A Report on the burgeoning cruise ship industry, and why we have cause for serious concern.
Since the man’s first realization that land existed beyond their borders, they have been traveling by water in order to gain access to them. From the use of use of hollowed out trees covered with animal skins as canoes, to the great steamers of the early 20th century, humans have expressed a desire not only to travel, but travel as quickly and comfortably as possible. The desire to explore distant places has been fueled by the advances in modern technology; thanks to mechanical breakthroughs, we now possess the capability to reach all ends of the earth quicker, and more luxuriously than ever before.
But with the Maritime Industry transporting over 5 million passengers per year and becoming a 27 billion dollar industry, serious concerns have arisen regarding the safety and well being of passengers and the lack of initiative on the part of many cruise ship owners to come up with a comprehensive plan to address safety and security measures. When we purchase our tickets to travel aboard these mega sailing structures, most are under the assumption that the vessels we are boarding have been checked for safety issues. Although in terms of loss of life the modern record of the industry has been commendable, a number of serious accidents, mostly fires, and the increasing reports of individuals that have ‘disappeared’ from vessels have given travelers a cause for alarm.
By now we are all familiar with story of George Allen Smith, the Greenwich, Connecticut man who was reported missing from a cruise ship while on his honeymoon. What sent me to investigate this situation was the allegation by Smith’s family who appeared with their attorney in a recent interview on a national television program, regarding the lack of an immediate response by the cruise ship staff when notified of the man’s disappearance. The family of the missing man made quite a few statements that I feel only a court of law can adjudicate, but quite a few caused me great alarm. The first being that as passengers, we could not be more misinformed when we assume that because we board a ship in an American port, we are covered by the American justice system. Many of us do not realize that the parent companies of many of these cruise lines are not even American, and that if and when a crime is committed aboard one of these vessels, we are at the mercy of the justice system of whatever country in which the ship is docked. The mother of George Smith alleges that it took the FBI days in order to be allowed access to the Carnival Cruise ship in Turkey where her son was last seen, and that by the time they were allowed access, critical evidence was either contaminated or destroyed. A few other key points brought to light by the family is that with some of these ships having a passenger list of over two to three thousand people, how can we adequately vouch for the backgrounds of these individuals? Also, with a lot of the work aboard these vessels being seasonal, what are companies (a lot of them foreign) doing to ascertain the background and criminal history of the staff on board? You purchase a ticket to be in a close quarters, traveling for days with over three thousand people you have never seen before and will likely never see again.
Another concern for passengers is boat safety especially those involving the prevention of fires on board. In evaluating the lawsuits leveled by ‘whistleblowers’ in the industry, they have alleged that they have been asked to lie repeatedly to inspectors regarding fire safety and falsify records in order to meet safety standards. “It’s hard to think of another mode of transportation in which the operators aren’t very anxious to know the causes of accidents,” said Jim Kolstad, chairman of the NTSB from 1990 to 1992 and now a vice-president with the American Automobile Association in Heathrow, Fla. In 1996 three Discovery Cruise Line engine-room workers, all Central Americans, told the U.S. Coast Guard under oath that they reported a fuel-line leak to their supervisors hours before a May 8, 1995 fire but that no one repaired the line. The leak, they testified, was minor at 8 a.m. but by noon had grown so strong that large buckets were needed to catch the flowing oil. Documented incidents from as early as 1988 have uncovered that issues stemming from crew members not sharing a common language, to the lack of proper information regarding evacuation routes, have caused many lives on board these vessels.
Larger, more ostentatious ships only heighten the risk. Carnival Cruise Lines has dedicated the world’s largest passenger vessel, the 101,672-ton, 893-foot Destiny. The ship is capable of holding 3,400 passengers and 1,076 crew members so it is easy to see the need for proper safety information.
Other issues are also beginning to plague the industry. Last year alone there were various reports of ships that have had to try and outrun pirates (yes I said pirates) hoping to board them. Passengers on board ships now have a new cause for concern with the increased activities of pirates and terrorists on the highs seas taking over their ships. Another concern is effect on the environment. From 1993 to 1998, cruise ships were held responsible for 104 confirmed cases of illegal discharge of oil, garbage, and hazardous wastes, and required to pay more than $30 million in fines. This is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, this number represents only a fraction of the industry’s total illegal dumping. Several of these cases involved multiple incidents of illegal dumping that, according to the Department of Justice, numbered in the hundreds over the six-year period. This reflects only the detected cases; a recent report by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) reveals that the US Coast Guard’s ability to detect and enforce marine pollution violations is plagued by numerous challenges.
The bottom line here is the need for awareness and for passengers to be as informed as about the possible dangers involved with this mode of travel. Traveler, beware.