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Home > Cruise News Archive > The Gloves Are Off: Royal Caribbean Fights Back
Date Published: January 5, 2006
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The Gloves Are Off: Royal Caribbean Fights Back
The following is reprinted in its entirety from a distributed release.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL RESPONDS TO ALLEGATIONS INVOLVING GEORGE SMITH'S DISAPPEARANCE WITH FACTUAL CHRONOLOGY

MIAMI -- January 5, 2006 -- George Smith, IV tragically disappeared from the Brilliance of the Seas sometime in the early morning hours of July 5, 2005, while the ship was sailing in the Mediterranean Sea on a 12-day cruise enroute to Turkey. The reason for his disappearance is being thoroughly investigated by the FBI but is still unknown. The FBI has requested that Royal Caribbean and others connected with the incident limit their remarks so as not to compromise that investigation, and we have resisted commenting until now. Even today, we will not comment on items which could interfere with the FBI's investigation.

All of us at Royal Caribbean extend our deepest sympathies to Jennifer Hagel Smith and the whole Smith family. They have suffered an inconsolable loss, and it is totally understandable they want answers and some measure of closure regarding Mr. Smith's disappearance. However, there has been a lot of inaccurate and unfair speculation about our company's response to the incident, and the time has come to set the record straight.

I. Royal Caribbean acted immediately upon learning Mr. Smith might have gone overboard, searched for him, and performed a thorough investigation to find out what happened.

II. The ship's crew responded properly to the one complaint of "partying" noise coming from the Smith cabin during the night in question.

III. We notified Turkish and U.S. law enforcement authorities promptly and cooperated fully with their investigation, and we continue to assist the FBI in its search for the truth. This included promptly sealing the cabin and canopy over the lifeboats, providing authorities with access to all passengers and crewmembers, and providing all other information requested or known. All evidence in the cabin and on the canopy was protected until the Turkish authorities finished their forensic investigation late that afternoon and told the ship those areas were released for cleaning.

IV. At each and every step, Mrs. Hagel Smith was treated with compassion and, while in Turkey after the incident, was provided constant assistance and support, including a personal escort from the ship throughout the ensuing investigation.

V. Upon learning of Mr. Smith's disappearance, we kept the family informed until they directed us not to contact them.

I. THE COMPANY ACTED PROMPTLY

The initial reports of blood on the canopy came in just after 8:30a.m., over two hours after the ship had docked and many passengers and crew had departed. Within 10 minutes, the canopy area was secured, and a thorough search of the ship was undertaken for passengers in the cabins above and surrounding the bloodstain. Three guests, including Mr. and Mrs. Smith, were initially unaccounted for and did not respond to pages. By approximately 9:15 a.m., the ship's officers gave instructions that American and Turkish authorities be notified.

As part of the search following the initial passenger reports of seeing blood on the canopy, the ship's Chief Officer entered the Smiths' cabin at 8:41 a.m. and determined the cabin was empty. Since the Smiths had not been found, the Captain ordered the cabin sealed and a guard was posted around 8:50 a.m. Ship's personnel continued to search the ship for the missing guests.

Shortly before 10:00 a.m., the Staff Captain and two other ship officials went to the Spa, where they had been informed Mrs. Hagel Smith was having a massage. She was asked to come out of the treatment room and to meet with them in a nearby private room. The officers were relieved to have found one of the missing guests, but requested her help in ascertaining any information concerning the whereabouts of her husband. She responded that she was not aware that Mr. Smith was missing or where he was. Mrs. Hagel Smith also told the officers her husband may have slept elsewhere. She added they had been partying and that he had slept elsewhere on the ship on at least one other night during the cruise.

Allegations that the ship's crew harshly informed Mrs. Hagel Smith about the blood stained awning are not correct. Having found blood on the canopy and having not located Mr. Smith thus far, even though a search was still underway, the Staff Captain determined it was best to advise Mrs. Hagel Smith her husband might have gone overboard. But he first thought it helpful for her to have a female officer as a companion during what he feared would be a very difficult time.

