Did Princess ship ignore a vessel asking for help?

Oh, never mind. / Photo by cruadin - Flickr
It sounds like something straight out of a nightmare: You’re on a small fishing vessel, adrift in the Pacific. You see a ship in the distance, and you signal for help. But it keeps going.

Nearly a month later, when you’re finally rescued, two of your crewmates are dead. Had that ship responded to your plea for help, they’d still be alive today.

It wasn’t a dream for Adrian “Santi” Vasquez, who was adrift on an Ecuadoran fishing vessel near the Galapagos Islands more than 28 days. Three alert birdwatchers on the Star Princess saw the stricken fishing vessel and alerted the ship’s crew.

Here’s an interview with the surviving crew member in which he identifies the ship.

There’s a more detailed story on NPR, which aired this morning.

If it is true that the Princess crew failed to help, it would violate maritime law, according to cruise ship law expert Jim Walker. Regulation 33 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V states:

The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance …

Walker says many questions remain unanswered in the wake of this tragedy.

“The families of the young dead fishermen deserve an explanation why their children died at sea in this manner,” he adds.

Princess says it’s looking into the incident.

We’re aware of the allegations that Star Princess supposedly passed by a boat in distress that was carrying three Panamanian fishermen on March 10, 2012. At this time we cannot verify the facts as reported, and we are currently conducting an internal investigation on the matter.

We were very saddened to learn that two lives were lost aboard the boat, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families involved.

Princess Cruises is dedicated to the highest standards of seamanship wherever our ships sail, and it is our duty to assist any vessel in distress. We have come to the aid of many people at sea, and we will continue to do so.

I hope there’s a full investigation, both by Princess and by Bermuda, the ship’s flag state. But beyond that, I want to share with you how deeply affected I am by this story.

When I heard about this incident, I imagined what it must have felt like to be adrift in the open Pacific and to see a cruise ship in the distance. And then, to have my hopes dashed as it passed by. It’s just horrible.

If Princess turned a cold shoulder to these fishermen in defiance of maritime law, what message does that send to those of us asking a cruise line to honor its customer service commitments?

Update (8/30): Princess just published the following press release.

New Evidence Proves Princess Cruises Did Not Fail to Rescue
Adrift Fishermen as Alleged

Cruise Line Demands Lawsuits be Immediately Dismissed

Santa Clarita, Calif. (August 30, 2012) – Princess Cruises has released recently discovered video footage of a rescue at sea of a small boat adrift for nearly a month in the Pacific Ocean that conclusively confirms the adrift boat, the Fifty Cent, was not the small boat spotted and photographed by three Princess passengers several weeks earlier.

The story, which broke last April, received extensive press coverage with Princess and the ship’s captain widely criticized for not coming to the rescue of the men onboard, two of whom subsequently died.

Princess has been sued six times by the survivor and relatives of fishermen on the adrift boat. The lawsuits claim the cruise ship Star Princess passed within several miles of the Fifty Cent, but failed to rescue them despite three cruise ship passengers spotting them and reporting they saw a boat that might be in distress. The ship’s bridge staff did not see signs of distress and therefore did not stop or notify the ship’s captain.

The Princess passengers, a group of bird watchers with sophisticated telescopic camera equipment, photographed the small boat they had spotted. Their photos depict a small white boat similar to Panga boats used by local fishermen in Central America. In contrast, the video footage of the Fifty Cent’s rescue shows a markedly different boat.

Princess had the newly discovered video and the original bird watchers’ photos analyzed by Michael Snyder, a retired photo analyst and photogrammetry expert from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Mr. Snyder concluded that “the small boat photographed by the passengers onboard Star Princess is clearly not the small boat called Fifty Cent that Adrian Vasquez was found adrift on.

Princess began searching for photographs or video of the Fifty Cent after hearing recorded statements by plaintiff Adrian Vasquez that were inconsistent with his allegation that Star Princess had passed him by, and which were also inconsistent with the bird watchers’ reported sighting. The captain of the fishing boat that rescued Vasquez has provided a sworn statement confirming that Vasquez gave a detailed account of his ordeal at the time he was rescued, but never mentioned any cruise ship passing him by.

Further supporting the fact that Star Princess did not cross paths with the Fifty Cent is a drift analysis which charted the movement of the two vessels taking into account ocean current, wind and wave data. Conducted by Weather Routing, Inc., a private meteorological consulting firm, the analysis concluded “that it is not likely the boat sighted by the guest passengers was the same boat rescued on March 23rd and identified as the Fifty Cent.

“While this remains a tragic story, we are gratified to have scientific confirmation that Star Princess was never in the vicinity of the adrift boat and that the boat photographed by our passengers was not the adrift Fifty Cent,” said Alan Buckelew, president and CEO of Princess Cruises. “Nevertheless, we have used this as a valuable learning opportunity and have strengthened our bridge reporting procedures to ensure that all messages of concern from passengers or crew are carefully evaluated by our senior bridge officers.”

According to Princess, the ship’s captain, Edward Perrin, had been devastated by allegations his ship might have ignored a vessel in distress. Ironically, Captain Perrin was praised last month by Canadian authorities after his ship diverted to act as a wind block assisting Canadian authorities in a dramatic helicopter rescue of two sailors from a boat that was floundering in stormy conditions off the coast of British Columbia. Princess ships have come to the aid of persons or ships in distress more than 30 times in the past decade and it is fairly common for Princess ships to divert to render aid when they receive distress calls.

Princess Cruises has demanded the lawsuits be immediately dismissed and has offered to waive its right to seek recovery of legal costs,citing sympathy for the victims of the Fifty Cent’s ordeal.

Video footage of Adrian Vasquez aboard the fishing boat that rescued him, and his boat Fifty Cent can be found here: http://youtu.be/vcdw-zKcAJU

A graphic comparing the Fifty Cent and the boat photographed by Princess passengers can be found here: http://www.princess.com/news/images/2012/08/StarPrincess_FiftyCent8_30_12_LARGE.jpg

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