Family’s Tragedy Exposes What Can Happen Following Death on Water

NBC 6 Investigator Willard Shepard dove into some safety violations that were found in a cruise fire that left one couple dead.

(Published Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018)

Jill Malott has been haunted by the tragic death of her parents while they were on what was supposed to be a dream vacation.

“I still have nightmares about being in the cabin with them and trying to get them out,” said Jill.

Christy and Larry Hammer were retired educators from Nebraska who loved to travel. Their daughter says they wanted to take a cruise on the Amazon River. She says they researched and chose a cruise on the 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica ship in Peru.

Surveillance video from the first night of the cruise shows smoke pouring into the hallway from the Hammer’s cabin. A watchman is seen pacing back and forth in front of the couple’s door. He eventually gets help, but those who come don’t appear to have any equipment or gear to fight the fire.

In the final frames, smoke fills the hallway.

The Peruvian Navy investigated what happened and wrote in its report that more than 20 minutes elapsed before anyone got into the Hammer’s cabin to help them.

The Navy’s investigation concluded that the fire in Cabin 27 was caused by a short circuit in an extension cord given to the couple by the crew to power a breathing machine they used to prevent sleep apnea. The investigation also found that crew members were not trained, no emergency drills were held, there was no access to firefighting gear and there were no working smoke alarms on the ship.

“We learned very quickly that there was a myriad of safety violations that killed them,” Jill said. “They believed they were buying a trip on a boat that was U.S. owned and they believed it was going to exceed safety standards and that’s not what they got.”

International Expeditions is the travel company the Hammer’s children say sold them the trip. It’s based in Alabama and frequently charters trips out of Miami International Airport.

International Expeditions (IE) sent a statement saying, “All of us at IE continue to be deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life of two guests…”. But the company added the ship was “owned, operated, crewed and managed by” a foreign company.

“When safety violations end up killing people, there’s no recourse,” said Jill now left with anger and sadness. “So many things I wish my sister and I and our kids could experience with them and that’s gone.” Jill and her Miami-based attorney, Brett Rivkind, say they’re in mediation with the company, but say they are frustrated at a 1920 maritime law that limits compensation for loved ones.

“This Death on the High Seas Act limits the amount of recovery for survivors to almost nonexistent recovery,” said Rivkind.

He says because of the law, damages are only paid to dependents of those who died. Jill and her sister don’t qualify.

“You are limited to funeral expenses,” said Rivkind.

Cruise victims advocate Ken Carver believes the law unfairly limits compensation to what the person who died earned from their employment. He says the surviving family members of seniors or kids are slighted.

“If you are a minor or a retired couple the death on the high seas act says your life has no economic value,” said Carver.

A high seas challenge Jill is left navigating while dealing with the tragic death of her parents.

“We were shocked when we lost our parents and the shock has just got worse,” she said.

The Cruise Line Association tells us that the operators of the Amazon cruise are not part of its group. However, they say cruising is one of the most heavily regulated sectors of the travel and hospitality industry and that allowing for greater recovery, including reforming the Death on the High Seas Act, could unnecessarily burden an already crowded judicial system, increase insurance costs and add costs to cruising, making it less affordable.