them were inebriated. The jumper was also just plain crazy (he called it temporary insanity). Two of them were using the railing to discharge bodily fluids instead of the toilets, which are readily available. The girl was someplace she shouldn't have been and the man friend jumped in after her when she lost her grip. None of them "fell" due to any fault or negligence by the cruise line. So, are any of these people "cruise victims?" Call me crazy, but I don't think so.

Oh, by the way, the uniform specification for balcony railing heights on cruise ships is three inches higher than for railings for buildings on land.

Missing Persons Now, there have been people who have disappeared from ships and the exact reason has not been proven. One man, Kendall Carver, has started a web site that is getting an enormous amount of press lately, International Cruise Victims. Carver's daughter, Merriam, disappeared from a Celebrity ship in 2004. She paid for the cruise in cash two days before it sailed, told no one at all where she was going, and all she brought along was two purses and a manila envelope. She had attempted suicide before. I do not understand how you can refer to a suicide as a "cruise victim" any more than a Golden Gate jumper (I hear there are 60 bridge jumpers every year) should be called a "bridge victim."

In a recent CNBC interview, the introduction of Carver went like this, "Mr. Carver, you had a daughter disapper from a cruise ship. Isn't that right?" "yes", "So, how prevalent do you think cruise ship crime is on cruise ships these days?" "Very prevalent, indeed, our statistics say you are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted on a cruise than in a major U.S, city?" What? They skipped over the fact that his "missing daughter" was a suicide. Then we goes straight to commenting on cruise ship "sexual assault" which he has no personal experience with at all, by misquoting his own bad statistician. "Do you believe these crmes on cruise ships are covered up?" he is asked. Only then does he give us a glimmer of truth. "I believe they have been in the past," he says. Even the cruise lines agree with that.

Other people have also disappeared. And just like in Merriam's case there is just simply no proof to indicate a crime occurred. Now, in the absence of proof I personally think it is very wrong to assume a crime has been committed - it is too easy to commit suicide without leaving evidence of violence behind. But it is almost impossible to commit a murder by throwing someone overboard without being heard or seen or leaving trace evidence. The cabins are too close together and there are too many people on board. Concerning evidence, these crime scenes are sealed by the cruise ships for investigation by the FBI immediately after they are reported.

However, there are cases where there does indeed appear to be foul play and someone may have been thrown overboard - two of them in the entire history of cruising (statistically, one in hundreds of millions). In the George Smith-honeymooner case where there was blood left behind, and a neighbor reported hearing loud crashing sounds, something bad did happen and no one is talking.

Smith's wife had disappeared a few hours earlier after kicking her new husband in the testicles and leaving with another man. Smith was reported to be so drunk he couldn't hold a cigarette in his mouth. He was also very tired and emotional. Smith went over the balcony railing of his cabin, leaving a big blood spot behind, sometime around 4:15 that morning. His wife, who had passed out somewhere at the other end of the ship, had been wheeled back to their cabin in a wheel chair by security guards sometime around 4:45. She didn't notice anything amiss, including her missing husband, until the next morning. (read about the congressional response to this case later in this article).

A very strange circumstance, but is any of it the fault of the cruise line? Is there a "cruise victim?" here?

Another woman, Annette Mizener, disappeared from a cruise under very mysterious circumstances. Her purse was found with broken beads around it. A surveillance camera nearby had unfortunately been covered by a piece of paper (whether intentionally could not be determined). Her key card indicated she had some eleven drinks that night but witnesses say she only had two or three. This is another case where you can say something crime-related is a distinct possibility, one of the most damning cases in all of cruise line history. But it may surprise you to learn that a United States court said "no, the cruise line is not at fault in this case, nor was it legally responsible for monitoring that camera 24 hours/day." You may not like it, but that is the legal decision.

There are other cases of people gone missing, but I purposely highlighted the ones above because these are the two cases that arguably present any "evidence" that cruise ships could possibly have bad characters. Some twenty people have gone missing in the entire history of cruising, but these two stories are highlighted over and over by cruise industry bashers, though neither one of them proves any responsibility, or lack of proper precaution, on the part of the cruise line.

What else do these cases have in common? They happened two to three years ago. There are no newer cases, and there are no missing persons cases anywhere where a cruise line was found to be negligent or an employee was found to be guilty of a criminal act.

The 1999 CLIA agreement. An agreement of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) declaring a "zero-tolerance" policy against crime by all of the major U.S. cruise lines had been instituted in 1999. The cruise lines began voluntarily reporting every criminal complaint they received onboard directly to the FBI. That has been the working procedure since then and is still in place now.

So, why the Congressional hearings and all the negative media coverage now?

