Autopsies complete on 2 cruise passengers who died aboard ship

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When the cruise ship Norwegian Dawn docked Friday in Boston, an aura of intrigue surrounded its arrival. Crime-scene investigators converged on the vessel, which carried unusual cargo: the corpses of two passengers.

Autopsies have now been completed on the passengers, who died last Thursday aboard the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship, and no signs of foul play were revealed, according to the Suffolk County district attorney’s office in Massachusetts.

But the deaths provide a glimpse into cruise line preparedness: When an on-board death occurs, the morgue is not too far away. And as a precaution, passengers should think of their time on a cruise ship like travel in a big city, with all the inherent risks for crime.


The autopsies on the 67-year-old woman and 23-year-old man conducted Monday in Boston showed “no signs of trauma or foul play,” Jake Wark of the district attorney’s office told The Times.

Further testing, including toxicology screens and chemical analysis, will be done to determine the cause of death, he said.

But police investigators were called to conduct a search of the cabin of the New Hampshire man, largely because of his young age.

Aboard a cruise, “when a person in their 20s dies, that’s a different thing,” cruise expert Ross Klein, who runs the Cruise Junkie website, told The Times by email. Of less note are “deaths by natural causes, which, based on the age of many cruise passengers, is not entirely uncommon.’

As for two deaths on one ship, cruise experts responded with a bit of a shrug.

Deaths aboard ship are not an anomaly, said Catharine Hamm, travel guru and editor of
The Times’ Travel section. The age of most cruise ship passengers is a factor, she says, and cruise lines are prepared.

In other words: The ships have cold storage, usually enough for a few people. Lanie Morgenstern of the Cruise Lines International Assn. characterized it as “maintenance until the person is transported ashore.’

“Cruise ships are typically equipped with a dedicated morgue facility,” Morgenstern said. The facility is “available for the use of the on-board medical staff in such unfortunate situations. The on-board staff are trained and prepared for this possibility.”

And, as during last week’s Norwegian Dawn cruise, other passengers can continue to enjoy the cruise, oblivious to the presence of the bodies or even the morgue itself.

The Cruise Critic website posted this note from one of its members who said she was on board the Dawn:

‘Just to let you all know, we did not hear or see anything, and as you can imagine, as a good CC’er I have my proverbial ear to the ground. Did not see any cabins sealed off, extra security presence -- nothing. I usually also look for the ‘black wagons’ whenever we get to port -- nothing.’

Morgenstern said the majority of cruise ship deaths are indeed the result of natural causes. Passengers tend to be older. “The median age of our passengers is 48,” although, she said, that varies by cruise ship line. So when a 23-year-old dies, law enforcement tends to take notice.

Klein talked about some of the drama that occurs on the high seas.

“There have also been deaths as a result of conflicts between traveling partners, some from drug overdoses and some from altercations between passengers -- recall the death of the honeymooner George Smith in the Caribbean, but there are others. And there are assaults involving serious bodily injury -- such as San Diego supermarket owner Scott Boney.”

In September 2007, Boney went hurtling down a set of stairs during a coastal Mexico cruise in an altercation with another passenger. Boney was left in a coma. He used a wheelchair and was unable to speak for two years, the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote in February. But his family says he has recently made remarkable progress, even taking his first steps.

George Smith was on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship with his new bride in the summer of 2005 when he disappeared. Blood was reportedly found on an awning below the balcony where Smith apparently toppled into the sea. There were allegations of fighting and partying, but the case remains a mystery.

In October 1989, The Times reported on the sentencing of Scott Roston, a Santa Monica chiropractor convicted of strangling his wife and throwing her overboard on the last night of their honeymoon cruise to Mexico.

‘This is one of the cruelest murders I’ve ever seen,’ said U.S. District Judge James A. Ideman in explaining why he imposed a stiffer sentence for second-degree murder than called for by the federal sentencing guidelines or a 30-year term requested by a federal prosecutor.

Roston in 1994 appealed his conviction and was resentenced to 33 years and nine months. He appealed again in 1999 and the court concluded that the “term of incarceration is not an unreasonable punishment for a man who killed his wife in such a barbaric manner.”

So, with the possibility of mayhem aboard ship, what’s a cruise passenger to do?

Klein said he advises passengers ‘to treat a cruise ship like a big city, with all the risks you find in those cities. Yes, there is a physician onboard, but their qualifications and the quality of medical care can vary widely.’

Passengers, he said, ‘should not assume a cruise ship medical center is prepared to deal with any and all medical situations, especially emergencies, and folks who choose to use drugs, whether prescription or illicit, should not assume the medical facilities can effectively deal with an overdose. Most medical centers may be able to stabilize a serious medical emergency, but they are not set up for surgery or for most invasive medical procedures.’

[For the record, 7:57 a.m., Nov. 3: An earlier version of this post said George Smith died while on a Carnival cruise ship. It was a Royal Caribbean vessel. Thanks to Stewart Chiron of the Cruise Guy website for catching the error.]


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