By Michael E. Miller
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From where he lay in the drifting, battered lifeboat, Julian Bravo could see the fat American tourists leaning over the ship's railings eleven decks up, the lenses of their cameras and camcorders glinting in the Bahamian morning sun. And he could see the staff captain yelling urgently. But that was all very far away. Down in the lifeboat, minutes after an 80-foot free fall from the ship's top deck, Bravo was beyond pain. He couldn't move his legs. He was full of sea water. And remarkably, he was alive.
The crew's routine lifeboat drill on the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Fantasy, docked in Freeport, had begun smoothly. As the ship's captain barked orders over the loudspeakers, machinists, room stewards, busboys, and pursers scurried across the decks into their assigned positions. The passengers, those who hadn't already shuffled away onto buses for an air-conditioned tour of the island, watched. After 24 hours of Junior feeding the sea gulls and Grandma whooping it up at the slot machines, here was a little bit of action to capture on film for the folks back home.
"Everyone knew how to do it, theoretically," says Bravo, a Brazilian purser assigned to lifeboat no. 14 that day in February. "I personally had sixteen months' experience with the drill. It was no problem." When Bravo arrived at his lifeboat, he says, six other crew members also assigned to the boat were already in their seats, life preservers on. The purser stepped on board, took a seat near the bow, and an officer gave the command to free the craft from the side of the ship so it could be lowered by two cables, fore and aft, to the calm harbor below.
As the boat swung out and away from the ship, it suddenly slipped from the front cable. The bow dropped toward the water. For a second or two it hung from the rear cable, its helpless passengers clutching seats and gunwales. A woman on the ship's deck began to scream hysterically. The 49-foot lifeboat slipped from the rear cable and entered a nosedive. Three passengers were thrown clear and plunged into the water below, a fourth leaped clear an instant before the boat slammed into the harbor. The remaining three passengers, including Bravo, were trapped inside as the lifeboat pierced the water, torpedolike, began to fill with water, and then finally righted itself.
Miraculously, no one was killed. But as soon as the lifeboat hit the water, Bravo and his fellow victims were destined to enter a morass of injured cruise line employees, filled with motels and medical-care facilities, insurance claims and personal-injury litigation. It's a side of the cruise industry conspicuously missing from the travel brochures, a parallel universe where cruise line administrators battle plaintiffs and maritime lawyers, and where everybody's eyes are focused on the bottom line.
According to cruise ship employees, seafarers'-rights advocates, and maritime attorneys, many of the cruise lines that sail to Miami employ an array of ethically questionable and deceitful tactics to cut their losses after onboard accidents. Often, critics allege, the companies provide injured crew members with inferior medical treatment or use devious means to keep them out of the legal arena. Cruise line executives respond that the real money grubbers are the attorneys themselves, who have mastered the mechanics of turning a seaman's injuries into a bundle of cash.
As luxurious and relaxing as it is topside, life below decks on most cruise ships is cramped and stressful. Uneducated crews from impoverished countries toil for long hours and low wages in a warren of narrow hallways, steep staircases, and small rooms. They may labor for up to fourteen hours per day, seven days per week, remaining on board for eight months at a stretch without a vacation. In such an environment, accidents are bound to happen. One doctor, who has worked for several cruise lines and who requested anonymity, estimates that he treats an average of four injured workers on each three- to four-day cruise. Typically, he says, two of those injuries are serious enough to require that a worker take time off from the job, and an injury that requires medical attention on shore occurs about once every week.
Executives employed by several of the ten cruise lines that sail year-round from the Port of Miami refuse to provide onboard-accident statistics. But most claim the figures are low, especially given the type of work and the number of people who work on ships. "It's not a great number when you consider our work force shipboard is 8500 people," says Tim Gallagher, director of public relations for Carnival, whose nine ships make it the largest cruise line in Miami. "The injury occurrence on board our ships is less than it would be among a similar-size work force ashore in the United States - for instance Publix supermarkets or Home Depot."
Accidents involving crew members do occur frequently enough to have spawned a multimillion-dollar industry: cruise ship litigation. In the past twelve months, at least 70 complaints have been filed in Dade County Circuit Court against Carnival alone, most of them involving personal-injury claims on the part of crew members. Court records indicate that in the same period of time, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines - Miami's second largest cruise line with an eight-ship fleet - has been sued in Circuit Court at least 44 times. Norwegian Cruise Line has been named as a defendant on at least seventeen suits in the past year while its parent company, Kloster Cruise Ltd., has appeared as defendant on at least 28 lawsuits. Maritime attorneys and cruise line executives estimate that about ten percent of all personal-injury complaints go to trial; the rest are settled out of court.