Cruise Tragedy Opens Family Feud

When George Smith vanished from his honeymoon cruise off the Turkish coast last July, his family began a long and frustrating search for answers, which continues eight months later.

Partly because of pressure from the Smith family, a congressional hearing today will take a closer look at how the cruise ship industry deals with crimes on board. The most pressing issue is how passengers sometimes disappear without a trace.

Co-anchor Hannah Storm reported on The Early Show Tuesday, it is a tragedy that happened at least 28 times during the past three years.

Nearly two years ago, Merrian Carver went on an Alaskan cruise, but never came back. Her family says it's been frustrating and difficult to get answers from the cruise line about what might have happened to their daughter.

"It makes you feel rage," said Kendall Carver, Merrian's father. "We're talking about a human being. We're talking about our daughter."

Carver says it was only after he called the cruise line that he even found out his daughter was missing. "The steward reported Merrian missing daily for five days to his boss. And his boss said, 'Just go do your job,' and that's it. So no action was taken."

After hiring their own private investigator and battling in court, the Carvers managed to piece together a few details. But how and why she disappeared remains a mystery, as do a number of other cruise ship tragedies.

From 2000 to 2005, the FBI opened 305 investigations into cruise ship crimes. And families of victims say the cruise lines cover up crimes, making it difficult to investigate them. They note that cruise lines are not required by law to report crimes, and they want Congress to change how the cruise lines operate.

The idea is to "Make sure law enforcement is looking over their shoulders and making them accountable for the treatment and safety of American citizens," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a democrat from New York.

The cruise lines say they report every incident in order to preserve their image as a safe way to vacation.

"It's in our interest to make sure that everything is properly reported and that everybody is taken care of from a business perspective," said Michael Crye of the International Council of Cruise Lines. "That's how you maintain your image."

George Smith went overboard on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship and his family has made it a mission to change the way cruise lines handle on-board crimes. His parents, George and Maureen Smith, and his sister, Bree, joined The Early Show to talk about how the cruise line let them down, and how the tragedy has fractured their relationship with their daughter-in-law.

"The ship should have been stopped," Maureen Smith told Storm. "And especially when it got to Turkey. The whole ship should have been shut down and had it as a crime scene, because it was a crime scene. It was a murder. And they had a two hour investigation. And then they set sail on time."

The Smith family says another sad development for them is their developing estrangement from their son's wife, Jennifer Hagel-Smith.

"This issue with Jennifer has become very difficult for us," Bree Smith said on the broadcast. "When George disappeared, we welcomed Jennifer back into our home. She was the closest thing we had to George. We didn't have George anymore, but we did have Jennifer. We actually couldn't wait to welcome her back into the house.

"She was in our house for three and a half months and, actually, she came over at least once a week and slept over in George's bed at least once a week. However, after three and a half months, we are aware of the fact that she provided a wealth of information to the FBI and she did not provide a wealth of information to my family. And all we want is answers. So, that's been very difficult for us."

Bree said it was that reticence that led to their estrangement. "After three and a half months, we felt we needed to put some space there," she said.

George's mother said her family will keep pressing for answers until they get some solid information her son's death.

"We're going to push and push and push. We're pushing the FBI for answers. We're not going to stop. I believe they're working very hard it on it. It's a very active case," she said. "We will find out what happened to George and people will be punished for what they did to my son."

The Smith family has formed a group called International Cruise Victims Organization. Click here.
  • Polly Leider

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