Approximately 15 minutes after she was located in the Spa, Mrs. Hagel Smith was introduced to the ship's Guest Relations Manager, Marie, a ship's officer. Marie was in her office and was asked to assist and support Mrs. Hagel Smith. There, at approximately 10:15 a.m., the Staff Captain told Mrs. Hagel Smith that something outside the ship indicated Mr. Smith may have gone overboard. While there is no good way to deliver such horrific news, he was careful not to mention any blood out of concern for her well-being. At one point, the Staff Captain was specifically asked whether blood was found on the outside of the ship. The Staff Captain did not wish to answer in Mrs. Hagel Smith's presence, but she may well have inferred the answer from his silence.

An intensive search of the ship was immediately undertaken, completed and failed to find Mr. Smith. The ship has a sophisticated system, called "SeaPass," which keeps track of people who enter or leave the ship. As part of the investigation, the "SeaPass" system also was reviewed to ensure that Mr. Smith had not simply walked off the ship with other passengers who had gone ashore. He had not.

Once ship officers concluded that Mr. Smith was missing and had possibly gone overboard, they attempted to determine a likely timeframe in which that might have happened. The ship's officers computed that George Smith left the ship in Greek waters based upon an analysis of various interviews taken during that day, computer logs of the ships coordinates, and other information that had been compiled. After completing their investigation and analysis, the ship then contacted the Greek Coast Guard at 1:57 p.m. to conduct a search.

II. THE CREW RESPONDED APPROPRIATELY TO THE SINGLE NOISE COMPLAINT

At 4:05 a.m. during the night, a guest in one of the cabins adjoining the Smiths' cabin called the Guest Relations desk and complained about loud voices and drinking game noises coming from the Smith cabin. Security went to the Smith cabin in response to that complaint, but the noise had already stopped, and there was no answer to our knocking. We now know from interviews of passengers conducted after Mr. Smith was found missing that the guest pounded on the wall at about the same time he called the Guest Relations desk and the noises stopped almost immediately. Since there was no noise when security arrived or any report or sign of violence or danger, security left believing all was well. We had no justification for invading a guest cabin on the basis of one simple partying noise complaint.

Shortly after 4:30 a.m., Mrs. Hagel Smith was found sleeping on the floor of a corridor on the other side of the ship and a significant distance from her cabin. Security was notified and arrived shortly thereafter. As several ship personnel remained with Mrs. Smith, two crewmembers went to her cabin at 4:48 a.m. to see if anyone was there to assist in her return. They knocked and, not getting a response, looked inside the cabin, found it empty and saw nothing amiss. While the crewmembers were still outside the Smith cabin, the guest in the other adjoining cabin looked out his cabin door, complained about the earlier noise, and reportedly advised crewmembers to enter the cabin. However, they had already opened the door and seen nothing amiss.

Mrs. Hagel Smith was taken back to her cabin by wheelchair at 4:57 a.m. by two security guards and a female supervisor. She was placed on top of her bed and asked if she was all right. She answered that she was okay, and the security personnel left the room. George Smith was not present, and nothing appeared amiss.

The ship arrived in Kusadasi, Turkey, at 6:14 a.m., and passengers were cleared to go ashore at 6:39 a.m. Only subsequent to Mr. Smith's July 5 disappearance did Royal Caribbean learn that a number of other guests also heard various noises apparently emanating from the Smith cabin during the early morning hours. Unfortunately, none of them were reported at the time. Only the one guest noted above called reception to report the party-type noises. At the time, the crew responded appropriately to a simple partying noise complaint.

