On April 8th, 2016, our parents—Larry and Christy Hammer—flew to Peru for what should have been a relaxing week-long Amazon River cruise aboard La Estrella Amazonica—a 15-cabin eco-tour boat “design[ed] and buil[t]” by U.S.-based International Expeditions.
Around 2 am on April 10th, 2016, they were trapped inside a burning cabin aboard the Estrella Amazonica. Our father died before the crew extracted him from the room. Our mother held onto a heartbeat when crew members finally pulled her out, but died sometime later—we still do not know when or where she passed away.
Our parents loved to travel to exotic countries off the beaten path. Happily married for more than 51 years, they loved to explore the world’s vast and varied cultures. Our parents’ happiest moments were during vacations with their family to places such as Disneyland, Colorado, and Hawaii, and on far-flung adventures to Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America.
Little did they know that their trip to Peru would be their last. Our parents placed their trust in International Expeditions, an American eco-tour company that has yet to accept responsibility for their tragic deaths.
The multiple layers of failures that killed our parents are shocking. What we now know—uncovered by independent investigators—is that our parents’ cabin lacked an in-room fire alarm, which could have alerted them before it was too late. One of the room’s power strips—the likely cause of the fire—lacked surge protection, as well as safety and flammability ratings.
Yet, upon completing the boat in 2013, International Expeditions’ representatives claimed that they included everything that was “really important” aboard the vessel. Apparently, in-room fire alarms and surge-protected power strips don’t count as “really important.”
A competent, well-trained crew does not appear to be “really important” either. Surveillance video footage shows Estrella Amazonica’s crew acting with no sense of urgency as poisonous smoke filled our parents’ lungs. Ultimately, more than 20 minutes elapsed between the crew noticing the smoke coming out of our parents’ room and finally extracting them from it. During that fatal period, crew members opened the cabin door and quickly slammed it shut multiple times, while our parents remained trapped inside.
Why did our parents’ cabin lack in-room fire alarms? Why were the boat’s power strips not surge-protected and safety- or flammability-rated? Why did the boat’s crew fail to extract our parents in time?
Three months after the fire, we still don’t know the answers to these questions. And International Expeditions shows no interest in helping us find answers—on the contrary, the company stonewalls us as we search for more information. International Expeditions seems more concerned about returning to business as usual than getting to the bottom of a terrible, terrible tragedy that should have never happened. Without getting to the bottom of this tragedy and taking appropriate corrective measures, how can International Expeditions possibly prevent another tragedy?
Within hours of the fire, International Expeditions President Van Perry flew to Peru to personally comfort the remaining passengers and re-board them onto the Estrella Amazonica. During that time, he publicly declared the boat “safe for travel.” How could he do so? At the time, nobody even knew the cause of the fire. Despite repeated efforts, independent investigators have been unable to locate anyone—including local authorities—who cleared the boat as “safe for travel.”
But it set sail within three days of the fire, putting even more travelers at risk.
Throughout this grueling process, we’ve realized that the cruise industry routinely puts profits over people—sacrificing basic safety procedures for expediency’s sake. For moneymaking’s sake. And we’ve learned that, once tragedy strikes, you can’t expect travel companies like International Expeditions to assume responsibility and hold themselves accountable.
“If something goes wrong, I’ll be the first to say, ‘It’s my fault,’” Van Perry claimed in an interview in 2014.
Well, he still hasn’t said it. We have yet to see any sign of remorse from International Expeditions who our parents entrusted with their lives.
Our mission is to get the word out loud and clear about International Expeditions and other travel companies’ fatal flaws that cost passengers their lives. That’s what our parents would want. They would want us to stay strong and resolute in the wake of tragedy.
Please heed our warning and share it with others so that our tragedy does not become yours.
Larry Hammer 9/17/1941 – 4/10/16
Christy Hammer 8/12/1943 – 4/10/16
By Jill Hammer Malott and Kelly Hammer Lankford, Larry and Christy’s daughters