Is this the part where the cruise lines have to own up to a lack of responsibility? The truth is, they already have. There have been some cases (including the ones above) where the cruise lines have said, "we could have done better by our passengers in helping them get to the bottom of their cases." Were the cruise lines ever intentionally deceptive and secretive? Maybe, in some cases, when the industry was much younger. But is there a pattern of obfuscation and deliberate evasiveness today? Not at all, I don't believe. Today's cruise lines do want to cooperate with investigators. They want to adhere to the letter of the law and be the good guys.

The problem is this continued attitude of victimization. The cruise lines want to cooperate, but they are not going to stand back and let every self-proclaimed victim blame the industry for every thing they do wrong personally. That is an adversarial position that will result in the cruise lines defending themselves. Sometimes when a "victim" says the cruise line is not cooperating with them the truth is the victim is fishing (usually as part of a civil suit) for something the cruise line has no responsibility to provide.

Are the cruise lines breaking the law when they don't provide every little piece of evidence someone who is suing them may be asking for? In fact, they are not at all. They are following the strict letter of the law; Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) section 120.220 which says that the U.S. may assert criminal jurisdiction over many crimes even if they occur outside the 12-mile limit. Among them are arson, assault, theft, murder, manslaughter, and kidnapping, sexual abuse of a minor or ward, abusive sexual contact, terrorism and a few others.

However, there is absolutely no law requiring the cruise lines to report any of those crimes. In other words, it is the victim's legal responsibility to report any crimes at sea and the FBI's responsibility to determine the viability of the claim. The cruise lines actually helped many victims report their crimes to the FBI, and if the agency then decided there wasn't enough evidence to make a criminal case, it then became the victim's responsibility to follow up and in many cases that became suing the deep-pocket cruise lines (who had tried to help them) in civil court. If the cruise lines defend themselves in civil court, is that a cover-up? Not in my book.

And so, the truth is that actual "cruise crime" in the sense that the cruise line itself is negligent is almost non-existent. We have seen this in looking at the cases above. But apparently even congress now also buys into theabsencee of personal responsibility as a factor, and now every person is a "victim" no matter what the circumstances are. The distinguished congressman from Maryland, Elijah Cummings, said about the wife of George Smith:

"Here's a woman who has lost her husband and it seems like she is treated in a way that is simply incredible."
The congressman from Connecticut, Christopher Shays said,
"it sends shivers down my spine. I'm wrestling with how we can trust any statistic from any cruise line who can do what they did to a young bride."
And so congress has decided it is time for the cruise industry to take crime reporting to the next level per a signed agreement between the cruise lines, the FBI and the Coast Guard.


What the New Protocols Require Whenever a passenger or crewmember reports a crime against a U.S. citizen at sea, all CLIA member ships will telephone the nearest FBI office as soon as possible to report any violations of U.S. law. This includes homicide, suspicious death, missing U.S. nationals, kidnapping, assault with serious bodily injury, sexual assaults (as defined in 18 U.S.C. 2241, 2242, 2243 and 2244), firing or tampering with vessels and thefts greater than $10,000.

Lesser incidences may be emailed or faxed; for example a theft greater than $1000 or an abusive sexual contact as defined in 18 U.S.C. 1224(b).

Now, keep in mind that it is still up to the FBI to choose what to do in any given case. If they decide there is not enough proof of a crime they can still choose not to investigate it.

The law says the cruise lines must report all crimes (which they have been doing voluntarily since 1999 anyway). Most cruise lines are taking everything a step farther and have implemented procedures on how to secure evidence, including giving and training onboard medical personnel in the use of pelvic exam kits. Furthermore, they will be trained in the correct procedures for crime scene preservation. Their job will be to secure the area until the FBI, should it choose to follow up, can get there to conduct the examination of evidence.

Still, this new law recognizes that while cruise ship security personnel are in uniform and may or may not have a police or military background, they are not law officials. The ability of the FBI to take over an examination will depend on where the ship is located when the crime is reported. It is assumed that if it is in the Caribbean that the Coast Guard can deliver the FBI or they may fly to the next port. Or they have choice of waiting until the ship returns to the U.S.A.

A Media Challenge For the record, I worked aboard cruise ships for two years myself, and I have been covering the cruise industry as a journalist specializing in nothing but cruise travel for almost 10 years now. I have a very good idea of what really happens on cruise ships, both from the passenger's perspective and from the crew member's angle. For one year, I was one of those crewmembers who closed down the nightclub night after night. I doubt there are many people who could speak on this topic better than myself.

So, why doesn't the media consult me before presenting these stories? I think it is obvious, I would be too much of a damper on the sensationalism. So let's lay down a challenge to the next media outlet who decides to do a story on cruise ship crime; interview anyone who has been on ten or more cruises, and to ask them if they think there is a significant crime problem on cruise ships.

Coming Wednesday, "Making these New Regulations Work.



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