On May 9, 2005, along with Sharon, one of their granddaughters, and a friend, Hue Pham, 71, and his wife Hue Tran, 67, boarded the Destiny in San Juan, Puerto Rico. All five of them shared a state-cabin. On Thursday night, the ship took course to Aruba where Hue Pham and Hue Tran saw a show and had some dinner. The others stayed in the cabin and watched television. The date was May 12, 2005 and the Phams would never be seen again. Just before midnight, the telephone in the cabin rang. It was the front desk letting Sharon know there was something there for her to retrieve. She went to the reception desk and there, a steward handed her a plastic bag. Inside the bag were her parent’s sandals and her mother’s wallet that they said had been found on the deck. The following morning, Son Michael Pham received the call from his sister: His parents were missing. The crew waited more than four hours before they called the U.S. Coast Guard. The ship just continued on course. There was no announcement made. It was late and the crew did not want to disturb the other passengers. Thirteen hours later, the search was called off. 

Son Michael flew to his parent’s home in California, but found no clues that would indicate they had purposefully taken their own lives. He called Carnival Cruise Line, who told him that the appropriate authorities were in charge now. He called the FBI who said they would do their best with the case. He ruled out suicide but did mention an employee who had made racial comments about his parents while he was snooping around their cabin, but he wanted to be careful not to speculate. 

“I always tell myself, says Son Michael, “that Mum and Dad were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He received no help from Carnival. 

Along with Ken Carver, Son Michael Pham founded the International Cruise Victims Association (ICVA). On their website, www.internationalcruisevictims.org, they offer help to victims and families of victims. They have an emergency number on it that goes directly to Son Michael Pham´s cell phone. He says, “It is the system’s fault, and they’ve been backed by politics for years.”

To lower costs, ships cruise under the flags of countries like Liberia, Panama, or the Bahamas. They do it to avoid tax payments laws and to protect the employees like in Germany or the U.S. They hire cheap labor and invest in publicity to present the image of a romantic dream vacation.

“The cruise lines try to keep incidents like that under the radar because they fear nothing like they fear bad publicity. They profit from families not knowing who to contact. With every missing person, they say it looks a lot like suicide. This industry is about billions of dollars and they have a strong lobby,” says Ken Carver. He, Son Michael Pham, and others have testified to Congress in Washington, DC four times and have presented a 10-point plan to improve safety and security on cruise ships. Little progress has been made. Carver met with Senator John Kerry, who supports the need for mandatory independent security personnel on board. Many media outlets such as The Guardian in London and the Los Angeles Times have also gotten involved and shown their support for cruise victims. Son Michael Pham appeared on CNN. Dr. Ross Klein shows victims’ statistics on his website CruiseJunkie.Com. His new book, Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas speaks of the machination of the industry. 

“Our only chance is publicity. We’ve seen that when Big Players here in America become publicity problems, they move their ships to Europe or Asia. Our work is not for nothing,” Carver says. His wife still believes her daughter will come back home. 

Sabine’s family only heard from Cunard once more. A check arrived in the mail, refunding the money she spent on her dream cruise. It would appear her disappearance was free of charge. 

Translated by Rainer and edited by MUAAA from an article by Felix Hutt in the December 2007 issue of the German magazine, Park Avenue. Pictures shown are from the article.

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