III. WE PROMPTLY NOTIFIED TURKISH AND U.S. AUTHORITIES AND FULLY COOPERATED WITH THEIR INVESTIGATIONS

Royal Caribbean has a port agent, who is a designated representative to assist its ships, guests, and crew in any local matters in every single port it visits worldwide. At 9:15 a.m., when George Smith could not be located in response to the initial pages, the ship directed its port agent to contact the Turkish police. The port agent also contacted the U.S. Embassy. Royal Caribbean representatives in Miami contacted the FBI directly at 10:19 a.m. Turkish time (3:19 a.m. EDT) and were told that the FBI would notify other U.S. authorities including the U.S. embassy in Turkey. As more information became available, a second call was made to the FBI by Royal Caribbean at 10:28 a.m. (Turkish time) (3:28 a.m. EDT). The FBI maintains a legal office in Ankara, Turkey, but by coincidence, it turned out that there was an FBI agent in Kusadasi, who happened to be on vacation in that area and the FBI asked him to attend the scene. The Turkish authorities asked to speak to several people from the ship, including Mrs. Hagel Smith, the Captain, and some crew and passengers. The ship and its passengers were under the jurisdiction of Turkish authorities since they were in a Turkish port. The Turkish authorities refused the ship's explicit request that the interviews take place on the ship. They were adamant the interviews take place in accordance with normal police procedure and that they be conducted off the ship, beginning in the police office in the Port terminal. It is the FBI's normal practice that when such international incidents occur, the FBI will usually rely on local police authorities, working in conjunction with the FBI legal attache agents at the embassies, to conduct the initial investigation and turn over the results to the FBI. The FBI confirmed this policy as recently as a Congressional hearing on December 13, 2005.

The Turkish police arrived at the ship at 12:30 p.m. and conducted a full forensic investigation of both the cabin and the canopy, including taking blood samples, fingerprints, photographs, and collecting other evidence in the room. They secured and removed such evidence. The Turkish authorities informed Royal Caribbean that all of this evidence has been delivered to the FBI. The Turkish police had the authority to take whatever time was needed, and they did so. We also gave them our full cooperation in doing so. Had they requested more time, the departure of the ship would have been delayed for as long as necessary.

In addition to Mrs. Hagel Smith, the police questioned two other guests and four members of the ship's crew. All members of the crew voluntarily gave testimony and answered police questions. By late afternoon, the police advised us they had completed their forensic investigation. They also advised us that they did not have any reason to hold either Mrs. Hagel Smith or any of the other people questioned. They said that would continue their investigation, but they had obtained all the forensic evidence they needed and the ship, her guests, and crew were cleared to leave. They said at that time that ship officials could now clean the cabin and the canopy.

During the course of the day, the Captain observed passengers leaning way over the balcony railings in order to view the blood and take photographs. He was concerned about passenger safety and disruption to the ship. The balcony railings on the ship are high, but even so, there can be a danger if a person leans too far over. The Captain did not clean the canopy immediately after the authorities authorized him to do so, but two hours later, he thought it prudent to allow the cleaning. He then personally spoke with the Turkish police and re-confirmed that the authorities had no objection to cleaning the blood from canopy. The Turkish authorities advised the Captain that since they had completed their forensic investigation, collected blood samples and taken photographs, they gave the Captain express permission to clean the blood off the canopy. That was done at 6:15 p.m. using a pressure hose. It is simply not true that the canopy was cleaned earlier than this or that it was ever painted over.

The FBI provided no instructions to Royal Caribbean in either of the two calls which it made in the morning or anytime during the remainder of the day, either directly or through their agent on the scene, regarding preserving the blood found on the canopy or keeping the room under seal for any period of time after the Turkish authorities had completed their investigation. Royal Caribbean understands that the FBI was in communication with the appropriate authorities. This belief was confirmed with the arrival of the U.S. Consulate Representative and an FBI agent to the police station in Kusadasi. Therefore, when the Captain received permission from the Turkish authorities, who had already completed their forensic testing, the Captain believed it was permissible to wash the blood from the canopy.

Mrs. Hagel Smith, in conversations with her father and the ship Captain, had stated she wished to join her parents and return home as soon as possible. Only after the police released Mrs. Hagel Smith and completed their examination of the cabin did the Captain allow Marie, the ship officer who had accompanied her all day during the investigation, to retrieve her belongings from her cabin and deliver them to her so she could return home to be reunited with her family. Aside from that one brief period when her belongings were being packed between approximately 6-6:30 p.m. on July 5, the cabin remained closed and off limits for another six days.

During this six-day period, Royal Caribbean was in continual communication with the FBI. In fact, as noted below, it was the FBI agent who acted as an intermediary in giving Marie the safe combination so that she could retrieve Mrs. Hagel Smith's belongings from the cabin. In addition, an FBI agent boarded the ship and inspected the cabin on July 7.

