Passengers On Attempts To Help Stranded Boat

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Bird watchers Jeff Gilligan and Judy Meredith were on a cruise ship when they spotted a boat with three fishermen signaling for help. The bird watchers say they alerted the crew, but the ship didn't stop. They later learned that only one of the three survived. Gilligan and Meredith discuss the incident with host Michel Martin.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We'll have the latest in our celebration of National Poetry Month in just a few minutes. Those are the tweet poems you've been sending us and we've been enjoying one every day. That's coming up.

But first, to a story that we know has affected many people deeply over the past few days, especially people who have taken or are thinking about a cruise vacation. And no, we're not talking about cruise ships that have run aground themselves.

This is about a group of passengers who spotted another boat that appeared to be in distress and told everybody they could think of, but nothing happened. This is, in fact, the scenario that Judy Meredith and Jeff Gilligan say they confronted when they went on a cruise in March. They are dedicated birdwatchers who saw such a boat in the distance. They later learned that the boat they saw contained three fishermen who had been drifting for more than two weeks at that time. Only one of them, 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez, survived after almost a month adrift at sea.

And Jeff Gilligan and Judy Meredith join us now to tell us more about their experience in the South Pacific Ocean near the Galapagos Islands. Jeff, Judy, welcome to you both. Thank you for speaking with us.

JEFF GILLIGAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, Judy, I might - I'm imagining that this might be painful to go over again and I apologize for that. But for those who have not heard, I'd like to ask you to tell us what you saw. You were on deck, as I understand. You were looking through your binoculars and you spotted something that caught your attention. Can you tell us what you saw?

JUDY MEREDITH: Well, we were all three out on the deck all day every day - and this was the same - with our spotting scopes, cameras and binoculars. And Jeff first called out that there was something unusual on the water. And so, we started looking with binoculars and then with spotting scopes. And all of us saw the same thing, that it was a very small boat with - didn't appear to be making a wake. It was drifting and the people were vigorously signaling with a shirt, up and down.

MARTIN: And, Judy, you then - the three of you, as I understand, went and tried to find a crew member.

MEREDITH: The fellows stayed out and kept an eye on him and I went in to get the first telephone I could find. I wanted to call the bridge and let them know there was an emergency. And the first telephone I got to was what they call the Future Cruise desk. The gentleman there in a suit - and I told him I needed the phone to call the bridge and he wanted to hear the story first and then put the call in and paraphrased, as I stood there gesturing and telling him about the boat in distress and the people urgently seeking help.

MARTIN: Did he seem to get it? Did he seem to understand the urgency of what you were saying?

MEREDITH: He didn't display much emotion about it. He repeated what I was saying in a measured voice on the phone. And. I mean, he said he was calling the bridge. I have to believe he was giving our information to the bridge and I have to believe that I was loud right next to him on the phone. I have to believe that they could also hear me, as I must have sounded desperate to get their attention.

MARTIN: Jeff, would you mind picking up the thread here? As I understand it, at some point, you even offered to loan your binoculars to the captain or a crew member of the ship. Could you tell us a little bit more?

GILLIGAN: This Future Cruise sales director came out to the deck that we were on and I invited him to look into one of the tripod-mounted spotting scopes, which he did, and he said that he could see what we'd been describing.

Then I said, if they can't see that on the bridge, tell them to come down and look because it would be apparent through our 30 and greater power spotting scopes as to what the situation is.

MARTIN: What happened then?

GILLIGAN: He left the deck and we didn't see him again.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jeff Gilligan and Judy Meredith. They were bird watching aboard a cruise ship, the Star Princess, which is owned by Carnival Cruise lines, when they spotted a fishing boat in distress. They later learned that two of the three men on the boat died.

Princess Cruises issued a statement saying that there was a, quote, unquote, "breakdown in communication." They say the captain was never told about the distressed ship and that he's devastated that people think that he would ignore a ship in distress and that they understand that they have a duty under the law of the sea to help a ship in distress if they can do so without harming and endangering, you know, themselves.

