two nights before he disappeared. Above: Gainesville millionaire Wallis and the Grand Princess.
Bobbie Wallis tilts her head away from the hallway light as she opens the door.
"So how much did you lose?" she asks with a Gainesville drawl.
"Does this look like I've lost?" Andy says, his outstretched palms holding wads of $100 bills he's pulled from his tux pockets.
Ten thousand dollars isn't a fortune for the millionaire couple from Georgia, but Andy revels in beating the house on what has already been a wonderful anniversary cruise.
With time only for a brief nap before their scheduled 7 a.m. tour of Athens with friends, Andy climbs into bed, exuberant yet exhausted.
"I love you," he says, hugging his wife.
"I love you, too."
Andy seems to doze off. His breathing deepens.
Moments later, he's up again.
"Where are you going?" Bobbie asks, thinking Andy's excitement has gotten the best of him and he's going to wake his friends for a little gloating.
"To the bathroom," he says.
Bobbie falls asleep. Minutes pass, then something startles her.
"Andy!" Bobbie calls out, bolting straight up in bed with her arms extended into the dark room, feeling the air on either side of her.
"Andy . . .
There is no answer from the bathroom.
Andy is gone.
Reliving the nightmare
Two years after what was supposed to be the cruise of a lifetime on the world's largest passenger ship, Bobbie still has trouble remembering the details of the night her husband disappeared.
But she has forced herself to relive that evening and the days preceding her husband's death over and over for a year now, as a string of lawyers pushes her to remember the finer points. Bobbie, 57, has sued Princess Cruise Lines, saying the ship's crew failed to call a proper sea search for Andy after it became clear he was missing. The trial is scheduled to start in September.
She is angry that while a Greek coast guard crew sunbathed on the back of its cutter, her friends chartered a helicopter and organized what they believe was the only timely search and rescue mission for Andy.
She is angry the ship's captain insisted on leaving Athens to keep the cruise on schedule while Andy was still missing. She is angry she spent three hours under questioning by the Greek police, who she felt were all but accusing her of having something to do with her husband's disappearance.
She is angry the massive passenger ship had no way to detect her husband's fall or to stop it.
As much as anything, though, she has hoped the lawsuit would get her closer to understanding what happened the night she lost her husband.
On a winning streak
Bobbie gets out of bed, walks across the ship's dimly lit cabin and peers into the empty bathroom.
The room's balcony door is open a few inches, but it's raining. Andy wouldn't be out smoking in the downpour, Bobbie reasons. Andy probably opened it the night before, she thought, wanting ventilation for the air conditioner.
Maybe Andy's back at the Casino, she thinks. Or perhaps he's gone to wake the others and show off his winnings.
Dinner that night had been a race to get back to the casino for Andy. Earlier in the day he had won $3,000 while playing the $5 slots and sipping Crown Royal with water. He was eager to put the winnings back into slots and have a couple of more drinks.
"I'm going to pluck 'em like a chicken," Andy had boasted.
After dinner, Bobbie turned in for the night, telling Andy not to stay up too late. They had a full day ahead and were starting early.
Now, sitting alone in the dark cabin, Bobbie decides she'd better find Andy and get him to bed. If she doesn't, he'll try to back out of the day trip.
Groggy, Bobbie pulls on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, grabs her room card and heads out into the long, deserted hallway.
The silence continues at the casino, where the once-busy gaming tables had been covered up and the bar emptied.
On the way back to her room, Bobbie sees a steward vacuuming. She asks the time.
It's 4:30 in the morning.
Back at the room, Bobbie lies in bed, waiting. A half-hour passes and still no word of Andy. Bobbie takes a shower and gets dressed, figuring Andy has fallen asleep in one of his friends' rooms and will be back by the time she's finished.
At 6, a wake-up call comes. Andy still isn't back.
Bessie Gilleland, one of the couple's oldest and best friends, calls next.
"Bobbie, want to go have some breakfast?" she asks.
"Andy's not here," Bobbie says.
"Well, where is he?"
"I don't know. I was hoping he'd be in your room."
After Bobbie hangs up, she figures Andy must be at the Crowthers'.
A few minutes later, Denis Crowther phones. It's 6:30.
Andy isn't there, either.
Denis senses the sudden worry in Bobbie's voice. He tells her to meet him in the hall. He'll call the others.
It's time to fan out and find Andy.
A reluctant traveler
When Bobbie and Andy boarded the Grand Princess with six of their closest friends in Barcelona, Spain, on June 28, 1999, their lives were peaking.
