Lost at Sea
updated 01/09/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/09/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST
The newlywed's fate, of course, has since become a staple of cable news: Just days after that happy e-mail, George Smith's parents were awakened by a call reporting that their son, 26, who was scheduled to take over his father's liquor store upon his return, had vanished on the seventh night of his cruise, leaving behind a trail of blood, a devastated bride—and a raft of still-unanswered questions.
Six months later, however, Smith's disappearance has helped to shine a harsh light on a troubling—and surprising—aspect of the cruise-ship industry: According to FBI statistics, over the past six years the agency has investigated the deaths of nine people aboard cruise ships and missing-persons cases involving an additional 10 people. As recently as Dec. 10, Jill Begora, a 59-year-old Canadian tourist, vanished without a trace while on an ocean liner off the Bahamas. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut congressman whose district is home to the Smith family, held a hearing on the industry Dec. 13 and pledges to take further action. “There's one case where the family wasn't even told that their daughter was missing on board a ship. They just gathered all her stuff and eventually disposed of it,” says Shays. “It's really an outrage. There's no other way to describe it.”
In fairness to the industry—which has 10 million customers each year—none of the incidents probed by the FBI has been ruled a homicide. Says Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines: “We take our responsibility for safety and security very, very seriously, and the record of the industry speaks for itself.”
Yet serious crimes—from rape to robbery—do occur aboard cruise ships, sometimes exacerbated by the alcohol that flows aboard the floating pleasure domes. While all major cruise operators have procedures in place to protect passengers, experts point out that factors like jurisdictional issues and pressure to keep massive money-making operations performing without interruptions can conspire to make prosecuting crime on the high seas difficult (see box page 50). Crystal Tinder, 28, whose fiancé, Christopher Caldwell, disappeared on a cruise from Miami to Cozumel in 2004, says the operator, Carnival, notified the Coast Guard of Caldwell's disappearance only after the vessel had been thoroughly searched and the rest of the passengers let off at port—a process that took 3½ hours. No trace of Caldwell was ever found. “It seemed to me they were more concerned about getting passengers off and the next ones on than trying to do the search,” says Tinder. Asked about the case, Carnival spokeswoman Irene Lui says the cruise line “has excellent and appropriate security measures in place for the safety of our guests.”
In the mysterious case of George Smith, after maintaining months of patient silence, his parents are now suing Royal Caribbean cruise line, saying the company has ignored obvious signs of foul play. This much is known: On the night of July 4, Smith and his wife were drinking heavily—and at times partying separately—aboard the Brilliance. A lawyer for Josh Askin, 20, a passenger from California who had befriended George, told NBC's Dateline that Askin and two other men, apparently Russian émigrés from Brooklyn, had to help the drunk George back to his stateroom at 4 a.m., where they put him to bed. But Clete Hyman, 53, a deputy police chief from Redlands, Calif., who was in the cabin next to the Smiths, offers a different account. “My wife and I were awakened at 4 a.m. by cheering or yelling in the room next to us,” says Hyman, who called ship security. “Then we heard what was loud arguing out on the balcony. I wouldn't describe it as a fight, but as a disagreement. It was between male voices.”
Hyman says the dispute lasted about two minutes, followed by the sound of people saying good night. When Hyman peeked out his door, he saw three young men walking away. Back in the Smith cabin Hyman could hear a lone male voice speaking normally, cabinets being opened and shut and furniture being moved. After a few moments of quiet, at about 4:20 am, Hyman heard what he describes as a “horrific thud”—followed by silence.
Smith's disappearance only came to light the next morning when Emilie Rausch, a 16-year-old from central Illinois, stepped out of her family's cabin on deck seven, directly below the Smiths' stateroom. She noticed a smear of what looked like blood on the metal awning above a lifeboat. Where was George's bride? Jennifer Hagel Smith, 26, a teacher who met George in 2002 and accepted his marriage proposal on Valentine's Day, 2004, has so far declined to tell her story publicly—or even to George's parents—in keeping with an FBI request, she says. But passengers reported seeing her flirting with a casino staffer the night before. After her husband was reported missing, she was located at the ship spa.
Many questions remain. Was George the one making a racket in the room before falling off his balcony in a drunken stupor? Or was someone else in there, searching perhaps for money before throwing an unconscious George, who was 6′2″ and 220 lbs., over the side? While the FBI has the tapes of many security cameras on the ship, the bureau has declined to discuss the findings of its continuing investigation. But George's family is convinced there was foul play. “It's clear to us he was murdered,” his sister Bree, 31, a lawyer, says flatly, while declining to elaborate.
