Teenager Served Alcohol on Cruise Falls Overboard

ByABC News

April 13, 2006 — -- For Paul O'Brien and his family, the weeklong cruise on the Costa Magica three months ago was going to be more than just a vacation. It was to be a glorious reunion for O'Brien and three childhood friends from Dublin, Ireland, who hadn't been together as a group for 25 years.

"Everybody was excited," O'Brien said. "The children were just having a great time ... as far as I was concerned it was a totally safe environment. Totally, totally safe."

For more stories on cruise ship crimes, watch "Primetime" at a special time -- tonight, at 9 p.m. ET.

On the third night, after dinner, the teenagers went off on their own. When O'Brien's 15-year-old daughter, Lynsey, didn't return on time, he sent her older sister, Kelly, to look for her.

"At approximately midnight, Kelly discovered Lynsey ... drinking in a bar," O'Brien said. "She immediately took Lynsey away from the bar with her friends. She wasn't permitted to drink. We didn't allow her to drink."

When Lynsey's parents discovered that a ship bartender had been feeding alcohol to their 15-year-old, they were upset and called a senior cruise staff member and "complained bitterly," O'Brien said.

"Primetime" obtained copies of the receipts from Lynsey's bar tab. In just 90 minutes, Lynsey had likely consumed at least a dozen units of alcohol -- including "Sex on the Beach" and other vodka cocktails, according to the charges on the tab.

And although she was just 15, she signed for all the drinks herself, even though her cruise charge card indicated she was underage.

"Lynsey did not look 21; she was a child," her father said. "There's no way anybody could think Lynsey was 21 years of age."

When Lynsey returned to her cabin, O'Brien got her some water, told her she was through for the night and that they would discuss it all in the morning.

"I didn't realize how much alcohol she'd consumed," he said. "We put Lynsey into her bed. I leaned over, I kissed her goodnight. I said, 'I love you, pet, I'll talk to you tomorrow.'"

Lynsey's parents then went to their room next door. What happened next is Paul O'Brien's best guess. and worst nightmare.

"My 12-year-old daughter ... was frantic screaming, saying Lynsey had walked out, gotten sick, vomited -- and she fell overboard," O'Brien said.

One floor above the O'Briens, Kurt Byrd and his wife, Sharon, both veteran police officers with the Cincinnati Police Department, heard the same scream and reacted quickly -- running to the ship's balcony.

"I immediately told Sharon. I said, start looking in the water, start looking in the water," said Byrd. "And we went right to the edge of the balcony and started looking over, and we didn't see anything."

While his wife was searching the water for a body, Byrd raced to the phone and called the emergency number. He told the operator something was very wrong downstairs.

"We heard a thump, we heard a terrible scream," Byrd recalled telling the operator. "Something's going on in the room directly below us. You need to get somebody up here."

Meanwhile, O'Brien said he was charging all over the ship, looking for help.

"I was banging on walls, I was screaming, I was frantic. I was in shock. ... I was totally, totally, I can't describe how I felt," he said.

But 10 minutes later, Byrd, who was a commander of an underwater search and rescue unit, said the boat had not slowed down.

The Byrds said it was at least 15 minutes before anyone threw a life ring and started hitting the water. And by the time the boat finally did turn around to start the search, Byrd said he called the emergency number again to complain about the search.

"I said unless this girl's an Olympic swimmer, she's not going to make it anywhere to these life rings," he said. "She's 3 to 5-plus miles away from this boat, and she's not going to make it to here. You're searching in the wrong area."

The O'Briens held out hope, though, saying that Lynsey was an excellent swimmer. But she was never found, and the O'Briens blame the cruise line.

"They did nothing whatsoever. Not one lifeboat was dropped down -- nothing," Paul said. "There was no rescue effort whatsoever put in place. As far as I'm concerned, the ship has no procedure whatsoever for a person overboard. There's no procedure. Nothing."

Kurt Byrd agreed, telling "Primetime" he didn't believe the ship's officials did all that they could to find Lynsey. "In my department, if we handled an investigation this way, we'd be done. You'd be fired," he said.

Costa Cruise Lines declined "Primetime's" request for an interview, citing potential litigation. But in a letter, Costa Cruise Lines said the bartender who served Lynsey had been fired, and since the incident, it had implemented alcohol education for other ship staff.

The Byrds said they wanted to contact the O'Briens, but that the cruise line refused their request, citing the privacy concerns of the O'Brien family.

Sharon Byrd said she wants to tell the family that she and her husband tried to help, and that they also believe cruise line officials did not respond appropriately to the problem. "The way they handled the situation, they failed, totally. And they failed Lynsey," Sharon said.

Paul O'Brien believes that the tragedy could have been averted much earlier in the night. "If Lynsey had never been served alcohol onboard the cruise ship, my daughter would still be alive."

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