Michael A. Winkleman Discusses an Astonishing Overboard Accident on ABC’s 20/20


Over 18 million people went on cruise vacations in 2013. That’s millions of lives that could have been injured or killed in accidents caused by negligent cruise lines. Though we don’t always hear about the gruesome details of each and every tragedy on the high seas, the story of one cruise passenger, Sarah Kirby, has made headlines around the world. What’s even more frightening is what the headlines don’t show.

Ms. Kirby’s tale is certainly a terrifying one, but it could have ended much worse. Last Friday night, ABC’s “20/20” took a look at her story and interviewed Kirby and her cruise ship accident attorney, Lipcon’s Michael A. Winkleman, in an episode titled “(Im)Perfect Getaways.”

Kirby embarked on a Carnival cruise a little over a year ago. Like many people have done before her, she wanted to celebrate her 30th birthday on a cruise ship, so along with her fiancé and best friend, set sail to the Caribbean. Little did Kirby know this cruise vacation would be anything but smooth.

Kirby recounted to 20/20 interviewers how on the first night on the cruise, everyone was “drinking to excess.” She remembers getting encouraged to keep drinking Long Island Iced Teas (arguably the strongest drink on the ship) because she would get casino coupons if she did. After visiting several different bars and night clubs and imbibing 5-7 Long Island Teas, Kirby went back to her room and soon thereafter stepped out onto her cabin balcony and tumbled over the railing. What’s even more incredible? It was all caught on camera!

After falling two stories, Kirby hit a lifeboat and sustained serious injuries, then fell another five stories into the pitch black waters below. Badly hurt with broken bones and a torn artery, Kirby still defied all odds and tried her best to survive. She told interviewers how she would alternate between swimming and floating whenever she would get out of breath. But all the while, all she saw was the cruise ship sailing farther and farther away.

“Words can’t even describe the feeling I felt that moment,” explained Kirby during the interview.

But what’s worse is how Carnival crew members acted in the moments following her overboard accident. Though her best friend and another passenger immediately reported the incident, crew members scrambled around for roughly 20 minutes searching the ship for Kirby, a complete waste of time, said Attorney Winkleman.

The captain wasn’t informed until after those 20 minutes, which is valuable time the crew could have been spending reviewing the footage of the accident to determine Kirby’s last location. Over 30 minutes went by before anyone even saw the video which definitively showed she went overboard. Meanwhile, Kirby was trying desperately to hold on to dear life, while the crew, were still not turning the ship around to look for the victim.

It was an hour and 31 minutes before the ship found Kirby, and when she was brought back onboard, she was badly injured. It is truly a miracle she survived in shark infested waters for as long as she did, all while battling with her extensive injuries.

Sadly, this accident could have been entirely prevented. As it stands, there are no detection systems on ships that will recognize when a passenger goes overboard. And by the time an overboard passenger is noted to be missing, it’s usually too late.

So what does it take to make finding an overboard passenger faster? There are infrared detection systems that can detect the moment someone falls from a ship. By the time the victim falls in the water, an alarm sounds and the system can notify crew where exactly they fell.

Vendors of these systems are anxious to get them on the market, but there are issues with the cruise lines, who claim the systems are allegedly falsely triggered. Well, it’s better to be safe than sorry. We’d much rather deal with false alarms than fail to recognize a real one when it happens as in Sarah’s case, and countless others.

Disney Cruises actually has the technology in place, but Carnival, which holds the record for most overboard accidents, says it has yet to find a system that “meets its standards” . What standards would those be, exactly?

As for Kirby, she is recovering but hired Attorney Winkleman to represent her. When asked by 20/20 interviewers if the suit is fair? Mr. Winkleman said absolutely.

According to our maritime attorney, Carnival overserved Kirby alcohol and then had terrible procedures in place that wasted precious time before locating her.

“What’s the point of having a camera if there’s no one there watching it,” noted Mr. Winkleman.

Kirby miraculously survived, but she is only one of very,very few passengers who fall from a cruise ship that are actually rescued. A few minutes more and she could have died. The vessel, though being specifically told Kirby went overboard, wasted valuable time searching the ship before even reviewing tapes to determine where the accident occurred.

Five different ships have experienced overboard accidents in the past few weeks. And this is the beginning of the year alone. When will it end?

Hopefully this piece on 20/20 will help bring the issue of maritime safety – or lack thereof – in the cruise ship industry to the public and will hopefully inspire and/or intimidate cruise lines to install the detection systems in order to prevent another life from being lost at sea.