Sarah Kirby spent the worst two hours of her life in the dark ocean, imagining her death and trying not to drown.
On the Carnival Destiny to celebrate her 30th birthday a year ago, the South Florida resident drank at the bar and later tumbled over her balcony railing about 100 feet above the sea as the ship sailed from Miami to Jamaica. She struck a lifeboat and plummeted the rest of the way into the water.
Injured, coughing up seawater and struggling to stay afloat in the dark, Kirby “constantly feared that she was going to be attacked by sharks, and believed that her death was imminent,” according to a negligence lawsuit filed five months later.
Unlike most who fall, jump or otherwise go overboard on cruise ships, Kirby was found — alive.
Carnival Cruise Lines confirms that Kirby went overboard and says she was witnessed jumping, but her ordeal is not included in any official listing of cruise ship mishaps. It’s as if it never happened.
While a federal law mandates that certain major crimes alleged on cruise lines sailing to or from North America be reported to the public, only some man-overboard cases fit the description: those involving U.S. nationals who are not found. But the figures don’t reveal the full story: Crew members or passengers from other countries, survivors who are rescued, people whose bodies are recovered and those sailing on foreign fleets abroad aren’t reported publicly in any official tally, which makes the number of man-overboard incidents difficult to pin down.
The Miami Herald found just one major cruise company, Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises, that publishes an annual count of the number of all people who go overboard on its ships.
Earlier this year, three major North American cruise companies agreed to voluntarily report certain allegations of crime aboard eight brands in a bid to address concerns over a lack of transparency. In the “missing U.S. national” category, just seven cases were reported between October of 2010 and June of this year — about a quarter of the actual number.
Sociology professor Ross Klein, who studies the cruise industry, keeps his own tally based on news reports and witness claims. For the same 33-month period, he believes 30 people actually went overboard on ships belonging to those lines. The cruise operators in question confirmed 28 of those cases, either in response to recent questions from the Miami Herald, media inquiries when the incidents happened or in other reports. Of those 28 people, 5 are believed to have been rescued alive.
The number of incidents is still a fraction of 1 percent of the more than 12 million passengers carried by those eight lines each year, but one fact is still undeniable: There is no reliable, official way for the public to find out how many people plunge over ship railings into the water.
“It’s just mind boggling,” said Klein, who teaches at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “It makes it appear as though they have something to hide. You just wonder, because if it’s as infrequent as they say it is, no one’s really going to take note of it.”
Dating back to 2000, Klein’s tally includes more than 200 cases, mostly on cruise ships but also on passenger ferries around the world. So far this year, only 13 cases — nine on cruise lines, four on ferries — have been reported, including a 54-year-old woman who reportedly jumped from a Princess Cruises ship en route to Hawaii Wednesday.
Overboard cases attracted relatively little attention before the suspicious disappearance of honeymooner George Smith on a Royal Caribbean cruise in 2005. The case, which the FBI’s New York office agreed to review earlier this year, inspired in-depth television news coverage, magazine stories and even a Lifetime Movie Network (LMN) movie.
With attention lingering on the subject, Congress introduced new legislation last summer that would require that man-overboard incidents be reported to the public as an individual category.
“We must ensure that consumers have transparent and accurate data about incidents that occur on cruise ships so that they can make informed decisions when considering a trip,” said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), one of the sponsors, in an email. “This includes reporting ‘man overboard’ incidents separate from other onboard incidents so that consumers have as clear a picture as possible of the safety and security of a ship.”
Similar legislation was sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and a frequent critic of the cruise industry.
The Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group, keeps no database of overboard incidents, but said its member lines must report to appropriate authorities.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, if a U.S. citizen disappears on a cruise in U.S. waters or some other parts of the world, and there is no suspicion of criminal activity, the incident would be reported to the Coast Guard, investigated as a marine casualty and listed in the agency’s Maritime Information Exchange database. If criminal involvement were suspected, the incident would be reported to the FBI. Once the case is closed, it would be listed in statistics published by the Coast Guard as mandated by the 2010 Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act.
Between 2010 and September of this year, exactly one “U.S. missing national” incident was listed. Those statistics have been criticized for only including closed cases. Such complaints prompted the major North American cruise lines earlier this year to release all allegations, regardless of whether they are closed.
Roger Frizzell, spokesman for Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise company, said the company will continue to address the issue in the larger context of onboard safety.
“In my view, the cruise industry needs to continue to do everything possible to be transparent and showcase the steps it has taken and will be taking to make cruising the safest and highest quality vacation experience available, especially as we work to attract new, first-time cruisers to our industry,” he said.
For the last few years, Royal Caribbean Cruises has included a section on overboard cases in its annual stewardship report, which originally was created to highlight environmental efforts.
