Cruise passengers describe fatal snorkel tour

A cruise passenger who tried to revive a dying Reisterstown woman said the snorkelers who entered the water off the Bahamas last Friday were quickly overwhelmed by strong currents.

"I am in fairly decent condition," said 52-year-old Robert Limmer of Timonium, a passenger aboard the Carnival Pride. But he and others who had joined the snorkeling tour off Grand Bahama found they were tiring as they tried to fight the current. "I knew after 20 minutes in the water I needed to return to the boat."

Before he was able to make that swim, Limmer noticed that several fellow passengers were in distress, including Carol Olson, 71, of Reisterstown. Olson was eventually pulled back on board, where as many as eight passengers administered CPR for more than an hour while the boat made its way back to Freeport.

Olson was later pronounced dead.

Olson's death has brought an unwelcome sense of déjà vu to the relatives of other passengers who have died on cruises. They say passengers are largely on their own when they book tours through cruise lines, and predict that their families will face enormous obstacles when they try to get cruise lines to take responsibility for tragedies that occur at sea.

"My heart goes out to the family," said Lynnette Hudson, 46, of Bear, Del., whose father died of smoke inhalation when his cruise ship caught fire off Jamaica in 2006.

"[Olson's] family is going to be dealing with a brick wall, and the cruise industry is going to tell them her life had no value. They will not take responsibility for the things they should be accountable for," Hudson said.

Lanie Fagan a spokeswoman for the Cruise Line International Association, said passenger safety is "the cruise industry's number one priority, and even one incident like this is one too many … Our thoughts and prayers are with the family during this difficult time of loss."

A spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines expressed "heartfelt condolences" to the woman's family.

Spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said Carnival "has been providing full assistance to her spouse who has been accompanied by CareTeam representatives throughout his time in The Bahamas following this tragic event."

In a statement issued Monday, the Carnival cruise line said the third-party snorkeling tour, which was sold through the ship, "has been "suspended until further notice."

De la Cruz said Carnival had worked with the tour operator for 10 years, and that the incident last Friday was "extremely unusual and tragic."

Limmer was aboard the Carnival Pride when it sailed from Baltimore on April 25. His was a family vacation to celebrate the wedding of his stepdaughter in a ceremony held on the ship.

The snorkeling tour "was supposed to be for beginners," Limmer said. Passengers signed up on board, and after their arrival in Freeport assembled with others at a pier where a boat was waiting.

"It was filled to the gills," he said, with perhaps 90 passengers and a crew of about five.

Another passenger, Tricia Bennett, was cruising with her husband. Bennett, a 26-year-old engineer from Linthicum, said the snorkel tour was described as requiring "moderate exercise," and "good for children over 10." And there were at least 10 children on board.

Limmer said the staff briefed passengers on safety procedures and instructions on using the snorkel gear and inflatable vests. Passengers were told there were two "lifeguards" on board, Limmer said.

When the boat reached a reef about a quarter-mile offshore, Limmer said, "conditions were terrible."

As passengers entered the water, he said, waves and a "tremendous current" immediately began pulling them away from the boat, parallel to shore. He and other swimmers were swallowing water and fighting to stay close to the boat, he said. Several were in obvious difficulty.

Bennett said she and her husband, Travis, were "panicking. … We were really scared. It took everything we had to get back in the boat."

Stronger swimmers began helping the others back toward the boat. Several crew members jumped in to help.

"My son-in-law was helping a lady who was in distress," Limmer said. "She said, 'I'm not going to make it. Help me!' My son-in-law was totally exhausted." That woman was finally pulled to the boat safely.

Limmer said when he saw Olson in the water, she had on her life vest. He said that a woman who was closer to Olson told him she heard her "mumbling. … I really question that she drowned."

Olson was lifted into the boat and placed on the deck. Bennett said the crew asked for passengers with CPR experience, and as many as eight began working on her. "The staff members didn't help at all," she said.

Passengers got some water from Olson's lungs, and she vomited once, Limmer said. But before long, "she was not conscious. And during this episode we never got a pulse."

Her husband was close by. Bennett said, "He looked like he was trying to put on a brave face. He looked like he was accepting of it."

Members of the Reisterstown church group the Olsons were traveling with told Bennett that Carol Olson "had some health conditions, but she wasn't new to snorkeling. We heard [she had a] heart condition," she said.

It took a half-hour for the crew to get everyone back on board, and Bennett estimated as much as 90 minutes passed between the time Olson was brought on board, and when the boat reached the dock.

