Scandal on the High Seas?

It's estimated that more than 10 million Americans go on cruises every year.

Now, after complaints of onboard assaults, thefts and even mysterious disappearances, Congress investigated today how safe these vacations are. A House Transportation subcommittee conducted a hearing on cruise safety this morning.

Two hundred cruise ships dock in the United States, 198 of which are registered in foreign countries, exempting them from most U.S. laws and regulations.

Congress heard testimony from passengers with stories about poor security, and little accountability, in this $30 billion-a-year industry.

Angela Orlich of Springfield, Mass., with family and friends, went on a Royal Caribbean cruise in January 2003.

"We just thought that was the perfect thing to do, to see all the islands," Orlich said.

Aboard the ship, Orlich bought a scuba excursion in Cozumel, Mexico.

But, once her instructor got her alone underwater, she said he started to sexually assault her.

"I started going towards the rope, and I started to pull myself up on the rope, and he was pushing me down," Orlich said. "I started going up the rope again, and at this time, he started taking my bathing suit off, pulling it down."

She said he proceeded to shut her air tank off.

"I don't know if he was trying to murder me, or what. But, I got back up, I got to the top."

Orlich said no one at the cruise lines seemed to care, but today, upset lawmakers responded to her testimony, as well as that of other victims.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., who participated in the hearing because one of her constituents had been the victim of an alleged rape on a Royal Caribbean cruise, called cruise ships "essentially floating cities with thousands of passengers, and few security guards.

"The more I have inquired about crimes on cruise ships," Matsui said, "the more I have been alarmed that there is no shortage of cases of rape, sexual assaults of minors, alcohol-related fighting and abuse, and persons overboard."

"This is not rocket science stuff," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chair of the subcommittee, who called on cruise line officials to do more in response to the array of incidents.

"These victims have been very reasonable. They've reached out and tried," Cummings said, "and they're getting the feeling that the industry is reaching, but maybe not far enough."

In one three-year period, 178 cruise passengers reported sexual assaults, and 24 passengers disappeared — like George Smith, who vanished during his honeymoon.

"We can't hold a funeral, and, as you know, 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," his sister Bree Smith said.

In March, Terry L. Dale, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association, testified before Congress that "the cruise industry has a zero tolerance for crime. Our industry takes all allegations and incidents of crime onboard seriously."

Today, Dale told lawmakers that progress has been made since entering into a new voluntary reporting agreement, whereby the cruise lines work in conjunction with the FBI and the Coast Guard to report incidents. The agreement was one of the results of the March hearing.

"The passenger has a less than .01 percent chance of something bad happening during a cruise," Dale said.

"The cruise industry's standardized reporting agreement with the FBI and Coast Guard has been in place now for six months, and, from Royal Caribbean's perspective, has been fully and successfully implemented," said Gary Bald, vice-president of Global Security at Royal Caribbean.

Salvador Hernandez of the FBI, and Rear Adm. Wayne Justice of the Coast Guard, agreed with Bald.

However, cruise ship victims said more needed to be done.

"Until it is more profitable to make the ships safe than to settle lawsuits, I don't believe that all of the necessary changes will come at the hands of the cruise industry," said Susan DiPiero, whose son, Daniel, was lost at sea from Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Sea May 15, 2006.

Some lawmakers agreed.

"A common theme in this panel was that you still didn't get it," Matsui told cruise line officials.

If for no other reason, Cummings added, cruise ships should improve their safety measures and responsiveness because it's good for their bottom line.

"One criminal act, one person harmed, is one too many, but if it happens, we want to make sure they're treated right — it's that simple," said Cummings. "It's good business for the industry to be the best that it can be."

Attorney William Sullivan — whose unnamed client, asleep in her cabin this past March, was allegedly raped by a crew member, and then had ship's doctors give her Lorazepam, a drug that can cause forgetfulness — called on lawmakers to take action.

"It doesn't seem to me that Royal Caribbean is interested in prosecuting criminals or predators," Sullivan said, "because it exposes them to liability, and that's not something they're interested in. ... It's time for legislation, time for Congress to step in and mandate."

Orlich just hopes that no other women will be subjected to the same horrors that she was.

"I'm here in Washington," she said, "to help out other women, to make sure it doesn't happen to them."

Today, Orlich and other victims had lawmakers aiding their cause.

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