Their determination to push for information has created tension between the family and Jennifer, who has maintained that she has no memory of the night in question. “We would like more answers,” says George's mother, noting that they have had little contact with Jennifer since the incident. “We wanted to ask her things. But the FBI instructed her not to go around discussing the case.” (Hagel Smith's lawyer denies there is a rift between his client and the Smiths.)
All the same, Jennifer and the Smiths are united in their anger at Royal Caribbean, the owner of the Brilliance. In a written statement submitted at the Dec. 13 congressional hearing, Jennifer bitterly denounced the way she says she was treated by Royal Caribbean. After being informed her husband was missing, she said she was told to take a shower and given shorts and tops all bearing the Royal Caribbean logo to wear. “There was no compassion, sympathy or sensitivity,” she said. Once the ship arrived in Turkey, she was taken away to be questioned by Turkish authorities. Later, when she returned to the dock, she was shocked to discover some of the couple's belongings “haphazardly stuffed into 10 plastic souvenir bags … [with] a pair of George's sneakers sticking out.”
For its part, Royal Caribbean insists that Jennifer was treated compassionately. Spokesman Michael Sheehan says a guest-relations manager was with Jennifer when she was questioned and that it was Jennifer who said she did not want to go back on the ship. “Members of the family remain in deep shock and pain,” said Sheehan, “and their recollection of events may not reflect what actually happened.”
Still, other families coping with shipboard disappearances echo some of the Smiths' anger at the cruise lines. Last May, Hue Pham, 71, a retired railroad worker, and his wife of 49 years, Hue Tran, 67, a retired office worker, embarked on the first real vacation of their lives—a lavish seven-day cruise in the Caribbean aboard the Carnival Destiny. Around midnight on May 8 the crew informed the Phams' daughter Sharon, 38, who was traveling with them, that some of her parents' effects, including her mother's purse and two pairs of flip-flops, had been found on a deck overlooking a 70-ft. drop to the sea. Over the next several hours, as the ship continued on its course, the crew canvassed the vessel. No trace of the couple was found, and an international search effort over the next three days turned up no bodies. An FBI investigation concluded that the couple had somehow gone overboard but found no evidence of foul play.
The Phams' eldest, Son Michael Pham, 48, a businessman in Seattle, isn't sure what happened to his parents. But he is certain that the ship's crew could have done more to help save them, including turning around at the first sign they were missing. “Carnival gives more priority to missing luggage than to missing persons,” he says. But Coast Guard Lt. Eric Willis, whose former unit took part in the search, disagrees. “I'd be hard pressed to point the finger at the company and tell them they could have done better,” says Willis. In expressing condolences to the Phams, Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz adds, “Man overboards are rare on our ships. It's terrible and tragic, but it does happen.”
In other cases, however, the actions of the cruise line are questionable. In August 2004, Merrian Carver, 40, a retired businesswoman from Cambridge, Mass., booked a seven-day trip on a Celebrity Cruises liner to Alaska, departing from Seattle. She evidently brought just two small bags. On the second night of the cruise, Carver ordered sandwiches from room service. That was the last time she was seen. For the rest of the cruise her steward routinely checked on the cabin and on three occasions reported her absence to his supervisor. He was told to mind his own business. According to her father, Kendall Carver, Royal Caribbean, Celebrities' parent company, didn't start investigating her disappearance until he contacted them. That was three weeks after the boat docked in Vancouver—where Carver's effects were donated to charity on the assumption she had left them behind.
Royal Caribbean acknowledges that the supervisor, who was subsequently fired, should have shown “better judgment” in dealing with Carver's absence. But aside from that, the cruise line contends it did nothing wrong. “We typically do not monitor the comings and goings of our guests on ships,” said the company in a statement. “ It is not unusual for a guest to be traveling with a friend and not sleep in his or her assigned stateroom.” Asserting that Carver “appears to have committed suicide,” the company maintains “there is no reason to believe we could have averted the tragic outcome.”
This past August, Carver's parents sued Royal Caribbean for allegedly mishandling the case. Meanwhile the Smiths are spearheading a movement to draw up legislation that would force cruise lines to enhance safeguards, such as installing more surveillance cameras, and to require that they give families a full accounting of incidents, information that could possibly offer some closure. “We're in denial,” says Maureen of her son George's disappearance. “We think that maybe, maybe he is somewhere alive.”