Dead on the Water – Times Publications, December 2010
It was August 27, 2004 when 40-year-old Merrian Carver stepped aboard the Celebrity Cruises’ Mercury for what was to be a seven-day Alaskan adventure.
It should have been a dream vacation—sailing through Alaska’s white-capped mountains and massive glacial fields. Instead, it would be the last trip of Merrian’s life.
On the first night of the cruise, the petite, redheaded former investment banker and mother of one checked into her stateroom alone and unpacked her luggage. Two days into the voyage she disappeared without a trace.
For the remainder of the cruise, while other passengers gambled at the casinos and partied at the bars aboard the luxury cruise ship, there was no sign of Merrian. Each day the steward checked her room, replaced the chocolate on her pillow and noted that nothing in the room had been disturbed. Yet, according to Carver’s family, when the steward alerted his supervisor to her disappearance, his concerns were ignored. At the end of the cruise, when the ship docked in Vancouver, British Columbia, Merrian’s belongings—including her clothes, purse, credit cards and gold wristwatch—were donated to charity.
It would be weeks before Merrian’s family would learn of her unexplained disappearance or the fact that she had even boarded the Mercury. Instead of reporting her missing to authorities or her family, her loved ones say the cruise line proceeded as though she had never existed. To this day, her fate remains a mystery.
Merrian Carver is just one of at least 148 people who have vanished under mysterious circumstances aboard cruise ships in the past ten years. In many of those cases, it is unknown whether the missing passengers fell accidentally overboard, committed suicide or if there was foul play. Alarmingly, rarely were those disappearances even investigated.
For Merrian’s father, Phoenix resident Kendall Carver, that’s unacceptable.
“There is a major problem with this industry in terms of accountability of crimes,” says Carver, a 74-year-old retired insurance executive and founder of the International Cruise Victims Association. “Cover-up is a standard operating procedure on cruise ships. They destroy the evidence, they get the crew member off the ship, and that’s just the way they operate. And that’s exactly what happened to us… We found out that’s how most everyone is treated.”
Since Merrian’s unexplained disappearance, Carver has battled the cruise lines to change procedures and improve safety measures. His agonizing six-year crusade to discover what happened to his daughter has transformed the cruise industry and exposed a disturbing element of crime aboard cruise ships.
“Even though the cruise industry has been around for a very long time, the modern cruise vacation is a relatively new phenomenon,” says cruise critic Brian David Bruns, a former cruise employee and author of the book “Cruise Confidential.” “People think a cruise is like a hotel, but that is not the case. When you step onto that ship, you are on foreign soil. And I think that’s where a lot of the problems begin.”
As cruising has become more popular and affordable, with newer ships built to hold what amounts to a small city’s population, reports of missing passengers are becoming more frequent. In 2009, at least 25 passengers went missing from cruise ships, and 17 have vanished so far this year.
It is difficult to gauge the actual number of deaths and missing since for years cruise lines have not been required to report crimes that have taken place on international waters to any one central authority.
In cases where a passenger has vanished mysteriously on what was meant to be a fantasy getaway, their loved ones are often left with heart-wrenching, unsolved puzzles.
On May 12, 2005 Hue Pham and his wife, Hue Tran, boarded Carnival’s Destiny for a Caribbean cruise. The two were never heard from again. After an unsuccessful on-board search, the ship retraced its path; however, their bodies were never found.
Mindy Jordan and her boyfriend boarded the Norwegian Dawn in New York City on the morning of May 11, 2008 – Mother’s Day – for a seven-day cruise to Bermuda. That same evening, Jordan fell overboard from the balcony in her room. Her boyfriend claimed her death was an accident. Her family, however, says Jordan’s relationship with her boyfriend was abusive, and they have always suspected foul play.
On July 5, 2005, eight days into George and Jennifer Smith’s dream honeymoon cruise aboard the Royal Caribbean ship Brilliance of the Seas, George vanished. Passengers two floors below the Smiths’ cabin woke up that morning and noticed a metal overhang above a lifeboat covered with blood. It is presumed George went overboard, although his body was never recovered. His family believes, quite simply, that George was murdered.
All of those cases remain unsolved.
