The phone rang and the fear set in for Kelly Hammer Lankford when she realized it was a call from the U.S. Embassy in Peru.
Her parents, Larry and Christy Hammer, were on a 10-day dream cruise aboard the La Estrella Amazonica in Peru in 2016, according to People.
The husband and wife got on the Alabama-based International Expeditions’s riverboat in Iquitos, Peru, to tour the Amazon River. But they never returned to their home in Nebraska after a fire broke out in their cabin.Screenshot/ABC News
It was their first night aboard when their daughters, Lankford and Jill Malott, were told their parents were dead from a fire.
They were devastated. Malott described her parents excitement for the trip to ABC News:
“They had worked for years and lived pretty frugally. Because they always looked forward to a retirement where they’d be exploring the world together.”
Investigators determined that an overheated power strip caused the fire that killed the couple. What’s worse, the Hammers had no warning to try to escape to safety because the fire alarms on the ship did not work.Screenshot/ABC News
California couple Bessie and Randy Rosenberg were in a cabin near the Hammers when they discovered the smoke, but they never heard any alarms going off or saw any flashing lights. Bessie said:
“When Randy opened the door, the hallway was just filled with smoke. You couldn’t see five inches in front of your face.”
Surveillance video shows crew members going to the couple’s room, but they didn’t try to go inside their cabin to rescue them. Instead, they waited 20 minutes, 47 seconds after they saw smoke to attempt to help the husband and wife.Screenshot/ABC News
At that point, according to ABC News, Larry was already dead from smoke inhalation.
Crew members brought Christy out of the room six minutes after Larry; she was alive at the time but died on the way to the hospital.Screenshot/ABC News
Lankford said she believes her mother and father could have survived if they had heard sirens:
“International Expeditions didn’t put audible alarms in the cabins. Them getting on that boat cost them their lives.”
And Malott’s disgust with the company grew deeper after the ship returned to the water just hours after her parents’ deaths. She told People:
“It’s horrifying to me that they had this boat back on the water less than 48 hours after the fire that killed our parents.”
Her mother and father specifically chose that tour line for safety — it was brand-new and created to exceed Peruvian safety standards.
In fact, the company’s promotional video states:
“International Expeditions has been a pioneer in this part of the Americas, developing the expertise and planning to safely carry adventure travelers into this seemingly unchartered world.”
Following the tragedy, Lankford and Malott wanted answers, but they weren’t getting any. Malott told ABC News:
“There’s no place else in the world that you can kill somebody and really have no consequence, other than international waters.”
The company doesn’t have to take financial responsibility for the Hammers’s deaths, per a federal statute called the Death on the High Seas Act.Screenshot/ABC News
The statute, which was enacted in the 1920s, often prevents families from receiving damages for pain and suffering when a passenger on a cruise dies in international waters. Malott and Lankford’s lawyer, Brett Rivkind, told ABC News of the effects of the statute:
“It’s devastating, actually, because you lose a loved one. And it’s extremely difficult as an attorney in communicating to clients this is all they can recover.”
Maritime lawyer Michael Winkleman said he refers to it as a “get out of jail free card” for cruise line companies.
Ken Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, who has battled with the cruise industry for 11 years — since his daughter vanished in Alaska — agrees:
He explained to ABC News:
“If you get on a cruise ship in Miami and sail to London and the ship sinks, they have no liability. And they don’t want the liability for the thousands of people on that ship.”
Carver added that it’s difficult for victims to even get someone to represent them in a case like this:
“If you’re younger or older and retired, they say your life has no value. So in effect, lawyers won’t even take a case where the ship was at fault.”
Carver has headed to Washington, D.C., along with other victims’ families, to speak with with lawmakers to raise support for the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, which is supported by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).Screenshot/ABC News
Blumenthal told ABC News:
“Americans booking a cruise, they see what appears to be an American company, advertised as an American company, they expect sort of the protections you get when you’re dealing with an American company. They assume that. And unfortunately they don’t get it.”
The Cruise Line Industry Association, however, defended itself. It told ABC News it doesn’t want new regulations to be created:
“Cruising is one of the most heavily regulated sectors of the travel and hospitality industry, and it has an outstanding record in operational safety and customer care. Singling out a high-performing segment of the travel and hospitality industry to impose a new and costly layer of federal regulation is unjustified and unnecessary.”
But the Hammers’ daughters believe something needs to be done. They have gone from searching for answers to trying to prevent it from happening to others. Malott told ABC News:
“We don’t want this to happen to another family. This has been the worst year of our lives. What happened was so wrong. And we’re going to do our best to make it right.”
They have joined others working with the International Cruise Victims Association to change the way family members are treated after a loved one has lost their life at sea.