Cruise ship accidents prompt questions: How do people fall off? And why?

TAMPA — It's not easy to fall off a cruise ship, and it doesn't happen often, but when it does twice in 24 hours in the Gulf of Mexico, it prompts conversation around another body of water, this one found directly behind Bill in accounting.

Hear about the guy who fell off the cruise ship? we say.

Must've been drunk, we say.

Must've been doing that scene from Titanic.

But it's rare that we assign any kind of context to these — what are they? Falls? Accidents? Jumps? Worse?

Perhaps that's what captures our interest about at-sea plunges. When no one is around to witness a passenger descend from a floating city and disappear into the darkness, we're left to our assumptions.

So far this year, 12 passengers or crewmen have gone overboard from cruise ships or ferries. That includes the Alabama woman still missing after a Tuesday morning fall 75 miles southwest of Pensacola, and the man found Monday morning clinging to a buoy near Fort De Soto, and an 18-year-old from Louisiana who fell overboard in late May about 150 miles southwest of Tampa.

That's according to Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and one of the only keepers of such data. Because there is no central government agency that tracks disappearances or deaths or falls from cruise ships, Klein relies on media reports from around the world to keep tabs on an industry intent on spreading a completely different idea.

"They're trying to sell a vacation product and this isn't good news," Klein says. "They tout cruising as the safest mode of transportation anywhere in the world. People go on them expecting to be safe, and these incidents contradict that perception."

Since 2000, the highest number of incidents reported came in 2006, when 22 people went overboard. But 12 million people cruised that year. That means roughly one of every 545,454 people who cruised in 2006 wound up in the drink. Not an astonishing safety hazard.

But if you consider that one of those reports was about a family with four children who returned from vacation with only three . . .

Or that one was about a man who returned from a Christmas cruise without his wife . . .

How do you fall off a cruise ship?

"It is virtually impossible for a guest to simply fall off a cruise ship," says Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman Vance Gulliksen in an e-mail.

"I always say I wish the English language had better words for people who go beyond safety barriers intentionally and lose their grip," says Paul Motter, editor of CruiseMates.com, an online guide to cruising. "I have no better word for it. Generally we say they are 'gone overboard under unknown circumstances.' "

Practically, falling overboard is a challenge. It would involve climbing or jumping or the right kind of momentum.

Carnival Cruise Lines' ships have 44-inch high railings and warning signs, says Gulliksen. They have uniformed security patrolling 24 hours a day.

Even cruise critics agree it's not easy. "Nine times out of 10, the person did something dumb," said Charles Lipcon, a Miami attorney and author of Unsafe on the High Seas: Your Guide to a Safer Cruise.

Lipcon has litigated a few where people have fallen overboard, including one in which a woman went missing and her purse was found on the deck and a security camera had been covered.

"They're very difficult cases," he said. "You need to prove that the cruise lines have violated some duty. And normally they don't. You can't keep people from doing dumb things. The ships aren't made out of rubber."

There are trends in these incidents.

Some are suicides. Couples fight, and then one jumps in an I'll-show-you kind of way. Some elderly couples have decided to leave the world together, a last hurrah on the high seas.

Alcohol is fuel. Critics say alcohol sales are a big moneymaker for cruise lines, so they have a tendency to overserve.

"It's drink and drink and drink," says Charles Harris, former chief of security for Carnival who has become an outspoken critic of cruise industry secrecy. "We'll take your money, and if you fall overboard, we don't worry about it." (Carnival's Gulliksen says employees are trained to refuse service to intoxicated guests.)

Then there are the mysteries.

No notes. No suicidal tendencies. No heavy intoxication.

They fall or jump or stumble or are pushed, and no one is there to see, and the Coast Guard searches and the news breaks and we try to solve the puzzle on steadier shores.

News researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at (727) 893-8650 or bmontgomery@sptimes.com.

Cruise ship accidents prompt questions: How do people fall off? And why? 06/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 6:13pm]

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