The luxury cruise industry: Lost at sea

In the past two years, 14 people have gone missing from cruise ships, the latest only last weekend. Now the US Congress is investigating. David Usborne reports
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The Independent US

Everything was right with the world when Jennifer Hagel Smith clasped the hand of her brand-new husband, George Smith IV. At their June wedding in Rhode Island, they spoke to guests of their dream to have two children, hopefully including a boy, so a George V would one day perpetuate the paternal line. And then they waved goodbye, bound for their honeymoon.

The next day the couple rode the short journey from Greenwich, Connecticut, where Jennifer's family live, to JFK airport in New York for a flight to Greece, were they boarded the Brilliance of the Seas, a luxury ship belonging to the Royal Caribbean cruise line, for a romantic 10 days among the islands of the sparkling Aegean Sea.

How could anyone have known that their days as husband and wife were already numbered? Neither would complete the cruise. According to her statement to Congress this week, Jennifer would find herself ditched in a Turkish port, her belongings piled in a heap by cruise-line staff on the dock. As for George, he would never be seen again.

The cruise-line industry has enjoyed a boom in recent years, with as many as 10 million passengers a year succumbing to its sophisticated marketing. The ever-more luxurious ships have myriad restaurants and facilities ranging from climbing walls, health spas and ice rinks, to shopping malls and two-tier theatres.

And then there are all the activities on offer. No longer is it about over-eating and taking an occasional potter around the deck to regenerate your appetite. There are shore-bound visits to temples, white-water rivers and beaches on islands privately owned by the cruise lines.

What the companies do not advertise is this: setting sail on the open sea can be perilous. It is possible you won't come home. The industry does not want to overstate the point. Indeed, it is proud of its record of protecting passengers from danger. Every journey begins with that near-comical ritual of everyone - from grannies to two-year-olds - donning the daft-looking life-jackets, with whistles and lights, and assembling at the muster stations on the life-boat decks. No one takes them too seriously, but they should.

Because people do vanish. According to most recent estimates from the North American cruise industry, a total of 14 people have gone missing at sea in the past two years, usually overboard. The most recent case was just last weekend, when a 59-year-old Canadian woman, Jill Begora, was reporting missing from another Royal Caribbean vessel as it steamed into Nassau, in the Bahamas, on Saturday morning.

More often than not, the circumstances of a passenger's disappearance remain an entire mystery. High railings on every deck of every ship make it hard to imagine somebody simply toppling overboard by mistake. That leaves a number of other possibilities. Alcohol-induced tomfoollery is one - like tight-rope walking on the banisters of the railings. Suicides may account for some of the cases. Or crime.

A murder on B Deck sounds like material for an airport detective novel. Fans of Carl Hiaasen, the Miami-based writer and journalist, and particularly, of his recent novel Skinny Dip, will know about this. The book explores all the ingredients that make such a slaying alarmingly credible - the passions of love aboard gone wrong, mixed with the fuel of alcohol and, above all, the ease of hiding the evidence. As any coast guard officer will tell you, a body dumped overboard in the open ocean is a body hard to find.

It is hardly surprising that criminal deaths on board their ships is the subject the cruise lines like to discuss the least. For the cruise business, not all publicity is good publicity. But the days when the cruise companies could avoid mention of possible homicides on their ships may be running short. On Tuesday, members of the US Congress held a joint hearing for the first time into the cases of passengers vanishing at sea and their aim was clear: to force the cruise lines to admit they have a problem and to encourage better co-operation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies when passenger counts fall short.

And, as the congressional hearing has highlighted, it happens more often than most fans of cruise holidays realise. As Chris Shays, a Republican representative from Connecticut, pointed out on Tuesday, ships are like small floating cities, "but city-dwellers know the risks of urban life, and no one falls off a city never to be heard of again".

That is what apparently happened, for instance, to Glenn Sheridan, a 54-year-old man from Williamsburg, Virginia, whose wife discovered he had vanished in November 2004 when the Carnival cruise liner Celebration docked in Jacksonville, Florida, after a five-day trip to the Bahamas. Noting that her husband was an early riser, Mrs Sheridan could only speculate that he had fallen overboard accidentally. Merrian Lynn Carver, 40, of Phoenix, vanished during an Alaska cruise, also with Royal Caribbean, last year without the ship's crew even reporting it. Annette Mizener, a 37-year-old from Wisconsin, dropped from view on 4 December this year while on a Carnival cruise off Mexico with her teenage daughter.

The case at the weekend of Ms Begora from Canada happened too recently for the congressman to address it. A C-130 aircraft was deployed by the US Coast Guard to search the waters off Nassau all day Sunday, but no trace was found. Friends in Canada have noted that Ms Begora, who was on board the Jewel of the Seas with her husband, had suffered long-term depression and may have jumped overboard.

The members of Congress were, however, very interested in investigating what happened to the 26-year-old George Smith. The families of Mr Smith and of his widow, Jennifer, are firm in their belief that his vanishing was no accident. Noting that significant amounts of blood were found running from the balcony of the Smith's honeymoon cabin and that a handprint was found on the side of the Brilliance of the Seas, they are claiming that the young man was murdered and his body dumped.

Royal Caribbean seems to have a particular problem in the Smith case because of its alleged treatment of Jennifer once the absence of her husband was established. As she detailed in a statement to the hearing - she was present on Tuesday but opted not to testify in her own voice - the company responded in a manner that would seem less than sympathetic and even callous. According to the families, the line quickly moved to insinuate that whatever had happened to Mr Smith had been his doing.

