WASHINGTON — Laurie Dishman, a 37-year-old food services manager from Sacramento, said it was time to face her fears head-on, so she took a therapeutic trip to the Port of Miami last weekend.
It was the first time she'd gone near big ships since 2006, when she was raped on a cruise by one of the ship's janitors. Back then, she was appalled when the crew responded by telling her that she needed to control her drinking. So on Sunday, at one of the busiest ports in the nation, she handed out more than 300 pamphlets to people as they began their vacations, warning them of danger.
"There are no laws out there," Dishman said in an interview. "All kinds of things can happen on this floating city in the middle of the ocean, and there's no security. There's no protection. You think you have American rights when you board a ship, but you don't."
The industry is fighting back, saying that Americans are safer on cruise ships than they are on land and that no regulatory changes are needed.
"The cruise industry's number one priority is safety of its passengers and crew," said Terry Dale, the president and chief executive officer of the Fort-Lauderdale, Fla.-based Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 24 cruise lines and 16,500 travel agencies. "Quite simply, Americans are extremely safe at sea today."
Dishman, however, is confident that her message will lead to a new federal law. When Congress returns from its summer recess on Sept. 8, she and other crime victims will be on Capitol Hill to lobby for a plan that would force cruise industry officials to change the way they do business.
Critics say that immediate changes are needed because under current law, cruise ships aren't required to report even the most serious crimes that are committed in international waters.
Congress is considering legislation that would force cruise ships to maintain logs that record all deaths, missing individuals, alleged crimes and passenger complaints of theft, sexual harassment and assault. That information would be made available to the FBI and the Coast Guard, and the public would have access to it on the Internet.
The legislation also would require cruise ships to have security latches and peepholes on passengers' stateroom doors. Ships also would be required to keep medication to prevent the transmission of disease after a sexual assault, along with equipment to perform exams to determine if a passenger had been raped.
"Twelve million Americans will board cruise ships this year, and they should know they are safe," said Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who's teamed up with Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento to lead the proposed crackdown.
Matsui said that she began investigating the issue after Dishman first contacted her, frustrated because she'd received no help from Royal Caribbean in identifying the attacker or securing evidence after the rape.
As part of the congressional investigation, Matsui said she discovered that there have been no convictions for rape on cruise lines in 40 year.
"What we have found is truly alarming," Matsui said. "There is little to no regulation of the cruise industry, and far too many crimes go unprosecuted each year."
At a recent Senate subcommittee hearing, Dale of the Cruise Lines International Association said that questions about the industry's safety record have been raised because "our care and compassion in the past toward those who have suffered injury or loss has not always been satisfactory."
He didn't mention specific cases but noted that the industry creates thousands of jobs and said that it's made "great strides" in improving its safety procedures in the past two years.
Among the measures now in place, Dale said:
- Passengers and luggage are screened.
Dale said that independent surveys have found that 95 percent of cruise passengers are satisfied with their experience and that more than half of all cruise passengers are repeat customers.
"I submit this would not be the case if safety or security were perceived as a serious problem," Dale said.
Sen. Kerry became involved in the issue when Merrian Carver of Cambridge, Mass., disappeared on a cruise in 2004. Kerry said the case was shocking because employees didn't tell the FBI she was missing until weeks later, when her family started asking questions.
"Merrian's story is not an isolated case," Kerry said. "Despite being owned by American citizens and headquartered in the United States, cruise ships operate under foreign flags, allowing them to avoid United States law when they are beyond U.S. territorial waters. With respect to jurisdiction over crimes, the law is murky at best."
The situation is similar to a U.S. citizen taking a vacation in a foreign country, where the responsibility for crime prevention and response lies with the country that a person is visiting, said Rear Adm. Wayne Justice, the assistant commander for response with the U.S. Coast Guard.
"While some alleged homicides, disappearances and serious sexual crimes have garnered appropriate attention and concern, there is no data to suggest that crime on cruise ships is more prevalent than in any other vacation venue," Justice said.
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