A Christmas cruise brings together families scarred by tragedy

They were strangers, brought together by unspeakable tragedy — the loss of their sons, husbands and brothers in disasters both natural and manmade. But the bond they formed along a winding stretch of the Danube River from Germany to Hungary in late December will last a lifetime.


Thirty-six family members of people who died in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the 2013 Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing shared stories of heartache and hope with passengers aboard a European river cruise.

Boston-based Vantage Deluxe World Travel, which has hosted wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan, Gold Star families and 100 survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings, arranged the free cruise for these survivors, among whom were relatives of slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. 

“This is a group no one wants to belong to,” said Maureen Santora, whose son, Christopher Santora, was the youngest New York City firefighter killed on 9/11. “We came on this trip to bring support and comfort to the families from Arizona.”

Their journey began in Passau, Germany, where the families were introduced to one another on the riverboat SS Splendor. Santora and her husband Al handed out  baseball caps to commemorate their son, and the fathers of the Yarnell Hill firefighters wore them proudly.  

For the families from Arizona, the pain is still fresh. Their loved ones were among 19 members of the elite firefighting unit Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed last year while battling a sweeping wildfire that had scorched 8,000 acres northwest of Phoenix. It was the deadliest American firefighter disaster since 9/11, when 343 New York firefighters died trying to evacuate workers trapped in the World Trade Center.

In Passau, the group enjoyed festive holiday activities, including a gingerbread-making demonstration and a tour of the grand Thurn & Taxis castle, built between the 11th and 14th centuries in nearby Regensburg. Each day included a visit to a Christmas market, where families spent their euros on locally made crafts and tchotchkes while enjoying friendly conversation over hot mugs of mulled wine.

More heartfelt discussions took place during intimate dinners aboard the ship, where passengers shared memories of those they lost and offered insights about their struggles to cope with tragedy.

“There were a lot of beers and tears,” said Joe Woyjeck, a Los Angeles County fire captain who lost his 21-year-old son, Kevin, in the Yarnell Hill blaze.

Woyjeck and his wife Anna have launched a scholarship fund in their son’s name to help raise money for kids looking to pursue a career in fire safety. The Woychecks and the other families decorated a Christmas tree onboard the ship with photos and mementos of their fallen loved ones. Maureen Santora flanked the tree with a couple of children’s books she wrote about her son’s life. “I feel he’s with us on this trip,” she said.

For many, the cruise was a cultural awakening. Dan Parker and his wife, Michelle, who had traveled from their small hometown of Chino Valley, Ariz., marveled at the dramatic landscape of Austria’s Wachau Valley, highlighted by the baroque styled Melk Abbey and other ancient monasteries. The Parkers joined the trip to honor their son, Wade, a high school baseball star turned Granite Mountain Hotshot who died at the age of 22. In Vienna, the Parkers and others enjoyed a tour of Mozart’s apartment and a night of classical music at Kursalon Wein, the concert hall where Johan Strauss directed his orchestra.

“I grew up on country music,” Dan Parker said, “but I was amazed by what I heard in Vienna. I could actually feel the music pouring out of the strings, flute and drum.”

The cruise stopped in Bratislava, Slovakia, before its final destination — the ancient city of Budapest. On the last evening of the trip, Dan Parker sought out Al Santora in the lounge and gave him a baseball cap commemorating his son, Wade. The two shared a hug, and Parker wiped a tear from his cheek.

“The Yarnell Hill families are on the first leg of their journey of grief and recovery,” said Theresa Mullen, whose son Michael was killed on 9/11. “We’re here as living proof that they will get through this.”

Vantage Deluxe World Travel plans to invite families of United 93 victims on its Heroes Cruise in 2015.