It is this kind of behaviour that has prompted some US lawmakers to call into question everything the industry has to say about passenger losses at sea - even doubting the veracity of its statistics regarding how many people disappear each year. Mr Shays suggests the numbers may be deliberately understated. "I'm wrestling with how we can trust any statistic from any cruise line which can do what they did to a young bride," he declared.

The world that had looked so beautiful to Ms Hagel Smith imploded on the morning of 5 July, as the liner was coming into the Bosphorus. Her husband was nowhere to be found and the ship's officers, after making several announcements over the ship's PA system, had no luck in finding him.

But as she explained in her statement to Congress, matters quickly got more desperate. The captain advised her that she should disembark to be briefly interrogated by the Turkish authorities. She would be accompanied at all times - the vessel and the company would not abandon her. But they did.

"I was then driven into the city to a Turkish police station where I was mocked and taunted as I sat crying and bewildered," Ms Hagel Smith recalled. "I was then taken against my will, further away from the cruise ship, to a hospital. A man, whom I could not understand, lifted up my shirt and looked down my shorts without taking me to a private examining room.

"When I finally returned to the port, all of our suitcases were brought down and left on the dock. Our clothes and personal items, which could not be crammed into the suitcases, were haphazardly stuffed into 10 plastic souvenir bags, all emblazoned with the Royal Caribbean logo. My eyes became transfixed on a pair of George's sneakers sticking out of one plastic bag. This memory will forever haunt me. There was no compassion, sympathy or sensitivity shown by the cruise line. Initially, the cruise line issued a statement attacking George, stating that it was just an accident and suggesting it was all George's fault."

Incredibly, it seems Ms Hagel Smith was simply left to fend for herself in Turkey. The Brilliance of the Seas sailed without her. She says that the company offered her nothing either to pay for her hotels there or fund her flights back to the United States.

Nearly six months after losing George Smith, the families are suing Royal Caribbean and this week went public with their agony. They are also offering a reward of $100,000 (£56,000) to anyone who can provide information on what happened to him. Aside from appearing at the Washington hearing, family members and Jennifer herself have given interviews to reporters, including, on Tuesday, CNN's Larry King.

Gregory Purdy, the cruise line's director of safety and security, contended at Tuesday's hearing that it had handled the incident "correctly and responsibly". He did, however, offer a belated expression of sympathy. "The Smith family has suffered a tragic loss," he said. "We extend our deepest sympathies to the family. We do not know what happened to George Smith - only that he tragically disappeared from the cruise - but we continue to co-operate fully with the FBI in the hope that the agency will be able to provide solid answers and some measure of closure for the Smith family."

His words are not likely to appease the Smith kin or the members of Congress who vowed to pursue not just Royal Caribbean but all the cruise companies. "Here's a woman who has lost her husband and it seems like she is treated in a way that is simply incredible," said Elijah Cummings, a representative from Maryland. "We cannot allow this to continue the way it is, because there's going to be another incident whether we like it or not."

Mr Shays, the Connecticut representative, added: "The bottom line is we are suspicious, candidly, that there's some huge problem in the cruise industry."

Missing holidaymakers

JILL BEGORA

The 59-year-old from Canada is most recent person to be reported missing. She disappeared from a Royal Caribbean liner last weekend and may have thrown herself overboard after a bout of severe depression. The search for her body has been called off.

GEORGE SMITH IV

Mr Smith, 26, from Connecticut, has not been seen since he set off on a honeymoon cruise trip around the Aegean islands with his bride on 5 July this year, Jennifer Hagel Smith. His absence was noticed just as the ship sailed into the Bosphorus.

ANNETTE MIZENER

The 37-year-old from Wisconsin disappeared from her Carnival cruise on 4 December last year when the ship neared the Mexican coast. She was on holiday with her parents and 17-year-old daughter and was last seen around 9.15pm. An hour after she failed to show up for a 10pm dinner, two Carnival workers found her purse near a railing. One of the men noticed a nearby security camera was covered with paper.

GLENN SHERIDAN

Mr Sheridan vanished on 24 November 2004 from the Carnival cruise liner Celebration. He had been on a five-day trip around the Bahamas but there was no sign of him when the tour ended in Jacksonville, Florida. The 54-year-old from Williamsburg, Virginia, was an early riser; his wife says he may have fallen overboard at 4am when no one was around to save him.

MERRIAN LYNN CARVER

Ms Carver, 40, from Phoenix was last seen alive on the Celebrity Cruise ship Mercury on 28 August last year while touring around Alaska. She later vanished, but the ship's crew did not see fit to report her disappearance and is unable to confirm whether she got off the vessel at the end of the cruise in Vancouver. Ms Carver did not board a return flight to Massachusetts.

JAMES SCAVONE

The 22-year-old vanished from a Carnival cruise ship disco in the Caribbean on 5 July 1999, exactly six years before George Smith's disappearance.

AMY LYNN BRADLEY

Ms Bradley, 23, went missing from the Royal Caribbean ship Rhapsody of the Seas in March 1998. She was last seen leaving her cabin early one morning for a cigarette. Police investigating her disappearance said it was unlikely she fell overboard and drowned, as she was a trained lifeguard.

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