Andy, 55, had sold his grading business for $4 million, and the Gainesville couple was clearing land for a retirement home on 450 acres they had recently purchased in nearby Jackson County. Their three children were grown, and after years of hard work, the Wallises would have time to ride cutting horses, enjoy their granddaughter and travel.
Still, it took some convincing when Denis and Darlene Crowther invited the Wallises to join them for a two-week Mediterranean cruise. Ronnie and Cindy Lou Bergeron were going, too. The couples had met through a mutual friend and loved each others' company.
Although the Bergerons and Crowthers lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Wallises often joined them for coastal jaunts on the Crowthers' yacht or for hunting at the Bergerons' ranch in the Everglades.
Andy initially scoffed at the idea of a Mediterranean cruise. He hadn't even seen all of America yet, so why go to Europe?
Andy wasn't a fancy man. He was most comfortable in old boots and a Stetson. His long, skinny legs held up a hearty upper body, weathered from years outdoors on tractors and grading machines.
Even after Andy agreed to take the trip, Bobbie figured he'd back out.
But he didn't, and when a fourth couple pulled out of the trip, the Wallises invited their lifelong friends from Gainesville, Earl and Bessie Gilleland.
The couples booked mini-suites, with king-sized beds and balconies that hung out over the sea. The cruise would cost the couples $15,000 apiece, not including airfare to Spain.
For the Wallises, it would be the start of a new phase of their lives together.
A few months before the trip, Bobbie confided in her husband the changes were making her somewhat uneasy. She told Andy that whenever a couple decides to retire and take it easy, something bad happens. She'd seen it happen before, to people they knew.
Andy told her not to worry. Everything would be fine.
Has anyone seen Andy?
Back on the ship, Bobbie's mind is racing.
Had someone seen Andy with all that money? Did someone knock him in the head and pull him into a room, and he can't escape?
Denis isn't so concerned. Andy's probably up on one of the decks having coffee and watching the sunrise, he thinks.
The friends meet in the hall in front of the Wallises' room. Everyone takes a floor or two. Bobbie and Denis head to the top of the ship.
Bobbie's stomach tightens with each deck and no sign of Andy.
She feels sick as she and Denis meet the other men in the ship's lobby to report Andy missing. It's after 8.
Someone suggests Bobbie check for Andy's belongings. The last she'd seen him, he was walking to the bathroom in his boxer shorts. If he left the room, surely he would have dressed.
Andy's tux is still on the floor. So are his favorite shorts and his tennis shoes. No clothes are missing. The $10,000 Andy had won at the slots is on the table next to the television.
What about his cigarettes, someone asks?
Bobbie reaches into Andy's tuxedo pocket and pulls out a pack and a lighter. There is a knowing hush in the room. Andy, a chain smoker, wouldn't go anywhere without his Marlboro reds.
Bobbie's mind clings to her abduction theory: If he was grabbed, they wouldn't let him have his cigarettes.
The men step onto the balcony. They had seen Andy sit on the balcony railing many times, just as they all had. Andy loved to watch the glowing green phosphorous trail that churned from the sides of the ship.
Denis Crowther leans over and looks into the water, 68 feet below.
He thinks of the cigarettes, the clothes, the lack of any sign that Andy is still on the ship. The evidence washes over him.
"Damn," Crowther says, "he must have gone overboard."
If Andy's still alive out there, Crowther decides, they're going to find him.
The take-charge type
Denis Crowther is rich and adventurous. He doesn't hear the word "no."
When he takes his $330,000 airplane into the shop for repairs, he grabs a wrench and gets under the cowling with the mechanics.
When he takes his 65-foot yacht to sea, he doesn't bother hiring a crew. He is used to taking charge.
Crowther's heart pounds as he steps off the balcony and rushes out of the Wallises' room. He says nothing to Bobbie.
As he jogs nearly the length of the boat to the crew offices in the bow, Crowther's mind runs through a checklist: Where can he get a chart? How fast was the ship moving? Where can he get a helicopter?
Crowther was a helicopter crew chief during the Vietnam War, so he knows his way around a search and rescue mission. Before he made millions building custom yachts, he fished the waters off the North Carolina coast, selling bluefish for 50 cents a pound. He also owned the only boat in the area with radar, which meant he was the first to be called when the U.S. Coast Guard needed help finding missing boats or men overboard.
At the end of the long hall, Crowther ignores the sign on the door: "Crew Only. Do Not Enter." He pushes through and begins looking for the ship's captain, Commodore Michael Moulin.
