After their parents’ death, sisters question safety measures on cruise ship

Originally published at Lee's Summit Journal

Last Christmas, after spending the holiday at her parents’ home in Omaha, Kelly Hammer Lankford waved goodbye to her parents. As always, they stood on their stoop and waved until their daughter was out of sight.

“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.’ I think that’s natural as your parents get older. You wonder if something is going to happen,” Lankford said.

The Lee’s Summit woman remembered the fleeting thought after she received tragic news: Her parents, Christy and Larry Hammer, died April 10 while aboard a luxury cruise ship, La Estrella Amazonica, in Peruvian waters.

Their deaths, the result of smoke inhalation after a fire broke out in their cabin, has led Lankford and her sister, Jill Hammer Malott, to seek answers. Their own investigators have concluded multiple safety measures may have saved their parents’ lives.

The operating cruise line, International Expeditions, has offered condolences, including in an article last month in People Magazine. But the sisters said the company has done little to address their questions.

“There were multiple layers of failure,” Malott, who lives in California, said by phone. She added the family looks to hold responsible parties accountable for her parents’ death.

After requesting comment for this story, Van Perry, the president of the Alabama-based International Expeditions, said in a statement:

“As the official investigation continues International Expeditions and the vessel owner remain fully cooperative with the authorities. We also continue to give this incident high priority at International Expeditions. We extend our sympathy to the family. We cannot attempt to understand the depth of their loss, but continue to provide our offers of support to them.”

Lankford said that without much disclosure coming from International Expeditions, the family has “been digging for answers.”

The sisters’ hired investigators concluded the fire began due to a power strip in the Hammers’ room that did not meet flammability-protection ratings. The power strip that singed the carpet in the Hammers’ room went missing for 38 days after their death, Lankford said, and the family’s investigators have since been denied access to it.

The sisters said they also learned the Hammers’ cabin lacked a smoke alarm, and alarm sirens in the hallway appeared in the ship’s construction drawings but were never actually installed.

Surveillance footage taken from the hallway outside the cabin room shows a crew member spotting smoke seeping out of a light fixture, Malott said. Twenty-two minutes, in which crew members open the Hammers’ door multiple times without entering, elapse before Larry Hammer is carried from the smoke-filled room. Six more minutes pass before Christy Hammer is carried out.

“When you know people are dying on the other side of the door, how do you wait 22 minutes?” Malott said. “I don’t even know how that’s possible.”

Lankford’s mother had a heartbeat when she was removed from the room but later died after being placed on another boat. International Expeditions has yet to reveal where Christy Hammer was taken before she died, Lankford said.

After the Hammers’ deaths, Van Perry flew to Peru and spent the rest of the voyage with the remaining passengers, Lankford said. Those passengers were offered free alcohol and services. The sisters have asked to speak to those passengers, but International Expeditions has refused to connect them.

“We begged International Expeditions for information about what happened,” Lankford said, adding that the family also wants to hear about some of the positive experiences their parents had the day before their death.

Malott said she worried for the safety of the passengers on the ship after her parents died.

“When they put the boat back in the water, they had no idea what caused the fire, why alarms didn’t awaken my parents or what stopped the crew from saving them,” Malott said.

The company said in a release that after the Hammers’ deaths, the Peruvian owner of the vessel engaged independent experts to assess the cause of the fire, and the vessel returned to the water only after it was determined safe to do so.

International Expeditions’ statement appears to divest ownership of La Estrella Amazonica.

However, Malott referred the Journal to a promotional video on the company’s site, in which Kristin Day, the director of travel agency sales for the company, states:

“We just built our own, beautiful Amazon river boat called La Estrella Amazonica. We are so very proud and excited because we built her. It is the only ship that we co-own and it is ours. So the cool thing about that is we got to put in everything that we thought was really important.”

Emily Harley, a spokeswoman for International Expeditions, said Day was “obviously excited” and “taking liberties” when saying the company owned the boat.

“At no point has International Expeditions had any ownership stake in La Estrella Amazonica,” Harley wrote by email.

Safety assurances removed from International Expeditions’ website

After the tragic death of their parents, the sisters said International Expeditions removed from its website certain safety assurances, such as that its ships meet a safety-at-sea treaty and that its power strips have surge protection.

An investigation by Peruvian authorities into the incident is still ongoing six months after the incident, and Malott said it could take as many as 16 months more.

Lankford said her parents often sent postcards to her sons, and their youngest son still awaits the postcards.

In a postcard dated April 6, four days before their death, the Hammers wrote to their 5-year-old grandson, on a postcard bearing the image of Animal from the Muppets, “We thought you might like this crazy card! ... We will probably be on our trip to the Amazon when you get this.”

“He still wants to go to the mailbox every day,’” Lankford said.