Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Congress hears of cruise ship disappearances

Congress hears of cruise ship disappearances

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Twenty-four people disappeared from cruise ships between 2003 and 2005 and 178 passengers reported being sexually assaulted, a congressional panel heard on Tuesday.

Among those who disappeared were an elderly Vietnamese-American couple who fled their native land as "boat people" in 1975.

Hue Pham, 71 and his wife, Hue Tran, 67, fled Vietnam 30 years ago with five other family members, spending two weeks floating in the Pacific with little food or water, their son, Son Michael Pham told a House of Representatives subcommittee.

They eventually reached the United States and built a successful life. Last May, they disappeared during a Caribbean cruise. Pham said the crew waited over four hours after being alerted to the disappearances before notifying the U.S. Coast Guard and it took several more hours to mount a search, which found no trace of the couple.

"Two American citizens with no personal or financial problems, no serious health problems, living the happiest time of their lives, both vanished without a trace or witness," Pham told the subcommittee on national security, emerging threats and international relations.

Of the disappearances, 12 were deemed suicides, one an accidental fall overboard and the others were deemed "missing for unknown reasons," said Lawrence Kaye, a lawyer representing major cruise lines.

Almost half of the 178 reported sexual assaults were allegedly committed by other passengers, according to figures released by the International Council of Cruise Lines.

With over 31 million people taking cruises in the three years under review, only four robberies were reported, the council said. However Ohio Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich said he suspected the figures understated the true situation and that not all crimes were being reported.

Several other witnesses told the subcommittee of tragedies on cruises. Lynsey O'Brien, a 15 year-old girl, was served at least 10 alcoholic drinks at a cruise ship bar and fell overboard while leaning over a balcony to vomit.

Janet Kelly, a 49-year-old married woman, said she was drugged by a bartender and raped.