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Cruise DisappearancesLeave Families Traumatized



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Cruise Disappearances

Leave Families Traumatized

By John Christoffersen Associated Press

STAMFORD — Many embarked on the cruises for happy occasions. A few were on their honeymoons. One man had just graduated from college. An elderly Vietnamese-American couple was on a Mother’s Day treat after a hard life as refugees.

But the joy would suddenly turn tragic. They all vanished, leaving their families to forever wonder what went wrong.

The most recent case is the disappearance of George Smith IV of Greenwich, who vanished on his honeymoon while aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise of the Mediterranean. Blood stains running from the balcony of Smith’s cabin to life boats, as well as a hand print on the side of the ship, have prompted a Turkish prosecutor to ask Smith’s family to provide blood samples for comparison.

Mr Smith was reported missing when the ship docked at Kusadasi, a resort area in the Aegean region of Turkey. He is one of at least 12 passengers who have vanished on cruises in the past six years.

Industry and Coast Guard officials could not provide statistics, but a spokeswoman for the largest cruise company said the number of cases may be rising because of a growing number of cruise passengers.

“The industry is growing quite rapidly,” said Jennifer de la Cruz, spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines. “On a statistic basis, you’re going to have more incidents than you had five or ten years ago.”

Several of the cases involved Carnival, the largest carrier with about three million passengers annually. None involved foul play, according to Ms de la Cruz, who said the incidents typically involve suspected suicides or accidental falls over board, such as when passengers climb over rails.

“Generally, the people put themselves at risk,” Ms de la Cruz said. “That’s how it can happen accidentally.”

While security on ships has been stepped up in the wake of the September 11 attacks, industry officials say preventing all accidents is difficult. Ships do have cameras, though not in private areas such as cabins.

“It’s difficult if someone chooses to do harm to themselves or their companion,” said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines. “It’s pretty hard to guard against every eventuality at all times.”

Some family members remain suspicious. Bodies are often not recovered and witnesses are hard to come by.

Son Michael Pham of Seattle sent his elderly parents on a cruise from Puerto Rico last May for Mother’s Day. They went for dinner one night and were never seen again.

“It’s hard to think they were hurt by somebody else, but right now I wouldn’t rule that out at all,” Mr Pham said. “We have the right to send family members on a vacation and expect them to come back.”

Mr Pham said his parents were looking forward to returning to Vietnam later this year for the first time since they fled as refugees 30 years ago. After they disappeared on the cruise, postcards arrived telling of their happy time and with a promise to cook a special meal for his brother’s birthday.

“The only thing I know for sure is Mom and Dad weren’t ready to leave us,” Mr Pham said. “They had so much to look forward to.”

Mr Pham questioned why there were not more cameras, but a company official said it was not practical to have cameras in every location of a ship.

Investigators have said the couple probably fell overboard.

Investigators say the cases pose a number of challenges, including determining jurisdiction, interviewing passengers from numerous countries, and a lack of a body and other evidence.

“They are not easy investigations,” said Jose Vargas, chief of a special jurisdiction unit of the FBI.

Jean Scavone of Meriden has reached out to the Smith family, knowing the trauma of such cases. She still remembers the jolt she felt in 1999 while sitting on her deck when her husband told her that their son, James, had vanished from a cruise.

James Scavone had just graduated from Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, where he was captain of the college tennis team. He had already enrolled in classes at New York University.

Jean Scavone was told that her son was last seen in a disco shortly after midnight. “He told the guys he was going to the bathroom and they never saw him again,” she said.

Investigators found no evidence of foul play and concluded he must have fallen overboard, his mother said.

“I don’t understand how all these people could have fallen off a cruise ship,” Mrs Scavone said. “All I know is my son left here and never came home.”

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