SYDNEY – Two Australians plunged off a cruise ship into the ocean despite higher-than-required railings to prevent accidental falls, the cruise company said Friday as authorities called off the search for the couple missing for two days.
Surveillance video showed the couple going over the railing about the same time with a brief pause between them, New South Wales Police Superintendent Mark Hutchings said. It was not clear if the man or woman went overboard first, and investigators were having the video enhanced to try to learn if they jumped or fell by accident.
The footage showed the couple were outside their cabin when they fell more than 20 meters (65 feet) from the mid deck Wednesday night, he said. At the time, the Carnival Spirit was about 120 kilometers (65 nautical miles) off the coast of Forster, and they were reported as missing after the ship docked the next morning at Sydney's Circular Quay after a 10-day journey.
Paramedic Paul Rossington, 30, and his 26-year-old girlfriend Kristen Schroder, both of the town of Barraba in New South Wales state, were on the cruise with seven family and friends.
Police were questioning family, friends and passengers in a bid to find out what happened. "The footage alone won't tell the whole story," Hutchings said.
Schroder's family issued a statement requesting "privacy and understanding while we come to terms with our beautiful girl's tragic accident."
Stephen Leahy, head of Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopters, said that if the couple fell accidentally, they could have survived until Friday, noting that the ocean was calm and fairly warm, and describing Rossington, a paramedic for the state ambulance service, as very fit.
"He has a very good understanding ... of survival techniques and his level of fitness will help him," Leahy told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "He'll also be able to help his partner. The chances of two young people surviving are very, very good, and certainly from our perspective, we haven't given up hope."
The air and sea search covered 4,670 square kilometers (1,360 square nautical miles) of ocean before being called off in failing light Friday without finding any sign of the couple, police said in a statement. The nighttime search had involved heat-seeking infrared equipment, and Hutchings said no life preservers were missing which might have indicated that one of the missing passengers had attempted a rescue.
The railing over which the couple fell was 5 centimeters (2 inches) higher than industry safety regulations mandate, said Ann Sherry, chief executive of Carnival Australia and Carnival Corp.'s representative in the South Pacific region.
"It's designed really to prevent accidental tripping" overboard, she told reporters.
"We want to make sure that it's not possible for people to fall overboard or to trip and fall overboard ... so I think it would be highly unlikely, but again, in this case, the police are conducting a full investigation," she said.
The ship has around 600 surveillance cameras that are constantly monitored, although no one reported seeing the fall at the time. Sherry defended the level of monitoring of passengers aboard the ship that allowed the couple's fall to go unnoticed. At least four crew were monitoring the ship's surveillance cameras at any time, she said.
The night Rossington and Schroder vanished, the video surveillance staff was busy watching the public areas of the ship, she said.
"It was the last night of a cruise," Sherry said. "Virtually everybody else was in the public spaces on the ship, and they're the areas that we focus on in those times."
The couple were among 2,680 passengers on a South Pacific cruise. The ship's last stop was Mare Island in New Caledonia, which it left on Monday, bound for Sydney.
The emergency is the latest high-profile problem for Miami-based Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise operator.
Last year, the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people. Also last year, the Costa Allegra caught fire and lost power in the Indian Ocean, leaving passengers without working toilets, running water or air conditioning for three days. Costa is a division of Carnival Corp.
In February, passengers aboard the Carnival Triumph spent five days without power in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine-room fire disabled the vessel. Those on board complained of squalid conditions, including overflowing toilets and food shortages.