Bennett said the boat had no shore communications. A passenger alerted the Carnival Pride via cell phone, and the tour boat was met by medics and an ambulance. They took over the CPR and rushed Olson to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Carnival would not answer any questions about the incident and referred queries to Bahamian authorities. The Royal Bahamas Police said it was investigating but had no immediate information.

Deaths of cruise passengers — either on board the ships or while on shore tours sold through the cruise lines —- are difficult to track. One organization, called CruiseJunkie.com, lists 33 cases of passengers or crew worldwide who have died on board or fallen overboard since January 2009.

The families of passengers have reported enormous difficulty getting information about the incidents from the cruise lines.

And legal experts say U.S. maritime law protects the cruise lines from liability in many of the cases that do occur.

Kendall Carver is chairman of International Cruise Victims, which advocates for the families of people who are victims of crimes or other incidents on cruise lines. He lost his 40-year-old daughter, Merrian, when she disappeared on an Alaska cruise in 2004. She was never found.

"We hired a private investigator, and two law firms," he said. "All we wanted to do was talk to the steward, and that took court action in Massachusetts and Florida."

They eventually learned Merrian had been reported missing daily by the steward. "Cover-up was standard operating procedure," he said.

Lynnette Hudson said her family got little assistance from the cruise line when her father died of smoke inhalation in a shipboard fire off Jamaica in 2006. Hudson, 46, of Bear, Del., said the family had to read the maritime accident report to learn how he died.

When they brought a wrongful death suit, they learned that under the Death on the High Seas Act, her father's life, because he was 72 and retired, had no monetary value. "They didn't offer anything to my family. Not even a sympathy card," she said.

Jim Walker, a Florida attorney who specializes in cruise line litigation, said the Death on the High Seas Act applies to passenger or crew deaths that occur outside U.S. territorial waters, or within the territorial waters of other countries.

The act "limits the damages strictly to pecuniary losses — financial losses," he said. "No pre-death pain and suffering, no grief, bereavement, sadness of the husband or her family. The total damages that can be awarded are strictly financial losses."

When victims in these cases are retired and no longer earning money, all that can be recovered are funeral and burial expenses. And that's normally too little to warrant the costs of the lawsuit, Walker said. "It's not a case anyone would pursue."

Passengers are also largely on their own when they take shore tours with third parties under contract to the cruise lines, Walker said.

When they market the shore tours, the cruise lines "do business with passengers on the promise that these [tours] have been vetted, and investigated, and that they have better safety records" than the tours that passengers might find on their own. And, the lines typically get a cut of the fees passengers pay for the tours.

So the cruise companies are legally obligated to warn passengers of any dangers associated with the tour, Walker said. And they are required to scrutinize the tour operators, inspect their facilities, safety protocols and operations.

"As long as they do that basic investigation, they're going to say they fully complied with the law," Walker said. That clears the cruise line.

Even if the tour company is then negligent, "that does not create negligence on behalf of the cruise line," he said. And because the tour operators are not U.S. companies, the families of victims will have a difficult time suing them directly.

Lanie Fagan, of the Cruise Lines International Association, said Tuesday that the cruise lines, like hotels and resorts, "have a legal duty not to sell excursions they believe to be unsafe." When tragedies occur, she said, "CLIA member cruise lines make every effort to assist our passengers and their families."

Some of the crime-related problems would be addressed by legislation now pending before Congress, Walker said. The Cruise Safety and Security Act has already passed the House. It has been stalled in the Senate by Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who said he had concerns about the burden the law would place on the Coast Guard. But the measure reportedly has strong support and is expected to move soon to a vote.

For the first time, Walker said, cruise lines sailing in or out of U.S. ports would be required to report all crimes to the FBI and the Coast Guard. Ships would also be required to carry rape kits and anti-retroviral medicines to protect rape victims from HIV infections.

And, the cruise companies would have to make public all shipboard crimes. "The public will know the crimes that occur and see which ships have the greatest problems," Walker said.

Fagan said the industry already has a "zero-tolerance policy when it comes to crime," and "we are required to report serious crimes to federal law enforcement authorities." She said the industry supports the proposed federal legislation, which "clarifies" and codifies" procedures for reporting allegations of crimes.

Walker said the legislation, if it's passed, will be "a major improvement on issues of crime." But it does not address liability issues related to the Death on the High Seas Act, third-party tour operators or medical malpractice by ships' doctors.

"That's our next step," said Carver, of International Cruise Victims.

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