Princess Cruises says video disproves guilt

Dan Peled/AP

Princess Cruise Lines, which operates the mammoth cruise ship Star Princess (above), is being sued after allegedly ignoring a Panamanian fishing boat in distress. Two men died when the boat sank; one man survived.

The owners of the Star Princess cruise ship say that they have new video evidence that proves they are not responsible for ignoring a stranded fishing vessel 100 miles off the coast of South America in March.

Adrian Vasquez says he tried to signal the cruise ship after his fishing boat, called the Fifty Cent, broke down, but the ship failed to come to his aid. Two of his friends, also on the boat, later died from exposure. Vasquez and the families of the two men are suing Princess Cruise Lines in a Miami court, alleging that its ship failed to come to their rescue as required under U.S. and international maritime law.

Judy Meredith, who was aboard the Star Princess at the time, says that she and other passengers saw the Fifty Cent early one morning when they were up looking for seabirds. Meredith says they saw a man on the fishing boat signaling distress through high-powered binoculars.

"I could see a fellow in the front of the boat vigorously waving a T-shirt up over his head and down to the floor," she said a few weeks afterward. "Up and down, up and down. So, we all watched him for a bit and thought, 'This guy's in distress. He's trying to get our attention.' "

Meredith and the other bird-watchers tried to persuade the crew to stop and render aid, without success. After returning home to Oregon, Meredith was horrified to hear that a fisherman had been rescued off the coast of Ecuador 11 days later.

Meredith suspected it was one of the men she and her friends had spotted. Later, Vasquez, the lone surviving fisherman, confirmed his was the vessel they saw, identifying it in one of their photos. He said he and one of his friends had waved a T-shirt and a life jacket to try to get the cruise ship's attention.

But Julie Benson, with Princess Cruises, says the company has uncovered information that tells a different story.

"We have discovered some recent video that we believe conclusively proves that our ship, Star Princess, was not the cruise ship spotted by the Fifty Cent boat that was adrift in the Pacific Ocean," Benson says.

Benson says that was also the conclusion of a retired NASA photo analyst the company hired to examine the images. Princess has released photos pointing out areas in which it says the images don't match. The boat Vasquez was found in has a flat bow, its name on the hull, and a double-striped design. The birders' photo, Princess says, shows a boat with what appears to be a raised bow, a single stripe and no visible name on the hull.

The cruise line says with this new evidence, it will ask the judge hearing the case for an immediate dismissal.

Other lawyers, including Vasquez's attorney Robert Dickman, say that a dismissal is unlikely. Dickman calls the Princess analysis "nonsense" and says he has evidence that he'll introduce in court that shows his client's boat was the one spotted and passed that day by the Star Princess.

"They've come up with three or four different excuses in this case," Dickman says. "And this is just another one in the line. And, it's just not making sense. And, I expect more of this in the future. But we look forward to litigating the case."

Birder Meredith says she won't dispute what's in the video or Princess' analysis of the long-range photo. It's now a legal case before a federal judge in Miami who, along with a jury, will sort through the evidence if it goes to trial.

But if Princess is right, Meredith says, she has another concern — that some other fishermen were more than 100 miles offshore, signaling for help when the Star Princess passed them by.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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