"I apologize for barging in, but we have a really bad feeling Andy could have fallen overboard," Crowther says impatiently, standing at the door to the commodore's office.
It's clear to Crowther the commodore has reached the same conclusion. He is poring over a shipping chart, marking the overnight course into Athens. The crew is starting a search of the ship.
The commodore and Crowther talk about whether Andy could have survived the fall. At 23 knots, having fallen from more than 60 feet, Andy hit the water at more than 50 mph, they figure. Crowther believes Andy could have lived. He remembers jumping off bridges that high as a young boy.
Crowther asks the commodore to get on the ship's radio and broadcast a $25,000 reward for any boat captain who locates Andy. He doesn't think to specify whether that means dead or alive. Meanwhile, Nikos Restas, the local port agent for Princess Cruise Lines, locates a helicopter and pilot for hire at Athens International Airport.
Morning traffic is thick, and it takes Retsas more than an hour to get Crowther, Gilleland and Bergeron to the airport. Tense with anticipation, Crowther assigns his friends seats in the chopper. Scan small areas and stick to your sight quadrant, he tells them. If they see Andy, the men decide one of them will jump out and get him.
"If he's out there," Crowther assures them, "we'll find him."
It's 11:30 a.m. by the time the chopper lifts off. Andy has likely been in the water nearly eight hours.
Inside the search zone, the men see a Greek coast guard boat moving slowly away. There are no other ships in the area. Crowther wonders why it's taking authorities so long to mobilize.
The pilot takes the chopper down to 500 feet. From that height, the men can see under the water several feet. The pilot circles anything they locate in the water - Styrofoam coolers, chunks of wood, a deck chair. Each unsuccessful pass up and down the Grand Princess' route is more painful than the last.
After three hours in the air, the chopper's fuel is running low.
"Could he be alive?" Bergeron asks.
"It's going to be hard for him to have survived this long," Crowther replies.
"You know, we can't just give up," Bergeron says.
"I know," Crowther says, staring at the water.
In her cabin, Bobbie faces a decision she doesn't want to make. Get off the cruise ship here in Athens or stay on board and go to Turkey. By 4, Commodore Moulin makes it clear he intends to keep the ship's 5:30 p.m. departure time.
Bobbie is torn. If Andy is still on the ship, she doesn't want to leave him. If he's in the waters off Greece, she doesn't want to be in Turkey.
Her friends convince Bobbie they have to get off. The women pack up frantically, leaving makeup and hair brushes in the bathrooms.
Bobbie and the women had spent the morning answering questions from the commodore and the Athens port police.
Everyone talked as if Andy had certainly fallen off the ship and died. For Bobbie, their words were like darts.
"These people don't know what they're talking about," she thought to herself. "Andy's here somewhere. I'll find him."
The commodore had been more blunt than anyone else. He told Bobbie her husband fell off the balcony and couldn't have survived the fall. From that height, he said, the water was like "concrete."
Bobbie shook her head. "No, he wouldn't have been out there," she snapped. "It was raining."
That wasn't rain, the commodore said, it was the window washer several decks above.
Bobbie looked at him, trying in vain to process what that meant.
"No," she said again, "he wouldn't be out in the rain."
Praying for a miracle
The men decide to take the chopper for a second search after the pilot refuels.
Crowther calls the ship and talks to Moulin, telling him there are no other boats or aircraft searching for Andy. Gilleland calls the wives, who tell him they have been asked to leave the ship.
An hour and a half later, the men are in the air again. The water is 73 degrees. Andy could conceivably be alive, if he'd done everything right.
They fly over the same Greek coast guard boat, still stationary in the water. It appears the crew is sunbathing on the rear deck. Crowther is furious. There should be search boats and aircraft all over the place, scouring the ocean, he complains aloud.
Back and forth they fly. Circling. Peering into the water. Praying for a miracle.
As the sun sets, the men make a final silent pass, then turn toward Athens.
The only thing left now is to tell Bobbie.
Truth put on hold
Crowther is crying as Bobbie walks into his room at the Athens hotel where the group has checked in for the night.
A shipping chart is unfolded across the bed.
Sliding his finger across the paper map scribbled with coordinates, Crowther shows Bobbie the search pattern they flew. He assures her they would have seen Andy had he been treading water out there.
"Is Andy dead?" Bobbie asks.
"I think so, Bobbie."
"Did he suffer?"
