Congress Looks at Cruise Dangers


Dec. 13, 2005 — -- Thinking about booking a cruise for your next vacation? If you are, the FBI says you should also think about protecting yourself from a violent crime while you are on the ship.

Today on Capitol Hill, two subcommittees are holding a joint hearing focusing on cruise-ship crimes and disappearances. One case that will draw attention is that of Jill Begora.

The 59-year-old Canadian was last seen by her husband Saturday morning when Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas approached the Port of Nassau in the Bahamas. Despite a search by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bahamian Navy, when the ship returned to its homeport in Florida on Sunday, there was no trace of Begora.

"It's just too much to comprehend," said Thomas Begora, a relative. "I hope everything's all right. But you know how these are sometimes."

In the last five years, the FBI has opened more than 300 cases of crime on the high seas. With sexual assault being the most prevalent type of crime on cruise ships, women and minors appear to be the most vulnerable passengers. Forty-five percent of the FBI cases were sexual assaults; 22 percent involved physical assaults. Missing-persons cases accounted for 10 percent of the reported crimes. In 75 percent of those cases, a body was never found.

The numbers released by the FBI have relatives and lawmakers pointing the finger at the cruise-ship industry.

"The bottom line is we are suspicious, candidly, that there's some huge problem in the cruise industry," said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn. "We think that people are not aware of some of the challenges and some of the potential problems they encounter."

The FBI's ability to assist Americans who become victims of crime in international waters depends on several factors: the type of crime that was committed, where the ship was when the crime was committed, where the ship departed, where the ship will arrive, and under which nation's laws the ship is registered. Other factors include the victim's nationality, international law, and the United States' relationship with other affected countries.

The cruise-ship industry, however, says its record on safety and security is enviable.

In 1995, the Coast Guard published a report that said "passenger vessels operating from U.S. ports are among the safest modes of transportation available," according to J. Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, an industry trade association.

"I know of no reason for this opinion to have changed in the past 10 years," he said.

But today's hearing is clearly an attempt by lawmakers and relatives to make the industry toughen its security measures and take on more responsibility.

The Smith family would like to see that happen.

George Smith IV disappeared on his honeymoon in the Mediterranean last July aboard a Royal Caribbean ship. His family is convinced that he was killed because witnesses heard screaming and there was blood on the ship's deck. The Connecticut man was never found, and his family is planning to sue Royal Caribbean, accusing the cruise line of hindering the investigation.

"We can't hold a funeral," said Smith's sister Bree.

"As far as Royal Caribbean is concerned, they would merely have another drunk falling [in] the water, nothing we could do about it. And that's not good enough. And we're gonna make changes so this does not happen to another family," she said.

Ten million Americans are expected to travel on vessels that navigate through international waters this year.

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