Originally published at The Mercury News
Her parents lived four states away, but Jill Hammer Malott kept in close touch, talking to them every day and visiting them about 10 times a year.
Then in April, just months before the family was set to celebrate the couple’s 52nd wedding anniversary, her parents died in a cabin fire on a riverboat cruise along the Amazon River.
Malott, 46, a Menlo Park resident, accuses the company that chartered the boat of trying to sweep her parents’ deaths under the rug. The company, Alabama-based International Expeditions, hasn’t released any details about the April 10 deaths of Larry Hammer, 74, and Christy Hammer, 72.
Malott said she and her younger sister, Kelly Hammer Lankford, have had a tough time dealing with their loss.
“We felt like our foundation was ripped out beneath us,” Malott said. “I think both of us continue to lapse into really dark places, especially the way this has been handled, just kind of losing faith in humanity and the world to some extent.”
She said her parents were very healthy and just beginning to enjoy retirement. They were planning another trip in the fall, this time to Antarctica.
“They were in the prime of their retirement,” she said. “My mom was playing volleyball with (my) kids (last) August, she was diving into the sand. They were so young and capable. They got robbed of a number of good years.”
Kate Brader, an International Expeditions spokeswoman, confirmed Wednesday that the company hasn’t released any reports about the incident, stating as a reason that the riverboat, La Estrella Amazonica, is “owned, operated and crewed by a Peruvian company.” International Expeditions offers escorted tour packages across the globe.
“I understand the official investigation by the Peruvian Harbor Master and other Peruvian officials continues with no final official reports,” International Expeditions President Van Perry said in an emailed statement.
Malott disputes the statements, pointing to a copy of a promotional video she said was featured on International Expeditions’ website before the fire. In the video, a company official states, “Here is our beautiful, beautiful La Estrella Amazonica. We are so very proud and excited because we built her. It is the only ship we co-own and it is ours.”
“To refer to it as our vessel was simply a mistake and misunderstanding by a former member of (our) staff,” Brader said.
“IE has dramatically changed its tune about boat ownership since the tragedy,” Malott said in response.
Malott said she and Lankford launched their own investigation into their parents’ deaths in late April after their efforts to gain information from International Expeditions were “stonewalled.” The sisters requested contact information for the other 29 passengers who had been on the ship at the time and documentation showing why Estrella was deemed safe enough to be put back into the water 48 hours after the deaths.
When investigators arrived in Lima, Peru, where Estrella docks, they discovered that the cabin fire — which occurred as the couple was sleeping during the first night of the 10-day excursion — was caused by a power strip beneath her father’s bed, Malott said.
“It burned a hole through the bottom of the floor,” Malott said, adding that the company initially attempted to block investigators’ access to the boat. “IE did not allow the team to see several portions of the ship, and denied the team access to the historical records from the fire control panel and surveillance videos.”
Malott has spoken with some other passengers who said they did not hear alarms sounding during the incident. Smoke detectors were installed in each cabin, but none of the in-cabin detectors had any type of audible or visual alarm, she added. The investigators also viewed design drawings showing a number of alarm system components, but “not one of those was installed.”
She said investigators purchased a surveillance tape from a port captain, which she said showed 22 minutes elapsed after smoke was seen streaming out of the cabin before crew members entered the cabin.
“Rather than get my parents out, they stood around and talked a lot,” Malott said of the tape, which she said confirmed alarm components were missing from outside hallways.
A separate video shot by an amateur videographer that Malott said was leaked to the media showed the power strip had become “a melted piece of plastic.” She said she hasn’t viewed the video because it features footage of her dad’s body lying face down on the boat’s deck. Her mother, who was still alive when she was taken out of the cabin, died on the way to a hospital. Neither of their wedding rings were retrieved, and Malott suspects they were stolen.
Malott said she fears the boat still lacks surge protectors and fire alarms in the cabins.
International Expeditions’ president disputes part of this in the emailed statement, saying Estrella’s owner confirmed the boat’s safety with the help of independent experts.
“The vessel owner equipped the La Estrella with enhanced fire-detection and firefighting equipment, and provided the crew with refresher fire training,” Perry said.
Malott has turned her attention to warning others about the boat’s safety. The family has also set up a memorial Facebook page for her parents at www.facebook.com/RemembertheHammers.
“I feel a moral obligation to get the word out,” she said. “My parents went to bed that night and through no fault of their own never came off that boat, except in a box.”