Cruise Ship Safety Concerns Reach Congress

Some victims of tragedies aboard cruise ships called on Congress today to force the cruise industry to do a better job of making ships safer, while the industry said it already is implementing some changes on its own.

A House Transportation subcommittee held another in a series of hearings on cruise ship security, and heard a disturbing story from Angela Orlich, of Massachusetts, who took a cruise on Royal Caribbean's Nordic Empress in January 2003.

She claimed she was sexually assaulted underwater by a scuba diving instructor, who pulled down her swimsuit and bit her on the breast, while on a shore excursion which she purchased from the ship.

Her experience brought up a common situation with cruise-related crimes.

In crimes committed on land, the police investigate, while independent doctors treat victims. But, on a ship, the security people who investigate the crime, and the doctors and nurses who treat the victim, are employees of the cruise line that could bear financial liability, and be named a defendant in any lawsuit.

So, victims wonder whether the first priority of the cruise line is treating them or protecting its own financial interests.

Orlich testified that when she returned to the ship, she made a verbal report of the assault, and went to see the ship's doctor for an examination. She said the doctor was dismissive, refused to examine her, and told her to see her own doctor when she returned home.

Her experience is common with other cruise tragedy passengers who feel they were victimized twice — first, by the original incident, and again, by the way they say the cruise line treated them when they reported it.

Almost all cruise lines are foreign-flagged ships that are subject to some, but not all, U.S. laws. As hearing chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings pointed out, "Americans are stepping on to a little piece of foreign soil," where they are not afforded protections they would have in the United States.

While cruise ship crime often makes headlines, cruising is probably the safest way to vacation.

Ten million Americans take cruises each year. Figures released at today's hearing show that in a five-month period this year, from April 1 to Aug. 24, there were only 207 serious incidents on cruise ships that were reported to the FBI. They involved fewer than .01 percent of the passengers who cruised at the time.

The single highest number of reported incidents involved sexual assaults, 41, followed by assaults with bodily injury, and theft of items over $10,000, both 13.

When sexual assaults have occurred, cruise lines have not always acted effectively. Crew members have reportedly not been properly trained in how to investigate and preserve evidence, including medical staffs either not supplied with rape kits, or not using them, and victims treated unsympathetically.

At today's hearing, the cruise industry said it is making changes, including the establishment of "care teams" to respond to passengers in crisis, which will include female crew members trained in dealing with sexual assault victims.

Terry Dale, who heads the Cruise Line Industry Association, told the hearing, "We have heard your concerns." He promised that victims would be treated with compassion, respect and care.

Gary Bald, head of security for Royal Caribbean, said the line is already making changes, such as installing peepholes in cabin doors, increasing security cameras and security guards, and doing background checks on employees.

But, if Congress feels the cruise industry is not responding fast enough, there will be more pressure for legislation.