“The spirit behind it was truly to be transparent,” said Gary Bald, the company’s senior vice president of safety, security, environment and health.
On the stewardship report, the company — which includes Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises — specifies whether a guest or a crew member went overboard, and whether the act was believed to be intentional. In 16 of 17 cases between 2010 and 2012, the cruise operator says, “it was determined through eyewitness reporting and/or by closed-circuit television that the guest or crew member had intentionally gone overboard.” Lawyers and experts believe that many cases are suicides, but say that raises its own issues, especially when it comes to crew members.
“I think most of the people become frustrated with working conditions or pay issues or the pressures of the job; they’re away from home, there may be personal issues,” said Jim Walker, a South Miami-based maritime attorney who writes the Cruise Law News blog. “And just the only thing they can control in their lives is ending their life.”
Drinking and Cruising
Alcohol is a frequent factor when passengers jump or fall from a ship, Walker and other attorneys said.
“Jumping while intoxicated is hardly suicide,” Walker said, noting that sales of alcohol are a revenue driver for cruise lines.
In Sarah Kirby’s case, according to her attorney, she became “wasted out of her mind” after drinking several Long Island iced teas while bartenders plied her and others by offering free casino coupons with each drink.
“She basically falls over the rails in her cabin,” said Miami attorney Michael Winkleman. “There’s no suicide there.”
While Winkleman acknowledged that passengers are responsible for their own safety, he said: “When you go on a cruise, you don’t have to drive anywhere and you go on vacation and you think you’re safe at sea. The burden has to shift to [the cruise lines] to know when to stop serving someone.”
In a statement, Carnival said Kirby’s claims “of negligence are unsupported and contradicted by the evidence obtained thus far in discovery in the pending lawsuit.” The cruise company also said there was no evidence that Kirby was over-served alcohol.
Alcohol consumption aside, safety advocates are seeking more transparency on overboard-incident reporting even as they push for cruise lines to fully implement another part of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, which called for ships to use “technology that can be used for capturing images of passengers or detecting passengers who have fallen overboard, to the extent that such technology is available.” The Coast Guard has not yet issued specific regulations for overboard systems.
Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, said cameras that cruise lines currently use, which can be viewed in real time or reviewed once someone is reported missing, are not enough.
“If there’s no alarm, it’s worthless,” said Carver, whose daughter disappeared while on a cruise in 2004.
A recent high-profile case in Australia brought the issue back to the forefront. In May, Kristen Schroder and Paul Rossington both went over the railing of their balcony on the Carnival Spirit as it sailed back to Sydney at the end of a 10-day cruise, according to Australian media and the Associated Press. No one knew they were missing until the next morning, when the couple did not disembark. A review of security footage revealed Schroder going over, followed by Rossington; their bodies were never found.
The world’s largest cruise companies say they want to have reliable systems that would notify them the moment someone falls, but stress that they haven’t found the right solutions yet.
“It is absolutely in our best interest to know if and when somebody goes over immediately,” said Royal Caribbean’s Gary Bald. “There is nothing good in a delay to turn around and find somebody.”
He said the company has been looking at options for more than five years but hasn’t found an acceptable one. The problem, he said, is that while video monitoring and alerting systems work fine on land, no detection system has been proven successful for maritime use with an acceptable number of false positives and negatives.
Carnival Corp. says it is testing a variety of man overboard technology systems but has been running into the same problem.
“We plan to continue to evaluate various systems and combination of these systems in the coming months,” Barry Marushi, the company’s director of maritime security, said in an email.
While some North American cruise lines declined to discuss whether they use detection systems, including Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line, CLIA spokesman David Peikin said the industry has been working on the issue since 2006.
“While the regulations to implement CVSSA requirements for man overboard systems have not yet been published, the cruise industry continues to work collaboratively with the U.S. Coast Guard to provide input and information as needed,” Peikin said.
Seafaring Security Services, a Virginia Beach company with an office in Fort Lauderdale, has seen interest in its overboard-related technology increase with the passage of the cruise safety legislation.
Chief operating officer Kevin Walker said his company has now installed man overboard systems on 30 ships. Some are passive, which detect falling objects by their heat temperature and record images. An active system, which the company also provides, sounds an alarm if someone goes over. Depending on the setup, a system can cost $250,000-$500,000 per ship.
While Walker said the company has installed some active systems that he believes are in use, he would not say how many and could not disclose which companies are using his product — though he acknowledged “a significant number” just use passive technology.
“It’s an investment by the cruise lines, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “They want to make sure, as would any consumer of technology, that they’re getting the bang for the buck and it’s adequately doing what it’s designed to do. They don’t want false positives either. I would dare say the customers that have it, they would see the value of it. ”