Star Princess captain never got report of distressed boaters, cruise line says

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Princess Cruises blames a ‘breakdown in communication’ after one of its ships apparently passed

By Hannah Sampson
The Miami Herald

The image still haunts cruise ship passenger Judy Meredith: Frantic gestures from a small fishing boat adrift a couple of miles away in open waters off the Pacific Coast of Panama.

Meredith saw the scene on March 10 from aboard the Star Princess, where she and two other avid birders were watching for seabirds. Despite their efforts to report what they saw to authorities on and off the ship, no one came to the boaters’ rescue until two weeks later.

By the time a commercial fishing vessel spotted the boat near the Galapagos Islands in late March, only 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez was alive after 28 days at sea. His two friends perished. All three were Panamanian.

“This has already been weeks now, and we’re just sick about it,” said Meredith, of Bend, Ore. “It’s like you’re in a car and you see somebody bleeding in a big car accident and someone else driving the car won’t stop. You see it, you’re just haunted by it.”

Late Thursday afternoon, after a preliminary investigation, Princess Cruises released a statement blaming an apparent “breakdown in communication in relaying the passenger’s concern.”

The cruise operator said that neither Capt. Edward Perrin nor the officer on watch had been notified, and said the company “deeply regrets” that the two men died at sea.

“Understandably, Captain Perrin is devastated that he is being accused of knowingly turning his back on people in distress,” the statement said. “Had the captain received this information, he would have had the opportunity to respond.”

Princess, which is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., is continuing to investigate “to fully understand the circumstances,” the cruise line said. This report is the latest in a string of issues to befall the company. It also owns Costa Cruises, whose Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy in January, killing 32.

Miami maritime lawyer Charles Lipcon said international laws require a ship to stop and assist another vessel in trouble.

“If it fails to do so, they’re liable for what happens,” he said. “If there’s any doubt, the captain has to make absolutely sure whether they’re in distress or not. He’s got to stop.”

It’s common for cruise ships that are based in South Florida ports to rescue rafters at sea. In early April, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, on its way from Jamaica to Cozumel, picked up 23 Cuban migrants.

“We all understand that it is our responsibility and also the law of the sea to provide assistance to any vessel in distress, and it is not an uncommon occurrence for our ships to be involved in a rescue at sea,” Princess Cruises said in the statement Thursday. “In fact, we have done so more than 30 times in the last 10 years.”

Meredith said she and her fellow birdwatchers, including Portland, Ore., resident Jeff Gilligan, saw someone waving their arms and red material on the distressed boat through powerful binoculars and spotting scopes. Gilligan said he believes the boat was about two miles away.

The group found a worker on the ship and reported what they had seen, Meredith and Gilligan said. The man appeared to relay the message to the bridge. But the ship neither stopped nor changed course, Gilligan said. He and Meredith said the group also tried desperately to reach the U.S. Coast Guard or other authorities via the ship’s slow Internet connection.

“It keeps going in my head: Should we have done something different, should we have pulled some kind of alarm thing on the ship?” said Gilligan. “We were sure that the bridge had the information. We told the guy from the ship who came out, “If they can’t in the bridge see what we’re describing, tell one of them to come down and look through our scopes.’ His response was: “They have binoculars.’ We never heard from them again.”

A public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard’s District 11, which includes Pacific waters, said no message from a cruise ship passenger has been found. Meredith said she sent it from a contact form on a Coast Guard website, and that the message appeared to have sent with the ship’s latitude and longitude while it was still near the fishing boat.

“We don’t know if it ever arrived,” said Dan Dewell, the public affairs officer. “They’re still looking.”

He said that a contact form on a website wouldn’t be intended for reporting emergencies and would not be constantly monitored.

Don Winner, a blogger who runs www.panama-guide.com, wrote about Vasquez’s survival after he was found. When the former passengers heard about the rescue, they realized it might have been the same vessel they spotted. Meredith got in touch with Winner, who found Vasquez and interviewed him in Panama.

Winner, a native of New York who lives in Panama, reported that he asked Vasquez about the group’s account and showed him a photo they had taken. Vasquez confirmed that he had seen a cruise ship, Winner wrote in a story last week, and that the picture the passengers took was of the boat Vasquez was on.

On Thursday, Vasquez spoke to the Associated Press about the cruise ship.

“Instead of helping us, they left us,” he said.