Cruise passengers describe fatal snorkel tour

Strong currents overwhelmed swimmers

May 04, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

A cruise passenger who tried to revive a dying Reisterstown woman said the snorkelers who entered the water off the Bahamas last Friday were quickly overwhelmed by strong currents.

"I am in fairly decent condition," said 52-year-old Robert Limmer of Timonium, a passenger aboard the Carnival Pride. But he and others who had joined the snorkeling tour off Grand Bahama found they were tiring as they tried to fight the current. "I knew after 20 minutes in the water I needed to return to the boat."

Before he was able to make that swim, Limmer noticed that several fellow passengers were in distress, including Carol Olson, 71, of Reisterstown. Olson was eventually pulled back on board, where as many as eight passengers administered CPR for more than an hour while the boat made its way back to Freeport.

Olson was later pronounced dead.

Olson's death has brought an unwelcome sense of déjà vu to the relatives of other passengers who have died on cruises. They say passengers are largely on their own when they book tours through cruise lines, and predict that their families will face enormous obstacles when they try to get cruise lines to take responsibility for tragedies that occur at sea.

"My heart goes out to the family," said Lynnette Hudson, 46, of Bear, Del., whose father died of smoke inhalation when his cruise ship caught fire off Jamaica in 2006.

"[Olson's] family is going to be dealing with a brick wall, and the cruise industry is going to tell them her life had no value. They will not take responsibility for the things they should be accountable for," Hudson said.

Lanie Fagan a spokeswoman for the Cruise Line International Association, said passenger safety is "the cruise industry's number one priority, and even one incident like this is one too many … Our thoughts and prayers are with the family during this difficult time of loss."

A spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines expressed "heartfelt condolences" to the woman's family.

Spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said Carnival "has been providing full assistance to her spouse who has been accompanied by CareTeam representatives throughout his time in The Bahamas following this tragic event."

In a statement issued Monday, the Carnival cruise line said the third-party snorkeling tour, which was sold through the ship, "has been "suspended until further notice."

De la Cruz said Carnival had worked with the tour operator for 10 years, and that the incident last Friday was "extremely unusual and tragic."

Limmer was aboard the Carnival Pride when it sailed from Baltimore on April 25. His was a family vacation to celebrate the wedding of his stepdaughter in a ceremony held on the ship.

The snorkeling tour "was supposed to be for beginners," Limmer said. Passengers signed up on board, and after their arrival in Freeport assembled with others at a pier where a boat was waiting.

"It was filled to the gills," he said, with perhaps 90 passengers and a crew of about five.

Another passenger, Tricia Bennett, was cruising with her husband. Bennett, a 26-year-old engineer from Linthicum, said the snorkel tour was described as requiring "moderate exercise," and "good for children over 10." And there were at least 10 children on board.

Limmer said the staff briefed passengers on safety procedures and instructions on using the snorkel gear and inflatable vests. Passengers were told there were two "lifeguards" on board, Limmer said.

When the boat reached a reef about a quarter-mile offshore, Limmer said, "conditions were terrible."

As passengers entered the water, he said, waves and a "tremendous current" immediately began pulling them away from the boat, parallel to shore. He and other swimmers were swallowing water and fighting to stay close to the boat, he said. Several were in obvious difficulty.

Bennett said she and her husband, Travis, were "panicking. … We were really scared. It took everything we had to get back in the boat."

Stronger swimmers began helping the others back toward the boat. Several crew members jumped in to help.

"My son-in-law was helping a lady who was in distress," Limmer said. "She said, 'I'm not going to make it. Help me!' My son-in-law was totally exhausted." That woman was finally pulled to the boat safely.

Limmer said when he saw Olson in the water, she had on her life vest. He said that a woman who was closer to Olson told him she heard her "mumbling. … I really question that she drowned."

Olson was lifted into the boat and placed on the deck. Bennett said the crew asked for passengers with CPR experience, and as many as eight began working on her. "The staff members didn't help at all," she said.

Passengers got some water from Olson's lungs, and she vomited once, Limmer said. But before long, "she was not conscious. And during this episode we never got a pulse."

Her husband was close by. Bennett said, "He looked like he was trying to put on a brave face. He looked like he was accepting of it."

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