When Cruise Vacations End Tragically, Who's to Blame?

Insiders say passengers need to share the blame for overboard accidents.

ByABC News
January 7, 2009, 2:05 PM

Jan. 8, 2009— -- The idea of going over the side of a cruise ship is horrifying. One minute a person is safely on deck, and the next the passenger has plunged several stories into inky water, often never to be seen again.

It's a story that's been written more frequently now that cruising has become increasingly affordable with ships built to hold a small city's worth of people. But amid a growing chorus of accusations about security leveled at the cruise industry, insiders say passengers and crew need to take more responsibility for their own safety.

"There's been a lot more binge drinking than I've seen in the past," said Douglas Ward, a cruise expert who has reviewed the industry for 43 years.

Ward, who lives in Southampton, England, and has written more than two dozen editions of the "Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships," told ABCNews.com that most people who go overboard do so at night after a bout of heavy drinking.

In the past few weeks, two people have gone overboard on major cruise ships. Jennifer Ellis Seitz, 36, went over the balcony of the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship Christmas night. While her family has said the Florida woman may have jumped, authorities are still investigating.

One week later, on New Year's Day, a man identified as Carnival Sensation employee Antonio Matabang of California went overboard -- fellow crew members who saw him fall off the ship near the coast of Florida reported it. The search for his body has since been suspended.

Because cruise lines do not report crimes and accidents to one central authority, it's difficult to gauge exactly how many people go overboard each year. One informal cruising Web site puts 2008's total at eight, down from 20 in 2007 and 22 in 2006.

"The overboards always seem to me to be from the larger ships," Ward said.

Those would be the "resort ships" that dominate the industry -- those run by mainstream lines such as Holland America, Carnival, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Lines that can carry thousands of passengers and crew at a time.

While cruises used to be only for the elite, larger ships and cheaper tickets have made them the vacation everyone can afford -- older people living on a fixed incomes, families with young children, college students.

"As the age range goes down, it's more a question of drink and showing off," Ward said.

In 2008, about 16.8 million people took cruises, more than 11 million of them Americans, Ward said. That's up from about 9.4 million cruise passengers in 1999 and 500,000 in 1970.

While each overboard incident typically makes numerous headlines, the number of people who actually go over the side of ship is tiny compared with the number of passengers carried safely.

"It's a very, very small percentage," Ward said. "Of course, we don't want any."

While Carnival hasn't released information on Matabang's disappearance other than to say it was searching the waters for an employee, Ward said he was told that Matabang had been standing on the ship's railing for a photograph, "which is absolutely forbidden" and "stupid on a moving ship."

Keeping an Eye on Passengers

While cruise ship personnel can't watch every guest at every moment, the cruise lines said they have been making security changes to accommodate the growing number of passengers.

Gary Bald is the senior vice president and chief global security officer for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the parent company of Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises among other brands.

Bald, the former head of the FBI's national security branch, said Royal Caribbean has always had security cameras on its ships, though the company has greatly expanded the number of cameras in the last several years, in some cases by hundreds per ship.

Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, currently the largest cruise ship on the oceans with room for more than 3,600 passengers, has between 700 and 800 cameras, Bald said. And most are motion activated.

While not all cameras are monitored all the time, the cameras switch on when movement is detected and record the 30 seconds before the movement begins and the 30 seconds after the movement stops.

The length of time those files -- now digital instead of the old analog tapes -- are kept varies, Bald said. Tapes of a passenger going overboard are kept indefinitely, while images from an uneventful cruise may be eventually purged.

Like many other of the larger resort-type ships, Royal Caribbean's ships also carry smaller rescue vessels that can be sent out to search if someone is known to go overboard.

Carnival responded by e-mail to questions about its ships' security, saying personnel receive specialized training in preserving evidence that the FBI supervises.

"Additionally, all security personnel receive ongoing training at regular intervals," the e-mail said. "Recurring training includes updates on any new security procedures, as well as training in specialized areas such as terrorism, bomb detection, crisis and crowd management, first aid, firefighting and fire prevention."

Norwegian Cruise Lines declined to answer specific questions but released a statement, saying in part, "We have a number of safety and security measures in place, including a safety and environmental management system that is used by our ships that details specific procedures to take when an incident occurs."