Cruise line accused of ignoring adrift fishermen: It wasn't us

September 18, 2012

Princess Cruises, the cruise line accused by the sole survivor of a tiny Panamanian fishing skiff of ignoring his frantic distress signals despite worried passengers alerting the ship's officers, says it has uncovered new evidence exculpating its captain and senior officers.

An outside photographic expert hired by Princess concludes the tiny fishing boat photographed from the desk of the Star Princess with what appear to be people waving clothing or flags wasn't the Fifty Cent, the skiff adrift for nearly a month during which time two of the three young me on board died.

"We have discovered some recent video that we believe conclusively proves that our ship, Star Princess, was not the cruise ship spotted by the Fifty Cent boat that was adrift in the Pacific Ocean," says Julie Benson, Vice President, Public Relations of Princess Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corp, the world's largest cruise line conglomerate which owns Carnival, Costa, Cunard, Holland America as well as Princess.

The sole survivor rescued from Fifty Cent said the nine-metre boat's engine failed shortly after leaving the coast on what was supposed to be a day-long fishing outing.

Princess is facing multiple lawsuits arising out of the alleged 'sail-by' more than 100 kilometres off the Panamanian coast last March 10. There is also criminal investigation in Panama and a maritime probe in Bermuda, where the Santa Clara, California-based Princess Cruises opts to register its white-hulled fleet of cruise ships.

Yet even as Princess says the new photographic evidence proves Captain Edward Perrin, and other senior bridge officers didn't ignore a vessel in peril, the company had ordered a fleet-wide change in how future instances of passengers reporting distress signals will be handled.

"We have used this as a valuable learning opportunity and have strengthened our bridge-reporting procedures to ensure that all messages of concern from passengers or crew are carefully evaluated by our senior bridge officers," said Alan Buckelew, president and CEO of Princess Cruises.

Although the precise breakdown in communication remains unclear and Princess has declined to pinpoint it, it seems the birder watchers who spotted fishermen apparently waving a towel or clothing reported their concerns promptly and fully to members of the ship's crew – albeit staff involved with passenger care, not running the ship. They provided pictures taken with telephoto lenses. The message was passed on to the bridge but not, apparently, to the officer in charge of the watch or the captain, but only to a more junior officer.

That officer apparently looked to see if he believed the fishing skiff was signalling distress and decided it was not. "The phone call of concern by the passengers was not elevated to the Captain or any other senior bridge officer," Ms Benson wrote in an e-mail exchange. She also confirmed that Princess has shared its new findings with the still-unfinished Bermuda probe.

Princess hired Michael Snyder, a photo analyst retired from NASA's Johnson Space Center to examine the photos and video. "The small boat photographed by the passengers on board Star Princess is clearly not the small boat called Fifty Cent that Adrian Vasquez was found adrift on," he concluded, according to Princess.

Mr. Vasquez, 18, said one of his companions, Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died hours after their drifting skiff was passed by a large cruise ship and the other, 16-year-old Fernando Osorio a few days later. He was rescued two weeks later off the Galapagos Islands.

However, Mr. Vasquez's statements have not always been consistent and the Bermuda maritime investigators have had difficulty getting him to speak with them.

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