Dying men on a disabled fishing board were left drifting despite the close passage of a huge cruise ship that didn’t stop even after its crew was alerted by anxious passengers who saw frantic signalling from the tiny craft, according to the survivor and those who spotted him.
Birders aboard the Star Princess say they alerted the ship’s officers about the plight of the tiny vessel, but the huge, white-hulled liner never slowed.
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Princess Cruises, owned by Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines said it was “aware of the allegations that Star Princess supposedly passed by a boat in distress that was carrying three Panamanian fishermen on March 10,” in a statement to National Public Radio. “At this time we cannot verify the facts as reported, and we are currently conducting an internal investigation,” the statement added.
But Adrian Vasquez, sole survivor of the drifting boat has no doubt.
He confirmed the big cruise ship sailed past and identified pictures of his own tiny craft taken by the birders on board the Star Princess.
He said one of his fellow fishermen died hours after the sail past and the other five days later. He was eventually rescued by Ecuadorians near the Galapagos Islands on March 28 after a month adrift and two weeks after seeing the Star Princess.
The grim sea saga may be another blow to the reputation of Carnival Cruise Lines, the world’s biggest cruise company. Earlier this year, one of Carnival’s biggest and newest ships – the Costa Concordia – sank off Italy January 13 after its captain misjudged a daringly close pass to ‘salute’ Isola del Giglio. More than 30 of the 4,000-plus on board died in the dark and chaos, amidst allegations Capt. Francesco Schettino had abandoned ship early to save himself long before the last passengers.
In February, a fire on board another Carnival ship, the Costa Allegra with more than 1,000 on board, left it powerless and drifting in the sweltering Indian Ocean. Filth and human waste piled up until the ship could be towed by French fishermen to the Seychelles.
Carnival owns multiple cruise lines including: Carnival, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Seabourn and P&O.
Last month, on the Star Princess in the Gulf of Panama, birders, Jeff Gilligan from Portland, Ore. and Judy Meredeth from Bend, Ore spotted the drifting fishing vessel with powerful binoculars.
Photos taken by Mr. Gillian from the Star Princess of the drifting ‘Fifty Cent’ can be seen on Panama-Guide.com.
“We all watched him for a bit and thought, ‘This guy’s in distress. He’s trying to get our attention,” said Ms. Meredith, who then told a member of Princess’ sales staff who, in turn, contacted the ship’s officers. According to Ms. Meredith, the Princess representative ”called the bridge and I sort of talked through the story,” she told NPR. “And I was trying to have a sense or urgency in my voice – and tell them that the boat was in distress.”
Mr. Gilligan, who took pictures of the nine-metre fishing boat, named “Fifty Cent” said: “We expected the ship to turn back or stop or something.”
Instead Star Princess continued on its way.
“That’s us,” Mr. Vasquez, 18, said when shown the pictures of ‘Fifty Cent’ taken by the birders. He told Panama.Guide.com, the online English-language new outlet that first reported the story: “It was a really big, white ship. I was waving a red t-shirt, and Fernando was waving a bright orange life jacket over his head.” By then, the three had already been drifting for more than a week after the outboard motor failed and were more than 200 kilometres from shore.
The 16-year-old Fernando Osario didn’t survive the month-long ordeal at sea. Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died the night after the close encounter with Star Princess, according to Mr. Vasquez.
Ms. Meredith said she contacted Princess Cruises for an explanation after the cruise ended.
She said she received the following; that the captain was in contact with a fishing fleet that has asked him to divert slightly to avoid some nets and that after altering course, the fishermen “were waving their shirts because they were thanking the ship.”
There’s now a raging online debate among cruisers on sites like cruisecritic.com as to whether the birders on board and the crew of the Star Princess did enough.
Maritime law – and tradition – imposes a duty on all captains to “to assist persons in distress at sea.”