The Odds of Falling Off a Cruise Ship

On September 5, 2009, 23-year-old Shane O’Halloran and his female companion were in a romantic embrace when they tumbled overboard from Lady Brisbane, an Australian cruise ship. The woman was quickly rescued, but O’Halloran’s body was recovered four days later.

O’Halloran is not the only person to die from falling off a cruise ship in recent years. On May 14, 2006, Daniel DiPiero of Canfield, Ohio, boarded the Mariner of the Seas, a cruise ship to the Bahamas, for what was supposed to be a 10-day vacation. He was last seen at about 11:00 the same night, as the ship made its way to the private island of Coco Cay. According to USA Today, an onboard security camera system showed 21-year-old DiPiero falling overboard at approximately 2:00 in the morning, plunging to his apparent death from a rail near the front of the ship. His friends reported him missing later that morning after they realized he had not slept in his cabin.

After questioning DiPiero’s companions, other travelers, and crewmembers, the FBI and the Coast Guard determined that DiPiero and his friends had smuggled liquor onto the ship, hiding it in mouthwash bottles. The young men even videotaped themselves drinking the liquor, and there is evidence that DiPiero continued doing so until midnight. On Wednesday, after an exhaustive search that covered the 900 square miles of ocean water between Grand Bahama Island and Coco Cay, the Coast Guard suspended its search.

The odds a cruise passenger will go overboard in a year are 1 in 2,309,000, but not all the incidents are accidental. The numbers include possible homicides as well as suicides, such as occurred early the morning of September 22, 2009, when surveillance cameras onboard the Sapphire Princess, which was cruising the coast of British Columbia, captured a 67-year-old woman jumping to her death.

Yet it seems that as cruise ships get bigger, so do the number of headlines about fatal accidents like that of Daniel DiPiero. Many point to negligence on the part of the crew, suggesting that crewmembers take more responsibility for the safety of the ship’s passengers. The Seattle Times reports that critics of the cruise industry say many victims are the result of foul play and cite high-profile cases in which family members and loved ones have suspiciously disappeared.

The accidents also raise questions about passenger responsibility. Shane O’Halloran was on a smaller ship, and there have been no reports that he was drinking prior to the accident. But it is possible that spending many days on a large, floating ship the size of a small city, removed from normal society, might encourage some passengers to indulge more than they would back home. An article published by ABC News in January 2009 quotes Douglas Ward, a cruise expert from Southampton, England, as saying, “There’s been a lot more binge drinking than I’ve seen in the past.” According to Ward, most passengers who fall off of a cruise ship do so at night—while intoxicated. The Seattle Times quotes Carolyn Spencer Brown, the editor of “It is so hard to fall overboard that when someone does go over the side, it’s either because, sadly, it’s a suicide attempt or it’s because they’re being incredibly foolish.”

Tim Sears, a 31-year-old bachelor, isn’t sure how he fell off a Carnival cruise ship, although he admits he may have had too much to drink. The former Army paratrooper regained consciousness in the Gulf of Mexico and treaded water for roughly 17 hours before being saved by a foreign cargo ship. ABC news quotes Sears as saying, “Either I was looking over the railing and fell, or somebody put something in my drink.”

According to the Seattle Times, 60% of readers responded “yes” when asked (in an unscientific study) whether it was possible to fall overboard. A commenter added a caveat: “if you’re drunk and stupid.”

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