RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now an update on a story we first reported on last spring. It involved Princess Cruise Lines and stranded Panamanian fishermen. One of the fisherman accuses the Star Princess of failing to come to the rescue when his boat was adrift more than a hundred miles from land. Two other fisherman in that boat later died from exposure. The story came to light after a group of birdwatchers aboard the Star Princess said they alerted the crew to a small boat in apparent distress.
The cruise ship sailed on without offering help. But now, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the Princess Cruise Line says it has evidence that shows the boat was not the one spotted by the birdwatchers that day.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Judy Meredith was one of the birdwatchers on the Star Princess in March, up early, looking for sea birds as the ship sailed in the Pacific off the South American coast. A few weeks later, she described what she and the other birdwatchers saw with their high-powered binoculars more than a mile away: a small boat that appeared to be in trouble trying to signal the cruise ship.
JUDITH MEREDITH: I could see a fellow in the front of the boat vigorously waving a t-shirt up over his head and down to the floor, up and down, up and down, and we all watched him for a bit and thought, this guy's in distress. He's trying to get our attention.
ALLEN: Meredith and the other birdwatchers tried to convince the crew to stop and render aid, without success. Upon returning home to Oregon, Meredith was horrified to hear that a fisherman had been rescued off the coast of Ecuador 11 days later. Meredith suspected it was one of the men she and her friends had spotted. Later, the lone surviving fisherman, Adrian Vasquez, confirmed his was the vessel they saw, identifying it in one of their photos, a boat called the Fifty Cent.
He said he and one of his friends had waved a t-shirt and a lifejacket to try to get the cruise ship's attention. Vasquez and family members of the other fishermen are suing Princess Cruise Lines for failing to come to their rescue as required under U.S. and international maritime law. But Julie Benson with Princess Cruises say the company has uncovered information that tells a different story.
JULIE BENSON: We have discovered some recent video that we believe conclusively proves that our ship, Star Princess, was not the cruise ship spotted by the Fifty Cent boat that was adrift in the Pacific Ocean.
ALLEN: The reason Vasquez couldn't have seen the Star Princess, Benson says, is because his boat, the Fifty Cent, was not the one the birdwatchers saw and photographed. Princess says that's proven by video taken by the captain of the fishing boat that finally rescued Vasquez. Benson says the company compared that video with a photo taken by the birdwatchers.
BENSON: We immediately understood that that was not the same boat that was photographed by our passengers on board. They are two distinct and different vessels.
ALLEN: Benson says that was also the conclusion of a retired NASA photo analyst the company hired to examine the images. Princess has released photos pointing out areas in which it says the images don't match. The boat Vasquez was found in has a flat bow, its name on the hull and a double-stripe design. The birder's photo, Princess says, shows a boat with what appears to be a raised bow, a single stripe, and no visible name on the hull.
The cruise line says with this new evidence it will ask the judge hearing the case for an immediate dismissal. Other lawyers, including Vasquez's attorney, Robert Dickman, say that's unlikely. Dickman calls the Princess analysis nonsense, and says he has evidence that he'll introduce in court that shows his client's boat was the one spotted and passed that day by the Star Princess.
ROBERT DICKMAN: They've come up with three or four different excuses in this case, and this is just another one in the line. It's just not making sense, and I expect more of this in the future. But we look forward to litigating the case.
ALLEN: Birdwatcher Judy Meredith says she's not going to dispute what's in the video or Princess's analysis of their long-range photo. It's now a legal case before a federal judge in Miami, who along with a jury will sort through the evidence if it goes to trial. But if Princess is right, Meredith says she has another concern - that some other fishermen were more than 100 miles offshore signaling for help when the Star Princess passed it by. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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