US Coast Guard Never Received The Message About Stranded Panamanian Fishermen Spotted By Star Princess Birdwatchers
Friday, April 20 2012 @ 05:02 PM EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
When Judy Meredith's efforts to convince the crew of the Star Princess the fishermen were indeed stranded and needed assistance, and when it became apparent the cruise ship was going to continue on without rescuing them, out of desperation she returned to her cabin on the ship, obtained the ships current location by jotting down the GPS coordinates available on the television in her room, and attempted to notify the US Coast Guard of the situation. Judy was hoping the Coast Guard would be able to notify the local Panamanian authorities of the plight and location of the small fishing boat, to coordinate a search and rescue effort, to save the stranded men.
The US Coast Guard has now formally responded to my request for additional information about this incident, as coordinated through the US Embassy in Panama City, Panama. (more)
The complete text of the message Judy Meredith attempted to send to the US Coast Guard on 10 March 2012 was reported in my first article published about this incident, Panama Castaways Were Spotted By Cruise Ship Passengers - And Ignored By Ship's Captain.
Still concerned about the men they had seen waving for help, Judy returned to her cabin and made note of the ship's position and the current GPS coordinates, which were available on one of the television channels in her cabin. She said "I went down to our cabin and got the coordinates which are posted every few minutes on a TV channel in the cabins. I wrote down the coordinates a little while after we passed by the boat. That location was at position 06° 12′ 25″ N, 083° 29′ 08″ W on 10 March 2012. So the photo I sent you was of the boat we saw just SW of these coordinates."
Now the cruise ship was steaming away, and the castaways were fading towards the horizon, but Judy still would not give up. Determined to do something to try to help these men, she returned to her cabin and attempted to send a message to the United States Coast Guard, in a frantic last-ditch effort to get help for the men on the fishing vessel. This is the text of the email Judy sent to the US Coast Guard;
- "Sent to US coast guard at 6 pm local time ( between CR and Ecuador) While on a cruise ship the Star Princess, between Ecuador and heading to Puntarenas Costa Rica, 3 of us are birding off the starboard deck with good optics and spotted a boat at about position 06 12.25 N and 083 29.08 W today, possibly about 10 miles SW of that location. The boat appeared to be a disabled fishing boat with one person aboard and nets strung up from the masts. The person was actively waving a shirt or fabric object up and down with both hands. Since we were so many miles off shore and had not seen ANY watercraft all day, we summoned a representative from the ship and asked him to phone the bridge. The rep then came back after calling the bridge of the Star Princess and looked through our scopes himself and could see the man waving something. By this time, he appeared farther away and was now waving a red flag. We took this to be a sign of distress. The boat could be disabled and the man adrift. The Star Princess did not turn around or appear to make any active attempt to deal with the information so we were bothered and decided to send information somewhere ourselves although we realize this is NOT US waters. We are 3 birders with a lot of experience at sea and were using Swarovski binoculars 10/50, a Swarovski spotting scope at 30 to 60 power and my KOWA scope at 30 to 60 power. We have no doubt whatsoever that we saw a man appearing to be in distress and want to be sure that someone who is able to communicate such information knows about it. Respectfully submitted, Judy Meredith, Bend, Oregon, 97701, but presently at sea and unable to make a phone call."
A Missed Opportunity For Rescue: On Sunday, 15 March 2012, I sent the following request for information to the Headquarters of the US Coast Guard Pacific Area in Alameda, California, as reported in this article - Captain Edward Perrin - In Command Of Cruise Ship That Failed To Rescue Panamanian Castaways. Here's the text of the request I sent to the US Coast Guard;
- As described in the article below and in the earlier telcon;
- I would like to know the following;
- 1. Did the USCG receive the email message sent by Judy Meredith on 10 March 2012?
- 2. What was done with that information?
- 3. Was there any attempt to relay the information provided to the search and rescue organizations of any other nation, possibly Costa Rica or Panama?
- 4. If so, how was that information transmitted?
- 5. To whom (specifically) was the information transmitted?
- 6. Please provide the name of the receiving organization, any phone numbers that might have been called, the names of the official who received the information, etc.
- Spirit and Intent: Judy Meredith did everything humanly possible to try to alert search and rescue authorities of the stranded Panamanian fishermen on 10 March 2012. The cruise ship captain should have stopped to render assistance. However lacking that, then hopefully the information passed to the USCG should have been coordinated with local SAR forces. Its possible the information was received here locally, and that SAR forces responded with aircraft or vessels to conduct a search, with negative results. I want to close the loop on this aspect of the story and event.
Official and Formal Response: I received the following today from a U.S. Embassy Spokesperson:
- The U.S. Coast Guard heard about the rescue of Adrian Vasquez from the boat Fifty Cents in media reports in late March. Like many such incidents of people lost at sea, this case is at once a remarkable story of survival and a tragic tale of loss.
- Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those lost on the Fifty Cents, and we commend Mr. Vazquez for his strength, perseverance, and fortitude.
- We very recently heard reports that a cruise ship passenger attempted to send the U.S. Coast Guard information about a boat they felt needed assistance off the coast of Panama on March 10 through the "comments" option on a web site. Our Pacific Area search and rescue center spoke with the cruise ship passenger to try to determine what website she may have used, but she did not recall the name or URL of the website.
- We have reviewed our public information web sites and e-mail files managed here on the West Coast area and didn't find anything like the report described by the cruise ship passengers. Our national headquarters in Washington DC is checking to see if such a message was received at the main Coast Guard web site.
