The hearing was the second called by Senator Jay Rockefeller, the committee chairman, who introduced a bill last year to improve protection of passengers on cruise ships.
At the hearing, Senator Rockefeller said the horror stories pointed to a lack of oversight and accountability for passenger safety in the cruise industry.
“In spite of the evidence that crimes, fires, mechanical failures, drownings and mishandled medical emergencies occur with disturbing regularity on cruise ships, the industry continues to deny that it has a problem,” he said.
While stressing that the majority of people who take cruises have a good and safe time, Rockefeller said that even those relatively rare occurrences of passenger peril drive home the necessity of putting more protections into place.
One of the “relatively rare occurrences of passenger peril” was the choking and rape of Laurie Dishman on a Royal Caribbean cruise by one of the line’s employees.
Using her experience to shed light on the dangers that passengers might face on cruises, the California resident said she was hurt and humiliated during the 2006 incident when staff members were slow and discourteous in helping her.
According to Dishman, she was made to collect evidence in trash bags, and was not taken to the infirmary immediately, given anti-retroviral medications or provided with another cabin in which to stay during the cruise to Mexico.
Even after an FBI investigation when the ship docked in the US, Dishman’s rapist was never arrested or tried in the United States.
“Cruise consumers have virtually no rights or protections,” she said during the hearing. “I know this first-hand.”
Philip Gerson, a Miami-based lawyer who has litigated cruise liner cases, agreed, saying significant improvements in passenger safety are needed.
“If you think that young women are safe on cruise ships, think again. They’re not,” he said, adding that one of his clients, a 15-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome, was raped by a juvenile and an adult while on a holiday cruise in the Caribbean.
Gerson went on to explain that the victim’s mother believed that teen activities would be supervised by cruise staff as suggested by promotional material. There were nevertheless insufficient security personnel on the ship, putting the teenager at risk, he said.
A different kind of horror story was related by Kim Ware of Houston, who said she was a passenger on the Carnival Triumph last year when it lost power in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine room fire that disabled basic systems including water and sewage.
Ware described sewage coming up through the shower drains, red biohazard bags of faeces lining the hallway, and a “tent city” appearing on the deck.
She said she was afraid that fights would break out on the ship as the stench worsened and food hoarding became common, adding that there was little to no direction from staff.
“It was soon very clear that Carnival Cruise Lines had no plan in place for such a disaster,” she said. “They were essentially winging it.”
Committee members said cruises need to make it clear to passengers before they buy their tickets what rights they have on-board and what rights they are giving up. They also need to make more clear how safe cruises actually are, they said.