Dying men on a disabled fishing boat were left drifting, despite the close passage of a huge cruise ship that didn't stop even after its crew was alerted by anxious passengers who saw frantic signalling from the tiny craft, according to the survivor and those who spotted him.
Birders aboard the Star Princess say they alerted members of the ship's crew about the plight of the tiny vessel, but the huge, white-hulled liner never slowed.
Princess Cruises, owned by Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines, admitted a breakdown in crew communications and claims the captain was never told.
In a statement late Thursday, the cruise line, said: "There appeared to be a breakdown in communication in relaying the passenger's concern. Neither Captain Edward Perrin nor the officer of the watch were notified."
Princess had earlier claimed the ship didn't stop because officers believed the fishermen were happily waving because the vessel shifted course to avoid their nets.
On Thursday, it said. "Captain Perrin is devastated that he is being accused of knowingly turning his back on people in distress."
For Adrian Vasquez, sole survivor of the drifting boat, the joy over near-certain rescue as the Star Princess sailed closer and closer turned to despair as it sailed on past.
He said one of his fellow fishermen died hours after the ship passed and the other five days later. He was eventually rescued by Ecuadorians near the Galapagos Islands on March 28 after a month adrift and two weeks after seeing the Star Princess.
The grim sea saga may be another blow to the reputation of Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's biggest cruise company. One of Carnival's biggest and newest ships – the Costa Concordia – sank off Italy on Jan. 13 after its captain misjudged a daringly close pass to 'salute' Isola del Giglio. More than 30 of the 4,000-plus on board died in the dark and chaos, amidst allegations Capt. Francesco Schettino had abandoned ship early to save himself long before the last passengers.
In February, a fire on board another Carnival ship with more than 1,000 on board, the Costa Allegra, left it powerless and drifting in the sweltering Indian Ocean. Filth and human waste piled up until the ship could be towed by French fishermen to the Seychelles.
Carnival owns multiple cruise lines, including Carnival, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Seabourn and P&O.
Last month, on the Star Princess in the Gulf of Panama, birders Jeff Gilligan from Portland, Ore., and Judy Meredith from Bend, Ore., spotted the drifting fishing vessel with powerful binoculars.
Photos taken by Mr. Gilligan from the Star Princess of the drifting nine-metre fishing boat, named Fifty Cent, can be seen on Panama-Guide.com, the online English-language news outlet that first reported the story.
"We all watched him for a bit and thought, 'This guy's in distress. He's trying to get our attention,' " said Ms. Meredith, who told a member of the Princess's sales staff who, in turn, contacted the ship's officers. The Princess representative "called the bridge and I sort of talked through the story," Ms. Meredith told NPR. "And I was trying to have a sense of urgency in my voice – and tell them that the boat was in distress."
Mr. Gilligan, who took pictures of Fifty Cent, said: "We expected the ship to turn back or stop or something."
Instead, the Star Princess continued on its way.
"That's us," Mr. Vasquez, 18, said when shown the pictures of Fifty Cent taken by the birders. He told Panama-Guide.com: "It was a really big, white ship. I was waving a red T-shirt, and Fernando was waving a bright orange life jacket over his head." By then, the three had already been drifting for more than a week after the outboard motor failed and were more than 200 kilometres from shore.
The 16-year-old Fernando Osario didn't survive the month-long ordeal at sea. Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died the night after the close encounter with the Star Princess, according to Mr. Vasquez.
Ms. Meredith said she contacted Princess Cruises for an explanation after the cruise ended.
She said she was given the following account which differs sharply from the latest company explanation. She was told the captain had been in contact with a fishing fleet that had asked him to divert slightly to avoid some nets and that after altering course, the fishermen "were waving their shirts because they were thanking the ship."
There's now a raging online debate among cruisers on sites like cruisecritic.com as to whether the birders on board and the crew of the Star Princess did enough.
Maritime law – and tradition – imposes a duty on all captains to "to assist persons in distress at sea."