- Because questions being asked about the cruise ship involve a vessel registered in Bermuda that was operating between South and Central American ports, the U.S. Coast Guard has no jurisdiction or role in reviewing the incident.
- Anyone who feels there is an emergency situation at sea -- or on land should make direct contact with, and get a response from, proper authorities. The use of websites with "comment" or "e-mail" options is not recommended for emergency communications because they are not monitored.
That's What We Suspected: In my first conversations and contact with Judy Meredith, she explained that, in her haste, she had simply called up the first website she could find for the US Coast Guard. She entered the "Contact Us" section of the website and typed in her message. But it was one of those pages where you type in your message but then once you hit "send" it goes off into the ether, and you might never get a response. Recognizing this, Judy made a copy of the text of her message, and sent it via email to her son, and then eventually to me. So the response from the US Coast Guard confirms that they basically never got the message, in a manner that would allow them to coordinate or respond to this type of an emergency situation. There were other elements in play as well, such as the slowness of the Internet connection available on the ship for example. Surfing for websites was painfully slow, and Judy said it took more than half an hour just to send that simple message.
An A+ For Effort: Judy Meredith still deserves every recognition for trying to do something. She tried to notify the ship's crew, and that didn't work. She tried to notify the US Coast Guard, and that didn't work. But what matters most is that she cared enough to try...
The Story Has Now Gone Viral: When I first started reporting on this story, I did Internet searches via Google for keyword combinations such as "Adrian Vasquez" or "Star Princess" or "Panamanian fishermen" and got basically nothing. I was the only one reporting on this story, and early this week I was still trying to push it out, in an effort to get some wider recognition for what had happened. Over the past 48 hours or so basically everyone has picked it up, all over the world. Now those same keyword searches return more than 500 news articles, all over the Internet. It's been on all of the major news networks in the US, AP, NPR, and several European newspapers and magazines. So, "mission accomplished" as far as that is concerned.
Kicking Old Don To The Curb: Most of the news agencies who have picked up this story have done a very good and responsible job of reporting, and that's great. However this week I was contacted by ABC's Good Morning America (for example), and even though I was running around like a madman because I was about to take off for Bocas to work on another story, I took the time to stop what I was doing to participate in a live interview with their correspondent via Skype. Then when they aired their piece, it looked as though they were actively trying to find ways to cut me out (they did make exactly one reference to the website's address.) Then yesterday the local AP reporters in Panama went and interviewed Adrian Vasquez in Rio Hato, and then they reported the story, again without mentioning me or this website. I guess it's the "cut throat" attitude of the larger "professional" news agencies and organizations - and they're not used to my more simple "just please give us a mention" policy, based on trust and mutual respect. In short, they're pricks. So, thank you very (very) much to everyone who mentioned and recognized my original reporting on this story. Those who didn't can pound sand. Look it up...
Carnival Has Responded: I would like to state for the record that Carnival still has not responded to me directly with anything. I've seen their responses and press releases as quoted by other media. In a statement released Thursday evening they said;
"The preliminary results of our investigation have shown that there appeared to be a breakdown in communication in relaying the passenger's concern. Neither Captain [Edward] Perrin nor the officer of the watch were notified. Understandably, Captain Perrin is devastated that he is being accused of knowingly turning his back on people in distress. Had the Captain received this information, he would have had the opportunity to respond."
That Also Checks With What I Suspected: I knew it had to be some sort of breakdown of communications between the crew member and the bridge. However it is also Carnival's policy to "shield" the ship's Captain from the passengers to some degree. Today I received an email from another person who was also stymied in her attempts to communicate with the ship's Captain while on a Carnival cruise;
- Mr. Winner,
- I'm not sure whether your inquiry with Carnival Cruise has yielded a response yet, but I was on a Carnival Cruise earlier this month and during that time was made aware verbally of Carnival Cruise policies that may be germane in the Star Princess Story.
- Earlier this April when I took my two children on board the Carnival Fantasy to cruise to the Bahamas, I had an incident wherein an unsupervised child was kicking, biting, punching other children. I made the nearest crew member aware and requested that security intervene. I filed a formal complaint with guest services and I specifically asked Carnival Employees to speak either with the Ship's Captain or First officer as from my understanding of maritime law they are the only ones authorized legally to do anything about this situation. I was told that it is Carnival policy to NOT let passengers interact or talk to the Captain or his crew, and so my request was denied.
- If I was informed correctly, and Carnival does indeed have in place a company policy that essentially shields the Captain from direct passenger feedback, then it is quite possible the news of the fishing vessel in distress never reached the Captain. I know my complaints weren't taken seriously by Carnival "middle men" employees and I would wager that the concerns raised by passengers on the Star Princess were likewise disregarded, leading to such a tragic outcome.
- Sincerely, Cheryl Garner
So, Who's Investigating Carnival? I'm getting tired of hearing that Carnival Cruise Lines is conducting their own "internal" investigation. I don't think that any agency or organization should be allowed to investigate themselves. I don't know who or what governmental agency or organization is responsible for officially and formally investigating these kinds of incidents and situations, but I think it's time for someone else (besides Carnival) to investigate, because by now it's obvious that Carnival is going to be most interested in damage control and spin. There's little to no chance that they will be any definitive or corrective action taken to make sure this kind of a thing doesn't happen, ever again. I know that the family members of the two Panamanian fishermen who died have hired a very capable and competent lawyer here in Panama, so I suspect soon there will be some kind of an announcement along those lines. I think this story is far from over.
Copyright 2011 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.