While the $40-billion cruise industry maintains passenger safety is a top priority, critics have long condemned cruise lines for ignoring crimes that occur on the ships.
“For years these crimes would frequently go unreported,” says maritime lawyer Charles Lipcon.
When there is suspicion of foul play in a cruise ship disappearance, cases are rarely prosecuted. There are no independent authorities onboard cruise ships, the bodies of victims are rarely recovered and many times a jurisdiction is difficult to determine, hindering successful investigations, Lipcon says.
“When these incidents happen at sea, it’s not a stable crime scene,” he says. “Many times with the criminal investigations the countries will pass it off like a hot potato. It creates a lot of challenges.”
But it’s not just deaths and disappearances that are a problem on cruise ships. From 2000 to 2005, the FBI opened 305 investigations into cruise ship crimes including sexual assaults, battery and robberies. Royal Caribbean alone, which carries around 25 percent of cruise passengers, recorded more than 100 complaints of sexual assault and sexual battery between 2003 and 2005.
Some of the statistics actually reveal that a sexual assault is more likely to occur on a cruise ship than on land, says Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University Newfoundland, who has researched crimes on cruises for years.
“A cruise ship is unique. If you’re victimized on a cruise ship, there is nowhere to go that’s not part of that ship,” says Klein, who grew up in Scottsdale. “The biggest thing is people go on cruise ships assuming it’s a safe environment, as they should; they want to enjoy their vacation. What I found in contrast was people were being victimized… And the cruise lines weren’t doing anything about it.”
Mystery at Sea
It was weeks after Merrian Carver boarded the cruise ship Mercury that Ken Carver received a disturbing phone call.
“Do you know where my mommy is?” Merrian’s 13-year-old daughter anxiously asked her grandfather.
She had not spoken to her mother in weeks. Merrian and her husband had divorced, and their daughter lived with her father in England. Ken Carver knew that since the divorce, Merrian spoke with her daughter at last once a day. Hanging up the phone, he knew something terrible must have happened to his daughter.
After days of unreturned phone calls to Merrian, Ken filed a missing-person report. Eventually, financial records obtained by police would provide the only solid lead—Merrian had flown from Seattle to Boston for an Alaskan cruise.
But after Carver contacted Celebity Cruises, he had more questions than answers.
“It was the third week that she had been missing when we contacted the cruise line. After a couple of days, they called back and said that she had been onboard but they couldn’t say whether or not she got off the ship in Vancouver,” Carver says. “Three weeks had passed, and there had been no review or report concerning Merrian.”
Carver was shocked. The cruise line had told no one Merrian was missing—not the police, not his family. Retired and living in Phoenix, Carver launched his own investigation—hiring a private-detective agency. Eventually, he would spend more than $75,000 in an attempt to learn what had happened to his daughter.
But as he tried to uncover what had led to her disappearance, Carver says he faced road blocks put up by the cruise line at just about every turn. His investigators were denied access to the ship’s surveillance video and limited as to the time they could spend onboard investigating.
At first, according to Carver, Celebrity’s parent company, Royal Caribbean International, claimed no camera footage existed. As the pressure mounted, the cruise line claimed Merrian had committed suicide by jumping from the balcony. To this day, however, no evidence has ever been presented proving what actually happened.
“If there was a video upfront that shows Merrian going overboard, that’s the end of the story,” Carver says. “We just wanted to know what happened.”
Eventually, Carver located the steward who had checked Merrian’s room each day on the cruise and who had originally reported her disappearance.
“Finally we got to that steward,” he says, his voice lowering to a whisper, “and he told us that he had reported her missing daily. His supervisor told him to forget it—just do your job.”
For Carver, it was appalling. He became determined to do something about Merrian’s loss.
Over the past 20 years, the cruise industry has experienced tremendous growth—with an average increase in passengers of about seven percent each year since 1990.
In 2009, more than 13 million people embarked a cruise, and about 10 million of those passengers were Americans, according to data from Cruise Line International Association. That’s up from about 6.3 million cruise passengers in 1999 and 3.7 million in 1990.
Cruise line officials say cruising is one of the safest means of travel. Of those millions of passengers who travel safely, only a minute fraction end up being victims of a crime or actually go missing.
