With cell phones held in tight grips over the ship's railings, dozens of passengers looked down at the ice-blue ocean as 31-year-old Bernardo Texeira Garcia clung to the side of a lifeboat on Deck 6.
It was November 6, 2015, and the Oasis of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, was chugging past Turks and Caicos at 26 mph. Garcia's husband, Erik Elbaz, shrieked in horror from inside the couple's stateroom.
"Hold onto him!" Elbaz screamed. "Don't let him go!"
A collective gasp pierced the air as Garcia slipped off the lifeboat deck and plunged 55 feet into the water.
"Get the life thing! Throw it over!" a passenger yelled.
Not only did Royal Caribbean's crew members not toss a life ring, but also its captain failed to stop the massive cruise liner in time, leading to Garcia's death, a new lawsuit alleges. His body was never found.
"In all likelihood, Mr. Garcia had to endure a horrific and painful drowning," says the lawsuit, filed last week by Elbaz in federal court.
Royal Caribbean has not yet filed a formal response in court and did not respond to New Times' request for comment about the case.
Elbaz's lawyer, Miami maritime attorney Michael Winkleman, says multiple videos show the cruise line breached its duty to adequately protect Garcia as a paying customer.
"They should have been able to save him," Winkleman says. "They have extremely detailed policies and procedures from the moment a person goes overboard, from immediately stopping the ship, to sending out search-and-rescue teams, to putting into the water whatever floatation device is available."
The lawsuit alleges the cruise line failed to promptly stop the ship and deploy life boats, didn't give Garcia anything to hold onto in the
Even worse, Winkleman says, the tragic incident was spurred by crew members' homophobic behavior toward the men. From the first day of the cruise, Elbaz says, he and his husband were taunted by the ship's employees, including a bartender who referred to them as "lipsticks." On November 5, the night before the fall, Garcia was filming the scene at the ship's pool when a crew member called him a "pedophile." Distraught, Garcia shuttered himself in his cabin, ranting to Elbaz about the mistreatment.
By all accounts, the two men were inebriated (and, Winkleman says, overserved by bartenders). Some sort of commotion occurred inside the room, to which security officers responded. At some point during the commotion, Garcia fell from the cabin's balcony. In a video from a phone in the couple's stateroom, Elbaz accuses crew members of pushing Garcia over the edge of the lifeboat he was clinging to.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Video footage of this moment isn't quite clear on how Garcia's tumble happened, and some officials speculated his death might have been a suicide. Winkleman says it doesn't matter: The bigger point is that the cruise line didn't do enough to help him once he was in the water.
"The more important point is that in light of an alarming number of people going overboard, they need to tighten up their policies and procedures," the attorney says.
Still, Winkleman believes the homophobia the couple encountered onboard ultimately led to Garcia's untimely death.
"I think the problem largely lies in the fact that crew members come from all over the world, from countries where homosexuality is not tolerated in the way that it is in the U.S.," he says. "We will never truly know Bernardo's motivation — only he did. What's clear is that he did what he did because of how he was being treated by Royal Caribbean and its staff."