After parents died on the Amazon, two sisters are frustrated in their search for answers

Originally published at Omaha World-Herald

LINCOLN — Jill Hammer Malott said she talked to her parents nearly every day, discussing everything from parenting to what they bought at Starbucks.

So when she wished her parents, Larry and Christy Hammer of Gretna, good luck this spring before they took a long-awaited, 10-day cruise down the Amazon, she figured she’d be talking to them soon enough.

“I told them ‘Have an awesome trip,’ ” said Malott, of Menlo Park, California. “They were going to be out here just after their trip.”

To the horror of Malott and her sister, their parents died April 10 after a fire broke out in the cabin of their luxury cruise boat. Today, the daughters are still seeking answers about their deaths.

Malott and her sister, Kelly Hammer Lankford of Overland Park, Kansas, say they are frustrated by what they feel is a lack of information from Peruvian officials and the operators of the ecotourism cruise, International Expeditions, based in Helena, Alabama.

In the four months since the deaths of their parents, the sisters have called, written letters and sent emails to officials in Peru and in Alabama, and have traveled twice to Washington, D.C., to talk to Nebraska’s congressional representatives and officials at the Peruvian Embassy and the U.S. State Department. They also engaged their own independent investigators in Peru in hopes of discovering just how their parents died.

What they’ve found, they say, has ranged from discouraging to appalling.

The sisters said their own investigators have developed a theory on the probable source of the fire: an electrical power strip in the cabin.

A spokeswoman for the cruise operator has challenged the sisters’ claims, noting that a final investigative report on the fire by Peruvian officials has not been completed.

Malott and Lankford said their look at surveillance videotape from the boat and video shot by a guest on the ship showed safety concerns.

They said fire alarms weren’t sounding as smoke poured from a ventilation duct, leading them to believe that the alarms were not working.

Crew members appeared confused as they tried to locate the source of the fire, leading the sisters to question whether the crew was trained for emergencies.

And, they said, it took 20 minutes from when smoke first appeared on one video for crew members to pull their father from the burnt cabin — after opening the cabin door several times beforehand. It took six more minutes to remove their mother, who still had a heartbeat, according to Malott.

“There were so many multiple layers of failure on the boat that night,” said Malott, 46, a Lincoln native. “I don’t want this to happen to another person. This should never have happened to my parents.”

Carrie Palmer, the marketing director of International Expeditions, said in an interview last week that the company is still waiting for final investigative reports to be issued by Peruvian officials. But she said it was not accurate to say that alarms were not working or that it took that long to get to the Hammers.

“It was an unfortunate accident,” she said. “This is not something we take lightly. It was tragic.”

Palmer said the boat, La Estrella Amazonica, was cleared to resume its cruise by at least six agencies in Peru. Later, she said, a third-party inspector was called in to further review the alarm and electrical systems.

She added that she could not comment on the training provided to the crew and said she had not seen the videotape of the rescue attempts.

“The incident was thoroughly investigated by the local authorities, and the vessel was found to be safe and able to continue with the voyage,” she said.

The deaths of the Hammers came at a time of increased concern about cruise ship safety and heightened interest in ecotourism trips, like the 600-mile cruise in Peru.

Lankford and Malott both said they want other travelers to be wary when booking cruises.

Tourism is an especially big industry in Peru, home of the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu. The tourism industry directly employs an estimated 374,000 people and represents about 5 percent of Peru’s gross national product, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

But in July, the Amazon River near where the Hammers died was the site of two other incidents: an explosion aboard one cruise boat that killed five crew members and a robbery on another boat in which bandits took $20,000 from terrified passengers, including 20 Americans.

The Hammers, who had previously lived in Lincoln, were both retired and were avid travelers. They had booked tours previously through International Expeditions, which says it has been doing Amazon cruises since the 1990s.

Larry Hammer, 74, a former administrator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, had purchased a new camera to photograph animals on the 600-mile voyage. Christy Hammer, 72, a former schoolteacher and Gallup worker, loved the cultural side of vacations. The ecotrips fulfilled both of their interests, their daughters said.

The Hammers were scheduled to ride on the maiden voyage of the La Estrella Amazonica in 2013, according to Malott, but her mother told her that trip had been delayed by the company.

“Mom sent me the webinar about the cruise. It called the ship ‘the new star of the Amazon’ and said it was the most up-to-date, everything boat,” she said.

The Hammers rebooked their Amazon trip this year and were eight hours into the cruise, near Iquitos, Peru, when the fire broke out in their cabin. It was about 2:30 a.m. local time on April 10. There were 22 passengers and 15 crew members aboard the 139-foot-long, two-deck boat.

The fire was isolated to the Hammers’ cabin. Larry was found dead; his wife was still breathing when she was rescued, but she died en route to a hospital. Both died of smoke inhalation, according to the sisters.

An investigation is still underway by the Fiscalía de la Nación, the equivalent of a district attorney’s office. And, Malott said, a wing of the Peruvian Navy also is probing the incident.

Lankford, 41, said that, in retrospect, it was probably a mistake that someone from the family didn’t immediately go to Peru. Instead, the family hired an attorney and a forensics expert in Peru and former Peruvian naval officials to investigate.

Malott said a Peruvian friend advised her that a lawyer would be needed to ensure that the investigation did not languish.

She said International Expeditions had pledged to give the investigators hired by the sisters unlimited time and access. But she said when they showed up to board the boat on April 27, it was several miles upstream. And the team was limited to about four hours and allowed to look at only certain areas of the boat, Malott said.

Now, she said, the cruise company refers all questions to its attorney, even though its statements to the media have been that the company is “fully supporting the family.”

In addition, she said the family’s investigators had been blocked by the Peruvian prosecutor from looking at the power strip or interviewing crew members and other travelers on the cruise boat. Malott maintained that the power strip would not have been located had the family not pressured officials.

Frustrated with a lack of details and access, Malott and Lankford eventually turned to Nebraska’s congressional delegation.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., wrote a letter on June 21 to Luis Miguel Castilla, the Peruvian ambassador to the U.S., asking him to do whatever was possible to ensure a “fair, thorough and timely” investigation. The senator also asked for information about the Hammers’ wedding rings, which could not be found after their deaths. (Palmer, the spokeswoman for International Expeditions, said she was unaware that the rings were missing.)

Reps. Brad Ashford and Jeff Fortenberry jointly sent a letter on June 29 to Castilla expressing concerns about “unanswered questions” and the continuing investigation. The letter also thanked Peruvian officials for meeting with the two daughters in Washington on June 22.

Both daughters said they fear that the investigation has been slow because of the importance of the tourism industry in Peru.

“What we’re trying to pursue is a thorough investigation,” Lankford said.

Last week, representatives of Ashford’s office relayed an update to the sisters from the U.S. Embassy in Peru.

It said that the Peruvian prosecutor had delayed the completion of its investigation until Dec. 10 and that the delay may be linked to a complaint that the daughters filed against the prosecutor about the denial of access to evidence.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Kevin Brosnahan, emphasized that the U.S. Embassy in Peru cannot conduct its own investigation but can only “closely monitor” probes done in foreign countries.

So it’s become a frustrating waiting game for the two daughters, seeking the completion of a probe of a fatal fire on another continent.

They said they would like to know more about the last hours of their parents’ life: Was their last meal with other travelers? Did someone hold their hands as they took their last breaths? But the sisters are not getting answers from the cruise company.

Said Malott, “I know everyone hopes we would just go silent. My parents did not raise me and my sister to be that kind of people.”

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com