On the second day of a seven-day cruise from New York to Florida and the Bahamas last year, two young children briefly escaped from their mother’s sight and somehow landed in the pool. Within moments, both kids were yanked from the water at opposite ends of the pool.
But it wasn't lifeguards who jumped in to rescue the siblings. Instead, the lifesaving attempts were made by passengers with medical backgrounds, who desperately began resuscitation efforts while calling for help. That's because Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line does not employ lifeguards for its on-ship pools.
Although one of the children was safely rescued that day — May 17, 2015 — the other sibling died onboard the ship, called the Gem. She was 10 years old. Last week, Miami maritime attorney Michael Winkleman filed a lawsuit against the cruise line on behalf of the children’s mother, Colleen Blair of New York, alleging Norwegian was negligent by not providing lifeguards at the pools.
"Numerous children have died or been grievously injured on board NCL (Norwegian Cruise Line) ships and other cruise ships due to drowning or near drowning prior to this incident, yet NCL does not even spend a single penny on utilizing lifeguards on board its ships to prevent these tragedies," the complaint reads.
Norwegian has not yet responded to a New Times request for comment. We’ll update this post with the cruise line's response if we receive one. In a statement at the time of the child's death, Norwegian said it was "extremely saddened to have learned that a guest passed away."
"On Sunday afternoon, the ship's medical team responded to an emergency call from the pool deck, as a 10-year-old female guest was reported unresponsive. The team quickly administered CPR and full emergency care. After extensive efforts, the guest could not be revived," the statement said. "We extend our deepest sympathies to the family during this very difficult time. Norwegian's care team is providing full assistance and support to the family."
Winkleman says Blair is hoping to raise awareness about the lack of lifeguards on most major cruise lines.
"You have this awful setup where cruises are marketed directly to families with small children and pool areas that are designed to attract these children and yet there's not a single person that’s keeping an eye on anyone out there from the cruise line," Winkleman says. "I do think my client wants to raise as much awareness as she can, but she also wants to hold the cruise line accountable for its negligence in causing or contributing to her child's death."
After the devastating incident, other passengers aboard the ship that day commented on a blog run by another Miami attorney, Jim Walker, who posts about cruise ship news. In contrast to what the cruise line said was full emergency care, the passengers said they were stunned by the lack of response from the ship’s medical staff.
"Passengers who were nurses and doctors did all the work, while NCL workers watched and looked panicked. They did not know what to do. They kept telling the real nurses and doctors to stay away," said one person claiming to be a witness. (Winkleman says he has talked to multiple passenger witnesses who saw the girl drown.)
The tragedy involving the Blair family was similar to incident that happened a year earlier on another Norwegian cruise from New York to Florida. In that case, two brothers were pulled from the pool on the cruise line's Breakaway ship. The older boy, a 6-year-old, survived, but his 4-year-old brother died. Passengers described a lack of preparedness by the cruise line, saying crew members didn’t initiate CPR or do anything else to help save the brothers.
The lawsuit filed on Blair's behalf references these other drownings, pointing out that Disney Cruise Line began staffing lifeguards in late 2013 after a 4-year-old boy nearly drowned and suffered severe brain damage. The complaint alleges that Norwegian is aware of the danger yet doesn't do enough to prevent accidents. The suit also alleges the cruise line failed to enforce rules about pool capacity, failed to adequately warn passengers there is no lifeguard on duty, and failed to provide proper medical care to the girl during the incident.
"It is outrageous and shocking beyond the bounds of all decency that a multibillion-dollar corporation can hold itself out as having 'kid-friendly' cruises and yet fail to provide even the most basic safety measures at swimming pools that are designed for children and are an attractive nuisance to children," the lawsuit reads. "Simply stated, NCL is literally luring children into its swimming pools knowing that many will drown and knowing that the incident(s) could easily be prevented."
Walker, the attorney with the blog, tells New Times he believes cruise lines don’t hire lifeguards because unlike other workers, they can’t be subsidized through passenger tips and would generate no additional revenue. Walker says it’s the position of many cruise lines that simply putting up a sign advising there is no lifeguard is sufficient.
"They’ve decided to deal with the danger in the least expensive way," he claims.
Of all the topics he blogs about, Walker says those about children drowning on cruise ships are the most contentious with his readers, many of whom believe it's exclusively the parents' responsibility to keep their children safe.
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But Walker believes the conditions on a cruise ship aren't always conducive for keeping a careful watch on children, nor are they designed with safety in mind, pointing out that the pools are often of a uniform depth, with no shallow end, and tend to be crowded, making it difficult to get a seat next to the edge. Many ships have big-screen TV sets that play movies overhead, distracting both parents and their children. And "the people who are assigned to the pool deck are there to serve booze."
"Of course, it's primarily a parental obligation, but in a nutshell, parents aren't perfect. We have to have corporate responsibility," Walker says.
Under a 1920 law called the Death on the High Seas Act, survivors are able to recover only actual financial damages, such as funeral and burial costs, Walker says. That means it's better for a company's bottom line if a child dies rather than survives, in which case a cruise line could be responsible for ongoing medical costs.
"Cruise lines can kill children and act negligently, but their bean counters don't care because there's no legal or financial accountability," Walker says. "This is just kind of the cost of doing business. A couple times a year, they're going to have a kid slip under the water, and they know they're going to have their insurance pay out a little bit. I happen to think the benefit of hiring a lifeguard to save one life just so far outweighs the little money that they'd have to pay."