A warning to anyone taking a cruise this summer

Originally published at AL.com

Photo Credit: AP Photo | J Pat Carter

Photo Credit: AP Photo | J Pat Carter

More than 10 million Americans will set sail on a cruise vacation in 2016. Many of these travelers will book their trips through U.S.-based travel companies—expecting not only top-notch service, but also safety and accountability in the event of an emergency. 

Yet American travelers aren't guaranteed either: The cruise industry routinely circumvents basic safety procedures for expediency's sake, prioritizing profits over people.  

I know firsthand. My daughter, Merrian, disappeared from a Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska in 2004, yet cruise officials acted like nothing had happened. Merrian's steward aboard the vessel reported her missing for five days to his supervisor, but was told to "just do your job and forget it." 

That's right: Royal Caribbean made no attempt to contact either the authorities or Merrian's family when she turned up missing and had not used her room. Once the cruise line was contacted about Merrian's disappearance, it took Royal Caribbean three days to confirm that she had even been on the cruise first place. Confirming that Merriam didn't use her room after the second night onboard took even longer. By then, the trail had gone cold. Requests for interviews by the private investigator hired by our family, were denied, as was access to the ship's video camera system. Cruise officials even limited the amount of time that he could spend on the ship.

To figure out exactly what happened to my daughter, I was forced to hire a private investigator. Yet his requests for interviews with passengers and crew members were denied, as was access to the ship's video camera system. Cruise officials even limited the amount of time that he could spend on the ship.

Our persistence in the face of negligence revealed a shocking detail: My daughter had been reported missing daily for the last five days of the cruise and nothing was done to search for her. More than a decade later, I still do not know how she died.  

Unfortunately, my tragic story is not uncommon. The family of Larry and Christy Hammer—two Americans who lost their lives aboard the Amazon River boat Estrella Amazonica in April—are similarly grasping for answers. Theirs is the most recent demonstration of the cruise industry's shocking disregard for passengers.

According to reports provided to us by the family, the Hammers were killed by a fire in their cabin. There were smoke detectors but no alarms in the cabins onboard the Estrella Amazonica—a boat proudly designed, built, and co-owned by the Alabama-based travel company International Expeditions (IE), according to the firm's website. With no alarm to awaken them, the Hammers were overwhelmed as they struggled through the poisonous gases flooding their room. It took the crew more than 20 minutes to extract the Hammers from their burning cabin.

Similar to my family's quest for answers, the Hammer family has resorted to independent investigators. The likely fire source was a power strip supplied by the boat—which lacked both surge protection and safety and flammability ratings. The fire alarm system and crew's response to the emergency is also in question.

International Expeditions continues to deny the Hammer family's pleas for information. Immediately following the incident, Van Perry, IE's president, rushed to Peru to monitor the ship inspection. Within three days, he declared the ship "cleared as safe for travel" and personally re-boarded passengers onto the boat. When the Hammer family asked Mr. Perry for the supporting basis of his statements, he deflected and refused to provide information. Through interviews with independent investigators, the Hammer family was shocked to later learn that local authorities denied clearing the vessel as safe or having identified the source of the fire.

American travelers who put their trust in travel companies like Royal Caribbean and International Expeditions should tread carefully. Just because they're based in the United States doesn't ensure passenger safety or accountability when tragedy strikes.  

To confront the cruise industry's recurring problem of neglect and indifference, victims' families organized the International Cruise Victims Association. Members' tragic stories, posted to the organization's website, attest to a devastating pattern.

My parting words are "be careful"—or else our organization becomes yours.