Cruise from Hell By Elle
About three years ago my family went on the proverbial "cruise from Hell." After it ended, we went back home and tried to suppress our memories; we haven't been able to talk about it until now. We are doing so only because, judging from our experience, cruise ships are anything but the safe venue for fun and sun that the cruise line ad campaigns promote, and we want people to know this.
We were booked on the Grand Princess of Princess Cruises, which left Galveston, Texas, for a week's cruise to Mexico and Central America. With me were my grandmother, parents, husband, two daughters, ages 16 and 8. We'll call my older daughter Lizzie; my younger one, Sophie.
As the ship left port, a dance party was already underway on deck. My two daughters wanted to go there just as soon as we checked into our stateroom. I escorted them there; people of all ages were dancing, only the adults seemed to have liquor, and crew and security staff were present. So I thought things were all right, but stayed and watched what was going on anyway.
As my girls danced with each other, I noticed that six or eight young men, apparently in their mid- to late-teens, were standing around in a group, "checking out the action" but not bothering anyone or causing trouble. Even so, acting on what might have been mother's instinct, I took note of them. One of the boys in particular put me on edge, though there was no reason for it: he looked to be about 19, dark-ish (like a Middle Easterner) but with blue eyes, well-dressed, and good-looking; I thought of him as the "handsome one."
The boys were staring at Lizzie. I have to say that she is extremely attractive, with blond hair, green eyes, and a good figure; she is also a dancer, and so stood out among the crowd on deck, even though it was crowded.
Lizzie has proven herself to be level-headed, responsible, and trustworthy. So, although I felt a bit uncomfortable with this situation, I decided I was being over-protective and shrugged it off.
Missing from the Teen Center
Around 9 that evening -- on the first night of the cruise -- Lizzie decided to go to the teen center on ship. I kick myself now for encouraging her to go and meet some other kids, as she was just a bit reluctant. I escorted her to the center.
The teen center was on one of the lower decks. There was a kind of coffee shop nearby. When we got there, some 40 kids were milling around and four or five crew members, probably in their 20s, were supervising. They said that kids had to be signed in and out of the center by a responsible adult, and that no kid could leave without being signed out. I agreed with my daughter that I would come back for her at 11 p.m.
When I did, there were only about 8 kids still there. My daughter Lizzie was not one of them; she was nowhere to be seen. I asked one crew member who was still there where she was, and was told that she and some other kids left to get a soft drink or something like that, probably at the cafe next door. So much for signing in and out! Later on, I tried to find the names of the young people who had been in the teen center at that time, only to be told that the list was not available.
(I want to point out here that the group of boys who I had seen staring at Lizzie on deck earlier, at the dance party, were in that restaurant before she and the other kids from the teen center went in. It may also be significant that she left with two other girls, one of whom had no apparent connection to any of the boys but who later was found to be the girlfriend of the "handsome one.")
I picked up the house phone and called my cabin, telling my family that Lizzie was missing. Already I felt sick with fear, and when my parents and husband came down we split up. My father and I began roaming around the ship, searching. I asked other passengers if they had seen my daughter; as I did, crew and security kept telling me: "Settle down." There were a good number of security personnel around (the staff member at the teen center with whom I talked had made some calls), but they seemed more concerned about publicity than about my daughter. I shouted back that I would settle down once Lizzie was safely with me.
"I put too much of that drug in her drink..."
Meanwhile, in what I still think of as something like divine intervention, my husband, who was walking down another corridor, passed the closed door to a stateroom and heard a group of young men inside the room talking in frantic tones. They were saying things like: "What do we do now? I put too much of that drug in her drink ... what do we do? What are we going to do with her?" One of them said, "I put her in a hole."
My husband became frantic. He went to the security center ... where two security workers tried to keep him quiet and told him not to disturb the other passengers. He couldn't believe what they were saying, and that they showed no interest at all in the conversation he had overheard.
My mother then met up with my husband and the two security officers, and all four went
back to that stateroom where the conversation had been overheard. When they knocked on the door, a boy with curly black hair answered, seeming very nervous. My mother
started shouting, "What have you done with my baby? Where is my daughter?"
The boys in the room were the "handsome one" and the others who had been at the dance party on deck. They insisted they had no idea what she was talking about ... but when my husband said, "Funny thing ... I was walking by your room when I heard you saying, 'What are we going to do with her?'" their faces turned ashen white. Even so, they kept saying they didn't know anything.
At this time it was early in the morning, maybe around 1 a.m. No public announcement had been made about Lizzie's disappearance -- no such announcement was ever made -- and the security people said they could not begin knocking on cabin doors, as it would be an "invasion of privacy." They did tell the boys to go to the security office and give statements -- the next day! I have never seen any statements, if any were ever given.
At this point, we had been searching for two hours with no results. I was getting angrier and angrier that nothing was being done. Some crew were sent to stay with us and keep us quiet. I finally broke away from them and went up to any other passengers I could see, telling them that my daughter had disappeared and describing her appearance. Few of them seemed very interested.
