A Child's Drowning on a Cruise Ship Stirs Controversy over Role of Parents and Lifeguards
NY1 Broadcast Segment About Need for Lifeguards Aboard Ships
NY1 Broadcast Segment About Need for Lifeguards Aboard Ships

On February 3, 2014 the unthinkable happened, unthinkable to me because a child lost his life on a cruise vacation.  That he was just four; that he drowned in a pool aboard a ship with great family facilities – doesn’t make it more unthinkable.  Just incredibly sad.

I had covered the inaugural sailing of Norwegian Breakaway, the ship where the four-year-old and a six-year-old, perhaps a sibling, were pulled unconscious from an adult pool. According to news accounts that are still unclear, the ship’s medical team administered CPR and was able to revive the older child, but the younger one died. The six-year-old was airlifted, with his grandmother and a ship’s nurse, by military helicopter to a hospital on the nearby North Carolina coast. Little is known about his condition, reports say, because his family requested privacy.

I was stunned at how little information came out about this tragedy, in light of the fact that cruise ships transport almost 1.5 million passengers under 18 each year.  The story did not appear in the travel trades I read. I never saw it in the New York Times, although New York City was the Breakaway’s homeport. The cruise newsletters I saw did not mention it. Even Norwegian Cruise Lines chose to make a public announcement only on their Facebook page, asking followers to share prayers with the child’s family.

If a TV reporter, Valarie d’Elia had not reached out to interview me for her NY1 segment (see video, I might never have known. Ms. D’Elia’s  broadcast  focused on a key point – shouldn’t this incident prompt calls for the cruise industry to station lifeguards at their pools? Jim Walker of Cruise Law News, the most vocal advocate for having lifeguards on every ship, noted, “This is the third event in the last nine months involving children who have drowned or were permanently injured in cruise ship swimming pools.”

Reactions to the incident popped up on Facebook (where more than 3,000 followers of Norwegian Cruise Lines actually “Liked” the post) and on the review site, Cruise Critic, which was the first to post a reasoned analysis of the incident on their site.  The public outcry ranged between tirades against parents who don’t watch their kids, to sympathy for the ship’s crew and their life-saving efforts, to calls for lifeguards at all pools, to demands that cruisers take responsibility for their own actions.

Early on, with so little information available about the incident, speculation veered mostly towards blaming parents for not being attentive.  Some wondered why the children were in an adult pool in the first place. Did a grandmother escorting the older boy to the hospital mean that an elderly person was assigned to watch toddlers she was too frail to look after?

How would we find someone to blame?

Research revealed that this was not the first time a child lost a life on a cruise vacation. In March of last year, a 4-year-old boy nearly drowned while swimming with his older brother in the pool of the Disney Fantasy and is apparently still receiving medical treatment for his injuries.  In October, a six-year-old drowned aboard the Carnival Victory.

Since that tragedy, Disney Cruise Lines added lifeguards to its family pools: Goofy’s Pool on the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, and Donald’s Pool on the Dream and the Fantasy. Although lifeguards had always been stationed at the onboard waterslides during all operating hours, the family pool lifeguards will only work posted hours. More importantly for passenger safety, there are now racks of colorful swim vests in all sizes by the pools so that children can put them on without feeling uncomfortable or out of place.  Carnival Cruise Lines, to my knowledge, did nothing to improve pool safety after their passenger’s death.

A spokesperson for CLIA, the industry’s trade organization, did reply to my queries with a reminder about how much the cruise industry had done proactively to improve passenger safety: raised the railing height to 42”; added peepholes, latches and safety guides to stateroom cabins; installed imaging technology to detect passengers falling overboard; increased baggage screening and video surveillance –- all things we’d prefer not to think about when we go on vacation.

A drowning will happen again, of course. So who’s to blame? I don’t know, but I do know the parents of those lost children will only blame themselves for the rest of their lives.

The takeaways? First and foremost, the public has to be made aware of what drowning looks like, and it doesn’t look like someone’s drowning.  In most cases, it is not the flailing of arms and calls for Help! that we see in movies. Drowning is the quiet absorption of water into the lungs — muting its victims, making them unable to move as they struggle to remain above the water. As the experts remind us, someone drowning may just look like they are floating, or looking up at the sky. But if a child is quiet, investigate quickly. Here are safety tips from the video series, Roy On Rescue:



Second, travelers should demand that cruise ships put lifeguards on duty at their pools. Some adults may object to having them around the adult pools, but those lifeguards can focus on keeping families and children out of the often less-crowded adult areas.  That would make these passengers happy. 

Lifeguards at the family pools can keep children from running and screaming, encourage the use of swim vests, and maintain the level of mayhem at a tolerable level for Kindle readers whose kids are not in the pool.

But most importantly, the presence of lifeguards will mean that someone who knows what drowning looks like, how to prevent it, and how to revive its victims, will be close at hand in case of an accident.

And an accident, given the little information shared with public, seems to be what happened to these two young boys.  A tragic accident that we should all be aware of, if only to decrease the odds it will happen again.


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1 Reply to “The Unthinkable”

  • KitBernardi

         This is an excellent article. Well researched, thoughtful and motivating.  I know as a parent right now considering a family cruise this Spring Break in March, kids drowning will be on my mind even though my son is on a swim team and swims two miles five nights a week for practice.  Drowning can happen to anyone, any time, at any age.  As a former swim instructor and lifeguard myself for many years to earn summr spending money and put myself through college, I know how water is dangerous — whether in a pool, lake, baeach or bathtub.  But we all need reminding and education about what drowning looks like. And that is what you’ve done for me today. Thank you.     

         As a teen life guard, I saved a kid at our local pool who was “just floating.”  It was a crowded pool on a sticky, hot Midwest day.  A swimmer in the middle of the packed giant kids’ pool started yelling at me and pointing to the child “floating.”  I’ll never forget doing mouth-to-mouth, his wide vacant eyes, his limp body, and then him catapulting upwards, spitting, sputtering to life.  I tear up as I write this.  What if he hadn’t lived?  The guilt, the fright, the parents, the park district, the system…who to blame if the child had died?  Would I be blamed for not seeing him inactive sooner? Would the pool be blamed for allowing too many people in?  Would the park district be blamed for booking the swimming event?  Did anything change after this incident?  Yes.  I got fired. And went to work for another pool heading up their swimming lessons program.

         Thank you for writing this and your call to action for everyone to take responsibility for children around water at all hours of the day and night. Your “unthinkable” article has given us all much to think about.