Two siblings who lost their parents to a cruise ship fire say the problems leading to their deaths are more common than most people think.
Christy and Larry Hammer, both in their 70s, died in the spring of 2016 aboard a cruise ship operated by International Expeditions, an Alabama-based company. A fire ignited in their room as they slept, and a series of lapses in safety measures that could have saved them ultimately led to their deaths, their daughters say.
“The Peruvian Navy's report and horrific surveillance video show International Expeditions' disregard for safety. In order to prevent more needless deaths, safety must become a top priority,” daughter Jill Malott of California said by phone. “Changes won't happen unless International Expeditions is held accountable for killing our parents.”
She added that the family had hoped they could come to a resolution with the company outside of court. But “we will file a lawsuit to drive safety changes if other avenues are exhausted.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The ship, La Estrella Amazonica, operated in the Peruvian Amazon. It was operated, not owned, by International Expeditions, spokeswoman Emily Harley said last year.
The problems faced by Malott and her sister, Kelly Lankford of Lee’s Summit, are more common than expected aboard cruise ships, according to Kendall Carver. Carver’s daughter vanished from an Alaskan cruise ship, and her disappearance prompted him to found the International Cruise Victims Association to link other victims of deaths and crimes aboard cruise ships. Hundreds of victims and victims’ families have joined, he said.
Those include Malott and Lankford, who for the past 17 months have sought to find out what happened to their parents aboard the vessel.
A report released late last year by the Peruvian government shed some light on the vessel’s safety issues.
Aboard the ship, which was advertised as a luxury vessel that adhered to international and Peruvian standards, there was a series of safety lapses, according to the report:
The fire alarm malfunctioned and did not sound.
The “Master of the vessel failed to comply with his duties and responsibilities ... he did not draw up an emergency roster or carried out emergency fire drills or record them in the ship’s logbook as required by legislation.”
“It has been shown that the reaction time of the vessel’s crew was deficient.” More than 20 minutes elapsed between the time that the smoke became apparent to when crew members entered the Hammers’ cabin.
“It’s so callous, it’s hard to comprehend to us,” Malott said.
Less than half of the available emergency crew members available responded to the fire.
Larry Hammer’s body was pulled from the room first, and 6 minutes later Christy Hammer was rescued. She had a pulse when she was pulled from the room, her daughters say, but later died. They are still unsure of all the details of where they took their mother and what recuperative procedures were administered.
As a result of the report, International Expeditions was fined $19,000, according to Jim Walker, a cruise law attorney. The company is appealing the fine, he wrote in July.
A spokeswoman for the company did not immediately return a request for comment on Wednesday.
Walker also wrote that the Death on the High Seas Act bars the recovery of damages for pain and suffering of victims’ families when someone dies outside state territorial waters. Carver said amending that act is one of his goals.
Lankford said advertisements stressing safety on La Estrella Amazonica probably attracted her parents and other retirees.
“(It’s) an unsafe vessel that’s being promoted like it’s a great, safe American vacation,” she said. “All the safety of the U.S. out at sea. Book with us.”
Hours after the Hammers’ deaths, Van Perry, then-president of International Expeditions, declared the vessel “safe for travel,” according to a report by Carver in The Hill, despite the fact that local authorities had not authorized such a declaration.
A spokesperson said that inspections had been cleared.
“As the official investigation continues International Expeditions and the vessel owner remain fully cooperative with the authorities,” Perry said in October 2016. “We also continue to give this incident high priority at International Expeditions. We extend our sympathy to the family. We cannot attempt to understand the depth of their loss, but continue to provide our offers of support to them.”
Carver told USA Today last year that a recent law allowing Americans in waters not controlled by the U.S. to report suspected crimes to the FBI was among the most significant accomplishments in his decade as an advocate, but he added that most victims aren’t aware they have that option.
But the FBI did not investigate the Hammers’ death, Lankford said, adding, “We would have loved for them to get involved.”
According to Carver’s database that he helped create following the disappearance of his daughter, over a 10-year span that ended in 2015, more than 200 people have been reported missing or fallen overboard from cruise ships.
In 2014, legislation passed compelling public disclosure of serious crimes. The U.S. Department of Transportation maintains records of all serious crimes dating back to 2010, but USA Today reported previous laws limited access to crime stats, meaning the department’s oldest recorded stats probably are underreported.
From 2010 to 2013, the Department of Transportation reported seven suspicious death cases, one missing person and 71 sexual assault cases aboard cruise ships that port in at least one U.S. location. (International Expeditions was not included in the database.)
From 2014 through the first half of 2017, there were 14 deaths, 23 missing people and 204 sexual assault cases reported.
Elinore Boeka, a public affairs director for CLIA Cruise Line, told USA Today that the reported crime rates are lower than those reported on land.
Lankford and Malott said they are most concerned with holding the cruise line accountable for their parents’ death.
“Cruise companies are highly protected in terms of not being held responsible and having consequences when they don’t do what they should be doing,” Lankford said.