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Bereft parents’ loss is as deep as the ocean

The videotape was grainy, but Mike and Ann Coriam could make out their daughter clearly enough.

Wearing slacks and a collared shirt, she picked up the phone in a hallway of the Disney Wonder, a majestic 964-foot cruise liner that made weekly voyages to the Mexican Riviera. Rebecca Coriam dialed an on-board number, talked for a moment and then began to cry.

A fellow crew member aboard the ship stopped briefly to ask Rebecca if she was OK. She nodded. Yes. The young man walked away.

And that was it. A final glimpse of Rebecca Coriam, a 24-year-old with a bubbly personality from Chester, England, who’d come to America to work for Disney Cruise Line.

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The video was recorded on March 22 at 5:45 a.m. The Disney Wonder was at sea and not expected to reach Puerta Vallarta until the next day. From there it would head to Cabo San Lucas before returning to San Pedro.

But Rebecca failed to show up for her shift that morning, and Disney contacted her parents in Chester to tell them their daughter had vanished. The company invited the couple to come to Los Angeles to meet the Disney Wonder when it made port.

When they finally got to Berth 93, the Coriams had a vague hope of talking with passengers as they disembarked, but the ship had already emptied and a new round of travelers would soon arrive. The Coriams went onboard, watched the video, spoke to Rebecca’s acquaintances, then gathered their daughter’s clothing and keepsakes — the photos, the rosary beads she hung on a bedpost.

By the time they made it to LAX to fly home, they knew no more than when they arrived. What, they asked themselves, has become of our daughter. And in the weeks to come, they began to wonder whether anyone cared.

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Mike, 57, and Ann, 51, received phone calls and e-mails from their youngest daughter at least once a week. Upbeat and energetic, Rebecca regaled them with her adventures as a youth activities counselor aboard the Disney Wonder, talking of newfound friends and idyllic locales.

Eager to travel, Rebecca joined the Disney Cruise Line last June and worked a route from Port Canaveral, Fla., to the Bahamas before switching coasts to the Mexican Riviera circuit.

She’d studied theology and childhood studies at Liverpool Hope University, had an outgoing personality and competed in triathlons. Parents and children were drawn to her and called her by her nicknames — Becky or Bex. She doted on her two younger foster brothers.

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“She was such a big, smiley kid,” her mother said. “She just loved life, children, Disney and America.”

Rebecca had signed her third contract for four months with Disney Cruise Line and would be working the Vancouver-to-Alaska route after she took a standard two-month break. She made plans to hang out with her older sister, Rachael, and visit Disneyland Paris. She would be home on Easter Sunday. I’ll call you tomorrow, she told her parents.

The next night, the phone rang. It was 11 p.m. and Mike and Ann were getting ready for bed. It was a spokeswoman for Disney Cruise Line.

Rebecca had not shown up for her shift that morning. A search of the ship had not revealed her whereabouts.

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In disbelief, the couple hung up the phone.

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Supt. Paul Rolle of the Royal Bahamas Police Force met the Coriams at the Crowne Plaza, the hotel they had checked into after flying in from Manchester.

Because the Disney Wonder was registered in the Bahamas, the weight of the detective work on piecing together what happened aboard a ship off the Pacific coast of Mexico fell to a single detective on a Caribbean island.

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Rolle gave them a quick briefing. But he had no concrete answers; there was little to work with, he said.

Jet-lagged, confused and desperate for answers, the Coriams hoped to learn more once aboard the Disney Wonder.

They watched the video and talked with the friend she had called from the hallway phone. But the woman seemed emotionally frayed, saying only that Rebecca was upset but had calmed down by the end of the conversation. She didn’t offer more and the family didn’t push, especially with an entourage of Disney officials in the room.

“That kind of made it awkward. We felt like we couldn’t ask too much and we felt maybe we shouldn’t,” said Trish Davies, 42, Ann’s sister, who accompanied the couple.

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Later, everyone would regret the questions they didn’t ask.

When they were given a tour of the ship, they were taken to the fifth deck, a public area, where the captain said a pair of flip-flops were found that may have belonged to Rebecca. But nobody could be certain.

After collecting Rebecca’s things, Mike and Ann walked from the ship, feeling rushed and flustered. For a moment or two they stood on the dock and squinted into the sunlight. She clutched a toy lamb and a small sweater with pink and gray stripes. He wrapped his left arm around her. The two said nothing, only stared at the massive vessel with the famous Mickey Mouse emblem as it glided off the San Pedro shore.

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Scores of cruise liners cut through the world’s oceans, offering passengers a vacation of a lifetime. But for the families of those who have gone missing — some seemingly lost in the mists of the sea — the quest for answers can be an agonizing maze, sometimes with no end.

The Coriams’ story, and the uncertain world they’ve been swept into, is a classic example of the helpless position families are left in, says Doris Matsui, a Sacramento area Democratic congresswoman.

“Murky lines of jurisdiction make it impossible for a lot of these families to know what happened. That is really the saddest thing of all,” said Matsui, co-author of legislation that requires cruise lines to report serious crimes and missing U.S. nationals to the FBI and Coast Guard. The legislation, however, doesn’t take effect until next year and would not have benefited a British national.

“In Rebecca’s case it’s even murkier who is responsible here. Right now everybody’s really tossing the ball around,” she said.

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Jim Walker, an attorney who specializes in cruise law, said investigations into missing passengers and crew members are often no more than a formality.

“The families are caught in no-man’s-land between the cruise line and the foreign authorities,” Walker said. “If it’s foul play, the chances of them actually prosecuting or convicting anybody in the Bahamas is between zero and a prayer.”

Disney Cruise Line said it is assisting with the investigation and doing everything possible to give the family an answer, but the Coriams said they’ve grown frustrated with the lack of information from Disney and the fact they haven’t heard from the detective since they toured the ship. A spokeswoman said it does not disclose a ship’s number of closed-circuit televisions or their location for security reasons. If Rebecca had jumped overboard, there was no evidence.

“People don’t just vanish into thin air,” Ann said.

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They believe their daughter is still alive. Perhaps she fell or was pushed and managed to swim ashore. Maybe she found herself in danger and went into hiding. The captain had mentioned the ducts of the ship had not been searched. She may have eventually disembarked at one of the ports and could now be in need of help. Through their website https://www.rebecca-coriam.com, they hope clues will come.

Meanwhile, Mother’s Day passed with an ache. Father’s Day is on the horizon.

The community of Chester has embraced the Coriams, attending their vigils and contributing to their foundation. But the couple often think about the city where their daughter once docked.

“What is it like over there?” Ann asked. “Is Rebecca just forgotten?”

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corina.knoll@latimes.com


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