A child's fatal fall aboard a cruise ship a week ago appears to be an unusual accident, but it still may raise concerns about safety for potential passengers traveling with children.
An 8-year-old girl - identified by local media as Zion Smith, from the Bahamas - fell two stories from an interior deck on the Carnival Glory to another deck below while the cruise ship was docked at PortMiami, according to Miami Dade Police Department and the cruise line.
Zion had been waiting to disembark with her family about 8:15 a.m. and was watching from a railing with her little brother as another crowd disembarked below when she fell, the Miami Herald reported. She was taken to the ship's medical center and then transferred to a hospital, where she died.
Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for the cruise line, said in an email that the Oct. 14 fall appears to be an accident and that the railing where the girl is believed to have fallen was 47 inches high. De la Cruz referred further questions about the incident to police but also offered reassurance for vacationers who might be reconsidering taking a child on a cruise.
"We hold broad appeal to the family market based on the fun, safe and secure vacation experience we provide," de la Cruz said. She said Carnival carries more families than other cruise line in the world: an estimated 800,000 children are expected to sail with the line in 2017.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic, an online publication that carries news and consumer reviews of cruises, agrees.
"Kids clubs are a wonderful place for kids to play with others their age, and there are also tons of onboard activities for families to enjoy together," she said.
Brown, a former Washington Post staff writer, said cruises are fine for families with children, from toddlers on up - although she cautioned that the majority of cruise lines do not have lifeguards at onboard swimming pools, so it's swim at your own risk. She said several lines, such as Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian, are an exception and have begun using lifeguards.
"Horribly unfortunate incidents can occur at sea - just as they can on land or by air," she said. "While these incidents can be quite scary, it's important to remember that the number of these cases are quite low, as compared with the number of worldwide travelers each year."
Even as passenger capacity grew by nearly 42 percent, the number of operational incidents remained virtually unchanged, the Cruise Lines Industry Association (CLIA) says, citing a consultant's study from 2009-2016. The association's report also says that the cruise ship's fatality rate during that period of 0.15 per billion passenger miles was higher than that of airlines in the world (0.09) but well below the rate for U.S. highway fatalities (7.4) and rail (8.8). The report also found that the number of man-overboard incidents and fatalities also had declined.
Cruise lines operating in the United States must adhere to federal and international laws. These include U.S. Coast Guard regulations and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which is overseen by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization.
The U.S. Department of Transportation compiles incident reports, ranging from homicides to major thefts, from nearly a dozen major cruise lines. From April to June 2017, for example, the DOT reported 30 incidents among the cruise lines, including a missing person and 19 sexual assaults involving passengers.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has the authority to investigate significant maritime accidents, including those involving cruise ships. Earlier this year, the NTSB released its report on a May 2016 docking accident involving the Carnival Pride in Baltimore. The ship, with passengers aboard, struck a gangway that collapsed on three parked vehicles. No one was injured but the accident caused more than $2 million in damage. The NTSB also held a two-day forum on cruise ship safety in 2014. But the NTSB press office said the agency does not monitor or collect statistics on the overall safety of the industry or individual lines.
The Coast Guard conducts safety inspections on all U.S.-flagged cruise ships and any that take on passengers in U.S. waters, said Lt. Cmdr. Eric S. Jesionowski, who is National Technical Advisor for the Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise. The vessels must meet national and international safety regulations concerning fire prevention, evacuation procedures, lifeboat adequacy and other areas. The agency also investigates any serious incidents if those occur on U.S. territory or in territorial waters, Jesionowski said.
Once outside U.S. territory, the Coast Guard's authority to investigate ceases, he said. So if accidents, injuries, fatalities or other incidents occur elsewhere, it's up the jurisdiction where they occurred, such as the Bahamas or Europe, to investigate.
Lt. Amy Midgett, a spokeswoman for Coast Guard headquarters, said that despite the regulations, it's important for any person taking to the water to know the basics of marine safety, whether on a small boat or a cruise ship.
"That could mean awareness of emergency procedures, wearing a life vest or complying with specific guidelines or crew instruction," Midgett said in an email. She said cruise ship passengers should familiarize themselves with the vessel's safety procedures, including instructions on how to don life jackets or muster to the designated location for emergencies. Passengers are strongly encouraged to participate in fire and abandon-ship drills that cruise ships are required to conduct weekly.
"As with all forms of travel, the best piece of advice to share is to take the same precautions as you would on land," Brown, the editor at Cruise Critic, said. "(T)ravel is a wonderful experience for families, but it's important to follow the same safety protocols as you would at home."