WASHINGTON – The mysterious disappearance of a Connecticut man during a honeymoon cruise is drawing congressional attention to a seamy side of the glitzy cruise industry.
"Like small cities, cruise ships experience crime — from petty to profoundly tragic," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., chairman of one of two congressional subcommittees hearing testimony Tuesday.
George Allen Smith IV vanished from a Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. ship in the Mediterranean 10 days after his wedding last summer. His family says he was a victim of foul play covered up by the cruise ship line to avoid bad publicity.
Authorities agree the case is suspicious, saying blood stains were found running from the balcony of his cabin to life boats and a hand print was discovered on the side of the ship.
Industry officials estimated 13 people have disappeared from cruise ships in the past two years. But Shays and other lawmakers question such statistics because they said the industry supplies its own data to the FBI and might be playing down crime.
Smith's wife, Jennifer Hagel Smith, says ship officials forced her from the vessel after her husband's disappearance and abandoned her in Turkey, where she ended up at a police station and later a hospital with no food, money, clothing or ticket home.
Shays read aloud some of the testimony by Smith's wife, who sat at a front row seat at the hearing, surrounded by her late husband's family.
"There was no compassion, sympathy or sensitivity shown by the cruise line," she wrote, adding that ship officials would not let her call her family immediately after her husband's disappearance. "Initially, the cruise line issued a statement attacking George, stating that it was just an accident and suggesting it was all George's fault."
Lawmakers expressed outrage.
"Here's a woman who has lost her husband and it seems like she is treated in a way that is simply incredible," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, R-Md.
Lawmakers vowed to shine a bright light on what they said are major problems the cruise industry has in reporting and handling crime on the high seas where laid-back vacationers such as the Smiths are vulnerable.
"That just sends a shiver down my back," said Shays of Smith's testimony.
He alleged that crime statistics voluntarily reported by cruise ships to the FBI are bogus: "I'm wrestling with how we can trust any statistic from any cruise line who can do what they did to a young bride."
Gregory M. Purdy, director of safety, security and environment for Royal Caribbean, apologized to the Smith family but said his company handled the incident correctly and responsibly.
"The Smith family has suffered an unimaginable loss and we extend our deepest sympathies to the family," Purdy said. "We do not know what happened to George Smith ... but we continue to cooperate fully with the FBI in the hope that the agency will be able to provide solid answers and some measure of closure for the Smith family."
He said Smith's wife was not forced to leave the cruise ship.
The FBI is investigating, but no one has been charged and no body has been recovered.
The cruise line said it promptly responded to a sole complaint made by a guest about noise coming from the Smiths' cabin, promptly called in the FBI and local authorities, secured the Smiths' cabin and a nearby metal overhang, thoroughly searched the ship, and interviewed crew and guests who had any knowledge of the missing groom's whereabouts.
The cruise line said it also collected all possible evidence, from security camera tapes to credit card receipts, and turned it over to the FBI.