The death of a Camden County woman who fell from a cruise ship Sunday night has recast a spotlight on an industry that has been criticized in recent years for its handling of onboard passenger mishaps.
Industry analysts say the public's fascination with such incidents is out of proportion to their occurence and may stem from the exotic nature of cruise ships, often described as international "floating cities."
Cruises are the safest vacation options available, analysts say, and most incidents are caused by passengers' own behavior.
That seems to be the case with Mindy Jordan, 46, of Pine Hill, who fell overboard while attempting to climb from the balcony of her stateroom to an adjacent balcony, according to the Norwegian Cruise Line.
But in recent years, critics of the industry have said the cruise lines do a poor job handling shipboard crimes and other major incidents. Some have accused the companies of covering up incidents and distorting crime statistics.
Ross Klein of the Memorial University of Newfoundland's school of social work has tracked cruise ship mishaps. According to his Web site, 99 people have gone overboard since 2000, including 22 in 2006 and 20 in 2007.
About 13 million people, 10.6 million of them Americans, went on a cruise last year, according to an industry expert.
Cruise lines are not required to report crime statistics against U.S. citizens to the FBI and have been reluctant to provide the data to outsiders, said Ken Carver, who co-founded the group International Cruise Victims after his daughter went missing on a ship in 2004.
"No one knows what the crime rates are because no one can get to the information," he said.
He pointed to congressional testimony from industry executives that 178 passengers on North American cruises had reported being sexually assaulted between 2003 and 2005.
But one cruise line, Royal Caribbean, said in internal documents turned over in a civil suit that at least 273 of its passengers reported sexual incidents in a shorter period of time.
Carver's group advocates for independent investigators, similar to sky marshals on airplanes, to travel on every cruise ship, among other measures.
People in or close to the industry say independent investigators either would not work or are not needed. Crime on ships is minuscule, they say, especially compared with crime rates on land.
"They think these ships are the Wild West and they're not," said Stewart Chiron, a former cruise sales and marketing specialist who is now an analyst for
"It's still the safest vacation you can go on," Chiron said. "Cruise lines are not in the business of losing passengers and damaging ships."
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of the independent Web site
, said a survey by the site showed that 94 percent of passengers believe cruises are safe.
"But the cruise ships are no longer tiny villages. They're more like big cities," she said. "You have to use your common sense. You can't leave that at home."
The newer ships, which can handle as many as 7,000 passengers, have even more extensive safeguards to prevent accidents, and elaborate security and surveillance to prevent crime, Brown said. The Norwegian Dawn, on which Jordan was a guest, has cameras in its interior and exterior that captured Jordan's travels onboard.
"You really have to make an effort to fall overboard," Brown said. "Most of the time when people go overboard, they've done something they shouldn't have."
She and Chiron both cited the case of a drunken passenger who fell overboard while attempting to urinate off the boat. He survived and sued the cruise line. The Norwegian Cruise Line has suggested that Jordan's death was also an accident of her own making. Jordan fell from the Norwegian Dawn four hours after it left New York City for Bermuda.
The Norwegian Cruise Line said Tuesday that Jordan was attempting to climb from one balcony to an adjacent one when she fell "straight into the water." Her family initially suspected foul play, but the cruise line said that surveillance cameras showed that she was alone at the time of the accident. Jordan's body has not been found.
The FBI investigated and agreed with the cruise line's interpretation of events, the company said. Despite that outcome, Carver said Jordan's death shows the need for investigators on board. FBI agents were not able to begin an investigation until the ship reached Bermuda, three days after the incident. In the meantime, Carver said, there is no way to ensure that cruise ships - which could be held liable in a death - protect what could be evidence of a crime.
Brown said that in the past, cruise lines have done a poor job of "communicating when an incident happens."
Perhaps the most notorious was the case of George A. Smith IV, who disappeared from a Royal Caribbean ship on his honeymoon in the Mediterranean in 2005.
Bloodstains were found running from the balcony of his cabin to lifeboats, and a hand print was discovered on the side of the ship. No charges were filed and Smith's body was never found.
That incident sparked two congressional hearings organized by U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays (R., Conn.), who introduced legislation to improve the reporting of crimes against U.S. citizens on cruise ships.
Brown said the cruise lines have become much more sensitive to these situations, and praised Norwegian Cruise Lines' response to Jordan's death. "NCL has been very above-board," she said. "They were out front with the information."