“We’re talking about millions of people a year,” says Phoenix resident Paul Motter, a former cruise employee and founder of the website cruisemates.com, a cruise travel site. “It’s a very wholesome experience for the vast majority of people going on cruises.”
In those rare cases where a passenger disappears, Motter says there is usually a plausible explanation.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s a suicide,” he theorizes. “Suicide becomes much more common when there is an available means to commit suicide. Being on a cruise ship, all you have to do is look down onto the water.”
In many missing-passenger cases, Professor Ross Klein says it is possible to surmise that it was an accidental fall overboard, often from excessive use of alcohol or a possible suicide. However, many other cases remain unexplained.
“You have those kinds of incidents, and they’re tragic, but at least we have a sense of what led to that happening,” Klein says. “Unfortunately, there are those other cases where it’s hard to come up with an explanation.”
While unexplained incidents are relatively rare, especially when the millions of cruise passengers are taken into account, more needs to be done to prevent those losses, Klein says.
“If you talk to the folks in the industry they’ll say they really care about these people but the number of cases is trivial,” Klein says. “But for me, that’s not good enough. These are personal tragedies.”
One of those personal tragedies is the devastating death of Richard Liffridge aboard the Star Princess.
In celebration of his 72nd birthday, Liffridge and his wife, Victoria, boarded the ship at Port Everglades, Florida on March 23, 2006, to embark on what was the first cruise of his life. Four days into the voyage in the early morning hours, a fire broke out.
The fire was severe, spreading rapidly through passenger decks nine through twelve. Over 100 cabins were destroyed by the flames, including Richard Liffridge’s. Thick black smoke enveloped his room, and as he desperately tried to crawl to safety he was overcome by the smoke and died.
Liffridge’s daughter, Lynnette Hudson, was listed as her father’s emergency contact but says she received no call from the cruise line. Instead, almost immediately, a Princess Cruise representative held a press conference and announced Liffridge’s death as the result of a heart attack, prior to receiving autopsy results.
“They just kept trying to dissociate his death with the actual fire on the cruise,” Hudson says. “The way they told the story was they had a terrible fire on the ship and one passenger died of a heart attack—like it was two separate events.”
An autopsy would later show that Liffridge had indeed died of smoke inhalation, a direct result of the fire. After his death, Hudson had difficultly getting Liffridge’s body transported back to the U.S., and she says no one from the cruise line has ever apologized to the family.
“What’s troubling for me and my family is that nobody has ever taken any accountability for what happened to my father,” Hudson says. “If there was ever an innocent victim, it was him. He was sleeping…. It’s just a shame, it’s just a shame.”
Years after the disappearance of Merrian Carver, her father still breaks down when discussing her loss. Not knowing what happened to his daughter broke his heart. How he was treated by the cruise industry left him outraged.
If Merrian committed suicide, he says he could learn to accept it. However, he says the manner in which her disappearance was handled by the cruise line permanently destroyed any clues, leaving him with a tragic mystery. Royal Caribbean later acknowledged that procedures were violated and disciplined employees, including firing the manager who reportedly instructed the steward to ignore Merrian’s disappearance.
As Carver began to learn more about the cruise industry, he says he discovered numerous cases of crimes going unreported or being covered up. He decided to fight for change.
In 2006, Carver, Hudson and several other victims’ family members banded together and formed the non-profit International Cruise Victims Association, with the sole intent of improving cruise safety.
The organization is now in more than 20 countries. Carver has since gone onto testify in front of Congress four times and was instrumental in getting recent legislation passed that changed the operating procedures aboard cruise lines.
That legislation, which was signed into law in July by President Barack Obama, forces new security measures, safety standards and crime-reporting requirements on all cruise ships operating out of U.S. ports.
While it doesn’t solve every problem, it’s a start, says Carver. And if it prevents even one death aboard a cruise ship, he says that gives him some consolation.
Earlier this year, as a tribute to Merrian, her family had a bronze statue created of her holding a butterfly and a book with her favorite poem. It sits outside Paradise Valley’s Methodist Church, a few miles from the Carver’s Phoenix home.
“This all began with Merrian,” Carver says wistfully. “But it has become a much larger issue. We can’t bring her back, but if her loss can prevent one more tragedy, then at least that’s something.”