So is this the - as I understand it, this is a very different story than you were told when you asked about it again after you got home. Is that right?

MEREDITH: After we heard reports of a boat rescued and one survivor, we felt it was the same situation that we had witnessed on the 10th and worked for several days to get information. Jeff had photos and we have the coordinates written down. And so, I called Princess and gave them the coordinates, the date, the time of day and the situation and they supposedly did a full investigation. Yeah. When they gave us the report the first time around, it was the story that's been in the news that the ship was passing through a fishing fleet and was in radio contact.

You know, I see the new thing that it was a miscommunication. It's hard for me to believe that a ship with millions of dollars worth of navigational equipment, communications equipment - it's hard for me to believe that they can do an investigation, but get the wrong coordinates and the wrong date.

They told me they were interviewing all the staff that were working that day, all the people on the bridge. And, as far as I know, if the captain's not on the bridge himself, he's delegated it to someone who's as responsible and equally responsible as he is.

I'm just working hard on my computer today. I've spent a couple hours looking at everything I've already sent to Princess. I'm really trying to sort out in my mind whether there's a mistake, whether there's miscommunication, whether there's a lack of truth in the second - in reported the investigation.

MARTIN: Jeff, what about you?

GILLIGAN: Well, it's true. A couple of days before, we had gone through a fleet, basically, of fishing boats off the Peruvian coast. And I suppose it's plausible that whoever first respond to Judy somehow thought that she was referring to those boats off Peru. There were definitely people in those boats who were clearly not in distress, who were just waving, some of which - some of these boats were close enough to the ship where you could easily see the people on the boats and the people on the boats probably could easily see the people in their cabins, on their balconies and on the decks and that sort of thing.

The boat that was adrift - that was about two miles away. And with the naked eye, it was not even possible to see a human on the boat.

MARTIN: Let me just ask each other you and, Jeff, I'll start with you on this. Was there ever a moment when you felt that anything was being done to help these men, that they were making a good faith effort to follow up on what you saw?

GILLIGAN: Well, after the sales director looked through my scope, we thought for a bit that our ship was slowing down or perhaps starting to veer in that direction. And then, after a while, we realized we're just continuing on course and this small fishing boat is just becoming smaller.

MARTIN: I appreciate that you're both being willing to talk with us about this. And so, before we let you go, the rescue of the young man, the 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez, was, you know, kind of - initially, it was kind of a good news story, if I can put it that way. The thinking, oh, how - you know, hallelujah. You know, this could have been a terrible tragedy and he survived. But now, it kind of takes on a very different cast, and I was wondering how you're dealing with this. It seems rather unsettling.

MEREDITH: I think many times a day about what we saw and what happened in the next two weeks, that their first fishing partner died in the night that night and it's very disturbing. But then I think about those families and I think about this 18-year-old who has seen things and lived through things no 18-year-old should have to suffer through, putting his dead companions' bodies overboard. I mean, he has experienced things in his life because a huge ship that should have seen him and responded, didn't.

MARTIN: Jeff, final thought from you. How are you doing with all this?

GILLIGAN: I'm very sorry for these people who suffered and died and for the fellow who suffered and fortunately survived, and for the survivor's children, parents, whoever, I'm not angry. However, crew and/or officer or officers of the ship dropped the ball because the information was given to them and they had every opportunity - not necessarily the captain. The captain may - probably wasn't even on the bridge. But staff of the cruise ship didn't perform their duties.

MARTIN: Jeff Gilligan and Judy Meredith were aboard the Star Princess cruise ship when they spotted a distressed fishing boat. We later learned that there were three people on that boat, two of whom died, one of whom survived. And Jeff Gilligan joins us from Portland, Oregon and Judy Meredith from Bend, Oregon. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MEREDITH: Thank you.

GILLIGAN: Thank you.

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