Overboard Incident

Andy Wallis

In celebration of their 36th wedding anniversary and my Dad’s retirement, my parents, and three other couples planned a cruise that was intended to be “the trip of a lifetime”.

On June 29, 1999, my parents, and their best friends left for Barcelona, Spain, with plans to meet two other couples in Spain and board “The Grand Princess” of the Princess Cruise Line, which was then the largest ship in the world. They were all very close friends, who were all having such a wonderful time, until the morning of July 10, 1999.

On the evening of July 9th, my Dad was in the casino, winning “big” at the slot machines. Everyone headed back to their respective cabins for bed, except for Dad and the wife of one of the couples. They both loved playing the slot machines.

My Dad did not have a key to the room, so at approximately 3:30am, he knocked on the door to his cabin, and my Mom got up to let him in. He was so excited about his winnings from that evening… approximately $10,000! He wanted to call and wake the others, but my Mom insisted that he get his rest, because their next stop was Greece and she wanted him to enjoy the day of touring. They talked for awhile and laughed about the excitement of his luck in the casino.

When my Dad got up, my Mom asked him where he was going. He replied that he was going to the bathroom. She dozed off and awoke at around 4:15am. Dad wasn’t there. She thought that he might have gone back to the casino, so she got dressed and went looking for him. She was told by a crewmember (a cleaning person) that the casino closed at 3:30am. On her way back to the cabin, she asked another crewmember for the current time and told that it was 4:30am.

My Mom assumed that since my Dad was so excited, he might have gone to the cabin of one of the other couples. Not knowing which couple’s cabin, she chose not to call because of the early morning hour. And she waited for him to return.

At 6:30am, their friend, Dennis, called. My Mom asked if my Dad was with there. When he replied, “No”, she called one of the other couples, but learned that he wasn’t with them either. Dennis told Mom not to worry…they would find him. While one couple checked the lower decks, my Mom and Dennis checked the upper ones.

After searching, but to no avail, they all met at the Purser’s Desk. They asked to speak with Security and reported my Dad as missing. They were told that it would take about an hour to search the ship. While Security searched crew areas and other passengers’ cabins, Dennis went to see the Captain and asked him to plot out the positions of where the ship may have been between 3:30am – 4:30am, just in case my Dad had fallen overboard.

While waiting for the Captain to finish the plotting this course, Dennis asked the First Officer to use the ship’s radio and to report a “man overboard”. He asked an ISS Cruise Service Agent to locate a helicopter so that they could begin searching for Dad on their own.

Dennis and one of the other husbands rented a helicopter in Greece. The pilot was an ex-military pilot and seemed well versed in the search. They observed a Coast Guard boat, sitting still, and not seeming to pursue in the search. They had assumed that a “man overboard” had been reported by the ship, so it was quite difficult to understand why the Coast Guard was not contributing in the search.

The pilot needed to return to the airport to refuel, but then continued the rescue search. Again, they noticed that the same Coast Guard boat was not searching. Upset with this, they contacted the ship and questioned why no one, but them, was searching for my Dad.

About 15 minutes after their call, the ship finally reported a “man overboard”. At this point, approximately 10 hours had passed, and they were concerned about hypothermia with the water being 73 degrees. Why were none of the ship’s rescue boats searching the waters? There were smaller boats on the ship!

The men called the ship to check on my Mom and their wives, but were told that they were packing their belongings. They had been informed that the ship was departing for Turkey at 5:30pm and the wives needed to be off the ship no later than 4:30pm. They could only assume that this was an effort not alarm other passengers.

While the men continued searching, the port police in Greece came board to question the wives. One of the two officers was extremely rude and uncaring; therefore, an interpreter was necessary.

By this time, my Mom was hysterical. She was scared to leave the ship, thinking that her husband may still be on board, but the ship would not delay its’ departure… on the other hand, she also feared that my Dad could have fallen overboard. She was in turmoil.

The ISS secured a hotel room for them. After searching all day for my Dad, the men returned. Aside from their own action and persistence, there was no assistance in the search for my Dad by the cruise line, other than their mere search of the ship. They didn’t even make the “man overboard” alert, until Dennis demanded it, which was hours after my Dad was reported missing. The Coast Guard had not participated in the investigation, because the ship failed to notify them. Passengers should be aware that if a tragedy, like this, occurs while on a cruise ship, they can only depend on their own resources.

The following morning, July 11th at 4:00am, I received the call… It was feared that my Dad had fallen overboard… and I was forced to wait 2 days for my Mom to return home.

The circumstances surrounding my Dad’s disappearance were so overwhelming. I could not believe my Dad would not be coming home from his “cruise of a lifetime”! My brothers, my daughter, and I were fortunate to have such wonderful and supportive friends to help us, and speak with the media on our behalf. I just kept thinking, “I need Dad here to help me”, but it was because of his disappearance that all this was happening.

On Tuesday, July 13th, my Mom returned home. On Friday, July 16th, we were informed that my Dad’s body had washed up on a small island, not far from where his friends had conducted their search. Even after being informed, I still held on to the hope that this was a mistake… that it really was not my Dad’s body…. And that he would be coming home to us.

Greece took so long to perform the autopsy and complete the identification process that his body was not returned home to us until July 26, 1999. The autopsy report stated that he had drowned; however, there were no broken bones or contusions, which is difficult to believe, if he had “supposedly” fallen from the ship. It was calculated to have been “like hitting concrete at least 50 mph”.

Over 400 people attended his funeral. We never got to see his body and were forced to take the word of strangers that the body was, in fact, my Dad’s.

My Mom went to court, hoping for a jury trial, but instead, she ended up paying enormous lawyer fees that far exceeded the settlement. A gag order was imposed on her and the other couples, who had joined them on the cruise; however, that order was not imposed on me… I am here to tell the story.

If cruise ship victims, their families, and their friends continue to bring these issues to light, maybe something positive will be done. As for me, I will never step foot on a cruise ship!

It is clear that the cruise lines have no regard for human life and take absolutely no responsibility for their actions or lack of action. Maybe one day, they will sing a different song, if the “man overboard” turns out to be their own family member! How proactive will they be then with their rescue search and notification efforts?