It’s summer, which means that Americans have vacation on their minds. More than 10 million Americans will take a cruise vacation this year.
None of them will expect to come home in a casket. But our parents—Larry and Christy Hammer—did.
On April 8th, they flew to Peru for a week-long Amazon River cruise aboard International Expeditions (IE) boat, La Estrella Amazonica. Our parents chose this voyage because, as IE says, “With International Expeditions at the helm, you’ll adventure in safety and comfort aboard La Estrella Amazonica.” IE enthusiastically marketed a cruise of a lifetime on Estrella Amazonica; instead, our parents got a cruise that tragically ended their lives.
Around 2 am on the first night of the cruise, they found themselves trapped inside their burning cabin while their lungs filled with poisonous smoke. Our father died before the crew even tried to get him out. Our mother held onto a heartbeat when the crew finally pulled her from the cabin, but died sometime later — we still cannot get information on when or where she passed away.
The tragedy was completely avoidable. So how could this have happened?
Based on video from the scene of the fire, it appears that a power strip supplied by the boat caught fire. Analysis of the same model power strip revealed that it lacks surge protection and safety ratings. The mattress and bedding provided abundant fuel for the fire. No alarm sounded in the cabin because the smoke detectors lack in-cabin alarms which could have alerted our parents before the smoke overwhelmed them.
The crew wasted more than 20 precious minutes between the time when smoke seeped into the hallway to when they finally extracted our parents. During that fatal period, the crew opened the cabin door and quickly slammed it shut multiple times.
Upon launching the boat in 2013, IE announced it included everything that was, “really important.”
But isn’t a working fire alarm system designed to awaken passengers to life-threatening danger really important? Aren’t safe electrical components that do not catch fire really important? Aren’t flame-retardant mattresses and bedding really important? Aren’t well-trained, capable crew members who will respond to a fire quickly and effectively really important?
What does appear to be important is returning to business as usual with breathtaking speed. Immediately following the tragedy, IE’s president, Van Perry, was on the scene to comfort our parents’ fellow passengers. Just days after that, he personally reboarded those passengers onto Estrella Amazonica and declared in press releases the boat was “safe enough” for travel. How could he do so when, at that time, nobody—including Van Perry and the local authorities (whom independent investigators have interviewed)—knew what caused the fire, how the fire alarms failed to awaken our parents and others, or why the crew failed to extract them in time?
The source of the fire is just the first domino in a string of systemic failures that cost our parents their lives. The fault cannot be rationalized as “external to the ship.”
One would hope that IE places the utmost importance on safeguarding passengers and crew who travel on their boat each week. However, the company’s actions indicate otherwise — Van Perry continues to stonewall our repeated requests for information. Boat representatives blocked independent investigators’ efforts to figure out what happened, confining them to limited sections of the boat and denying them access to surveillance videos.
We are telling this story because it can happen to you — or someone you cherish.
When considering your travel plans this summer, do not assume that even American companies like International Expeditions prioritize safety as highly as profits. If you do, our tragedy could become your own.
Jill Hammer Malott and Kelly Hammer Lankford are the daughters of Drs. Larry and Christy Hammer.