"Bobbie Jo, I think he died as soon as he hit the water."
The truth would have to wait.
Bobbie knows now what Crowther couldn't tell her then, and she is haunted by images of her husband gasping for air and treading water in the black ocean night.
Days after the accident, Andy's body washed up on a small Greek island near the area Crowther and the men had searched so frantically. An autopsy revealed no broken bones or lacerations, meaning Andy might have survived the fall.
The pain of such images is amplified by the years they spent together. Bobbie had loved Andy since high school.
Bobbie has kept the Gainesville ranch running as best she can, relying mostly on hired help or her three grown children to cut the grass and tend the horses. She's trying to sell the land she and Andy planned to retire on, land he was grading himself for their dream home.
Bobbie hurts for her children, too. They said goodbye to their father thinking he'd be gone for just two weeks. Vallie Jo, Bobbie's 5-year-old granddaughter, tells strangers her "Poppy" fell off a boat.
Bobbie and her friends will probably never know what happened on the balcony that July night two years ago. They can only guess. Did the water from the window washer above startle him or cause him to slip on a wet deck? Did he lean too far over the balcony? Did he fall asleep and tumble over?
Everyone who knows Andy says he was too happy to commit suicide. He was a driven man who had never revealed signs of depression. And even though Athens port police detectives initially asked Bobbie about such things as insurance policies, fights she and Andy may have had and even extramarital affairs, foul play was ruled out.
In her lawsuit against Princess Cruises, Bobbie claims her husband died as a result of the ship's failure to act. Under international maritime regulations, the ship was required to contact the Rescue Coordination Center in Athens as soon as it suspected a man was overboard. Wallis says the crew never did.
In a prepared statement, Princess said that while the company is sympathetic to Bobbie's loss, Andy was "personally responsible for this needless tragedy." His wife and friends had seen him sitting on the balcony's railing earlier in the trip, the statement said, adding that the railing exceeds U.S. Coast Guard standards.
The cruise line also stated that its crew complied with "all applicable laws under the circumstances" and that the appropriate Greek authorities were immediately notified.
The company also points to documents prepared by Greek authorities that say a search was conducted by air and by water.
Denis Crowther insists there were no other search vehicles in the area during the five hours he was in the air.
Even now, Crowther and his wife feel guilty for having talked Andy into the cruise.
"I pray he didn't suffer and lose all hope and finally give up. I hope it knocked him out cold, I do," Crowther says somberly. "I'll ask him one day."
Wow! What a heartbreaking and frightening story. Reading it made me
so sad that such a thing could happen. What a terrifying experience for
Bobbie Wallis and their friends. I'll be thinking about this and picturing
how awful this could be while on my next cruise.
What's truly strange is that this occurs with some frequency.
Living in Miami, we get all the cruise news on local TV and in the Herald. I've heard of people "disappearing" from cruise ships 5-6 times in the past 10 years.
Read this the other day. Her name caught my eye because it is spelled exactly like I spell mine, which is a kinda unusual.
What was the inside scoop from the crew, CA? Did crew members really see Mr. Wallis sitting on the balcony railing during the first part of their cruise or did they add that in after the incident, I wonder?
This was a good lesson for my sons - "never sit on the side of the balcony railing"! They never have before and know of the danger, but this story really hit home with my 9 yr.old. Both boys have been apprehensive about the balcony railings in the past and now they are going to be really careful!
Lady Jag - early on in the article it states that many times he was seen sitting on the railing of the balcony; and his friends had done it many times also. This is a sad, sad story, but how can the cruise line be held responsible for the actions of a competent and intelligent adult? This is such a tragedy.
Lisa - Thought I had read that people had seen him on the railings. Didn't want to read over the article again - too upsetting. No, I don't believe Princess can be held accountable for the accident. You're right - it is a terrible tragedy.
The night that his wife and friends left the ship, we had drinks with a lady I'd met on the Net, who had the mini-suite just down the hall. Word was that he had been drinking, now as for the money...it wasn't on him when they found it.
I guess that I just sometimes wonder what the purpose is...it isn't going to bring him back, I really don't see any wrong doing on the part of the cruise line or authorities and she doesn't need the money. What do you think legal fees on this are going to be for her.
I think the article said that he left the $10,000 on the nightstand/table near the bed.
I think they are looking for someone to blame. Everyone is just too darned "suit happy" in America. You're right, CA, they don't need the money. I think they are looking to punish someone, anyone. It's a tragedy and suing the cruise line isn't going to make it any better.