Another hour had gone by. At this time, the picture of my daughter that was on her boarding pass had been copied, and crew members were handing it out to the few passengers who were still awake and moving about the ship. I was as determined as ever to keep searching, and made sure that security understood I was not giving up!
Finally a crew member said the whole ship was going to be searched. We were near Belize, our first stop, at this time, and preparations were being made to anchor the ship to allow a full search.
"Mommy, Mommy, where am I?"
Some ten minutes or so went by, and I was walking down a staircase, still searching. I saw a group of 10 or 12 crew standing together. As I approached, they moved aside ... and there was Lizzie, my missing daughter! At that point, I thought she was the most beautiful sight I ever had seen!
But not all was well with her. As I rushed to her, I noticed that her eyes were black and dilated. She was mumbling, slurring her words, "Mommy, Mommy, where am I? What happened? Mommy, I don't feel good."
We took her to the infirmary, where the doctor carried out blood tests. We heard him say, "Oh, my God! It's evident she's been drugged."
(This is bizarre: About three weeks after the cruise was over we got a letter from the cruise line confirming that my daughter had consumed a date-rape drug. But five days after that, we got a second letter, also from the cruise line, saying that nothing had happened.)
At this stage, our trust in Princess Cruises had been shattered. We asked to take custody of the blood sample so that we could have it checked by people who were independent of the cruise line. But this was refused; one security guard said, "When there's a crime on board, the evidence is ours, not yours." Please note that he used the word "crime."
When we got home, we had our own doctors test for evidence of sexual assault. Thank God, there was none.
In the meantime, we left the infirmary and returned to our cabin. Lizzie slept until 4 the next afternoon, and woke up with a severe headache. The ship's medical staff never did any follow-up tests or checked on her for the rest of the voyage.
Some strange things happened that next day. One boy who was on some kind of baseball team outing said that he had seen my daughter, looking "really out of it," in an elevator with that group of boys, who looked "very nervous."
Also that day, the phone rang in our cabin. When I picked it up, I heard the voice of a boy who seemed almost ready to cry. "I am so glad you got your daughter back," he said.
"Who is this? Who is this?" I asked.
He replied, "I can't say, but I'm just glad you got her back," and then hung up.
For the rest of the trip, our family stayed together. On several occasions, the group of young men who had watched our daughter at the dance party crossed our path; when that happened, they looked and acted as though they had seen a ghost.
I said before that my husband had an encounter with two security guards. One afternoon, when our family was alone on deck, the younger of them came up to us and said to Lizzie, "I am so glad your Mom got you back." He then said to me, "I know what happened on the ship and you know what happened on the ship, and that's all I've got to say," and quickly walked away.
As for the older one, the one who seemed to be in charge ... the day after Lizzie was found, he said to her: "Where have you been, you little slut?" Both my husband and I heard this: to this day, I don't know how we managed not to tear this man apart for that remark.
This same security guard also told us that at no time could we approach the group of boys seen on an elevator with my daughter. We could not even talk with them, he said. And later, throughout the voyage, on several occasions we saw him laughing and talking with those boys.
So what DID happen on the ship? And why?
When I saw Lizzie and ran down the stairs to her, one of the crew said, "I found her on the bottom of the ship in a cubbyhole." My family were never allowed to go to see that cubbyhole; we have no idea how far it was from the teen center. But I know that Lizzie's clothes and hair were damp when we got her back. (She said that she does not remember anything clearly after sitting down with the boys in the cafe and drinking a cup of tea.)
We were told that there was no videotape coverage of the cargo area, the crew area, or the passageways and elevators inside the ship. So if these boys drugged my daughter in the cafe, as we believe, and brought her by elevator to that out-of-the-way storage area, there was nothing on tape to prove it.
But one question stays in my mind: How would these boys have known about the existence of this cubbyhole? Why would they bring her there, rather than to a cabin?
Some people believe that human trafficking is a myth. Others concede that it can happen, but certainly not on a cruise ship. Passengers can't just disappear, can they?
Well, they do. Moving someone from a ship against their will does not seem preposterous to me ... especially since we know that laundry, trash, supplies and such things are taken off and brought on ship when it is in port. Would someone find it worthwhile to take a girl from a ship and sell her into sexual slavery?
I cannot say, but I wonder how it can be that a passenger reported seeing my daughter in an elevator with the group of boys, and yet nothing was done about it. My family was told that because this incident happened in international waters, we had no legal recourse. Our daughter was drugged, kidnapped, and isolated, and we could do nothing.
As I said before, we were so thankful to have Lizzie back that we just tried to protect ourselves for the rest of the cruise. We did not think about anything else.
What we can do now is share our story, and hope that the public listens. My heart goes out to every family that has lost a loved one during a cruise, and has never gotten answers. For three hours I inhabited your world; for three hours my family and I were in Hell. I know that some of you have never left it, and am so sorry for your plight.