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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Last month a small, Panamanian fishing boat was found adrift in the Pacific Ocean. After 28 days at sea, only one of the three men onboard was still alive. The others died from exposure. Now evidence suggests that weeks earlier, while all of the men were still alive, an American-based cruise ship spotted the drifting boat - and didn't stop to help. NPR's Greg Allen has more.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The Star Princess is a luxury cruise ship operated by Carnival with four pools, a nine-hole putting green, a casino, and cabins for some 2,000 passengers.

Last month, on a cruise around South America, the passengers included three bird-watchers, two from Oregon and one from Ireland. They were on deck daily watching for seabirds, using powerful binoculars and spotting telescopes. On March 10, one of the birders, Jeff Gilligan from Portland, Oregon, saw something in the water more than a mile away.

JEFF GILLIGAN: We put our scopes on it, and we could see a moderate-sized boat with a person standing up in it, waving a dark piece of cloth.

ALLEN: One of the other birders on the Star Princess was Judy Meredith from Bend, Oregon.

JUDY MEREDITH: We all watched him for a bit and thought, this guy's in distress. He's trying to get our attention. And he doesn't have a motor on his boat. He was drifting; we could see that.

ALLEN: Meredith says she went inside to try to place a call to the ship's bridge, to alert the crew about what they'd seen. The only crew member she could find was with the ship's sales team.

MEREDITH: He called the bridge, and I sort of talked through the story. And I was trying to have a sense of urgency in my voice and tell them that the boat was in distress, and that they were trying to get our attention.

ALLEN: Gilligan says the crew member Meredith talked to came out and used his telescope to look at the drifting boat.

GILLIGAN: Then he left. And we were a bit relieved because he'd confirmed that he had seen what we were describing. So then we expected the ship to turn back or stop, or something. And eventually, we realized that wasn't happening.

ALLEN: Judy Meredith says they never heard anything back from the crew. In desperation, she sent an email to a Coast Guard website, without results. When she got home, she contacted Princess Cruises, a Carnival subsidiary, to see what action was taken. Meredith says a customer relations representative told her the captain reported a different version of the incident.

MEREDITH: That the ship was passing through a fishing fleet; and that this ship was in contact with them, and that they were asking the ship to move to the west because they were - they didn't want their nets to be damaged; and that the ship altered course. And they were waving their shirts because they were thanking the ship.

ALLEN: But eventually, the bird-watchers learned of a news story from Ecuador. The Ecuadorean coast guard had picked up a small fishing boat near the Galapagos Islands with just one survivor aboard: 18-year-old Adrian Vasquez.

Vasquez told a harrowing tale of leaving Panama for an overnight fishing trip on a 26-foot boat, the Fifty Cents, then losing power and spending the next 28 days drifting. During that time, the two other fishermen with Vasquez died.

It seemed improbable, but Meredith and the other bird-watchers wondered, could this be the boat they saw? In Panama, reporter Don Winner - with website Panama-Guide.com - tracked down the lone survivor, Adrian Vasquez.

DON WINNER: (Foreign language spoken)

ALLEN: He showed Vasquez a photo the birders had taken of the fishing boat they saw.

WINNER: (Foreign language spoken)

ADRIAN VASQUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

WINNER: (Foreign language spoken)

ALLEN: That's us, Vasquez said. He said they used their orange flotation devices to try to signal, to get someone's attention. Winner asked him about the Princess Star.

WINNER: (Foreign language spoken)

VASQUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

ALLEN: Yes, we saw a cruise ship, Vasquez said. He said one of the other fishermen, Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died the following day. The third fisherman, Fernando Osario, died five days later.

International maritime law requires ships that come upon vessels in distress to render assistance, if they can do so without endangering themselves.

In a statement, Princess Cruises says, quote, "At this time, we cannot verify the facts as reported, and we are currently conducting an internal investigation on the matter." Princess isn't commenting on the earlier version of the story Judy Meredith says she got from a company customer services representative.

Meredith says the experience has left her feeling sick about what Vasquez, his friends and their families had to go through.

MEREDITH: Three people were alive on the day they saw us, and the day we saw them. And they tried everything they could think of, to signal us. And our boat went by, and his buddy died that - in the night, that night.

ALLEN: The Star Princess is registered in Bermuda. An official with Bermuda's Department of Maritime Administration says his office is in contact with Princess about the incident, but hasn't determined yet whether it will conduct a full investigation.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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