On two additional occasions (July 8 and 9, 2005), Royal Caribbean also advised the FBI that the cruise was ending in Barcelona on July 11, 2005, and it was standard procedure for the cabin to be cleaned and placed into service. Royal Caribbean specifically invited the FBI aboard the vessel to conduct their own investigation. The FBI acknowledged they understood the situation and in fact sent an agent to board the vessel and inspect the cabin before it was cleaned. In addition, on July 8, 2005, Royal Caribbean's President also specifically asked the FBI if there was anything further Royal Caribbean could do to help in the investigation. The FBI made no further requests of Royal Caribbean during this time. Receiving no objection or instructions from the FBI to the contrary, and knowing that the Turkish authorities already conducted forensic testing and released the cabin, Royal Caribbean saw no reason not to follow standard procedure and prepared the room for the guests who had pre-reserved the cabin. Three days later on July 14, 2005, for the first time, the FBI called and requested that the cabin be vacated and remain empty. Royal Caribbean complied with this request and has continued to comply with all requests from the FBI to the present.

While anyone can second guess these decisions based on five months of hindsight, the fact is that the Captain and crew protected the cabin and the canopy not only for the amount of time needed for the investigation, but for longer than any authority requested. They based their decisions on any and all guidance received from the authorities, all of whom we kept informed.

IV. THE SHIP'S CREW RESPONDED COMPASSIONATELY TO MRS. HAGEL SMITH'S NEEDS

Royal Caribbean understood from the first moments of this tragedy that Mrs. Hagel Smith's ordeal was traumatic and that she needed to be treated sensitively. Her husband was missing and had apparently gone overboard; any police inquiry would inevitably involve questioning of the spouse; and she could not even gain access to her own belongings because her cabin had been sealed. From the outset, the Captain and crew therefore tried to provide her with support and assistance in a sympathetic and compassionate manner.

Claims that she was abandoned, asked to leave the ship, or left alone in Turkey are utterly false. Contrary to speculation and innuendo, from the moment she was found at the spa and taken to Marie's office, she was never even left alone. During her questioning in the terminal by Turkish authorities, she had had two ship officers with her, including Marie. During her questioning in the police station by a Turkish (female) judge, she had an FBI agent and an official from the U.S. Consulate with her. Marie, the Royal Caribbean officer with her at the police station, was asked by the FBI agent to leave the group during the judge's questioning. In fact, at least one Royal Caribbean officer, Marie, accompanied her throughout the day and consoled and comforted her from shortly after 10:00 a.m. until about 6:00 p.m. that night, when Mrs. Hagel Smith retired to her hotel arranged by our port agent and in the company of the U.S. consulate officer.

Reports that she was forced to wear clothing with the company's logo are false. Mrs. Hagel Smith requested a change of clothes, since she was still in the clothes she wore the night before. Marie helped Mrs. Hagel Smith get a change of clothes before leaving the ship to be interviewed. At approximately 11:35 a.m., one and a half hours after she had been located in the Spa, Marie took Mrs. Hagel Smith to a private room and offered her an opportunity to shower, rest and change clothes before her interview with Turkish authorities. Mrs. Hagel Smith accepted. Because her cabin was sealed, she had no clean clothes. Marie therefore asked staff to get comfortable new clothes from the ship's gift shop, most of which typically carry the cruise line insignia. Mrs. Hagel Smith chose the specific clothes she wore from a selection obtained from the gift shop. She was never forced to wear anything. Marie lent Mrs. Hagel Smith a brush for her hair, toiletries, and gave Mrs. Hagel Smith a bathrobe to use. In addition, she gathered some magazines and even a CD player to help calm her during the long day ahead. Finally, Marie gave Mrs. Hagel Smith her own long-sleeved, zip-up sweater to wear over the clothes from the boutique. Contrary to certain reports that she was prevented from calling home, Mrs. Hagel Smith was, in fact, assisted in making calls to her own family and Mr. Smith's family. Her first calls were to her father at approximately noon Turkish time (5:00 a.m. EDT), after unsuccessfully trying to reach her sister-in-law. The ship facilitated these calls for her. The Captain participated in one of the phone calls with Mrs. Hagel Smith's father, which involved the location of the police interview. When the police insisted they wanted to interview Mrs. Hagel Smith in their own facilities, a ship officer tried to convince the police to do it on the ship, but they were adamant and they asserted jurisdiction to conduct the investigation. The Captain explained this to Mrs. Hagel Smith and to her father. Mrs. Hagel Smith talked further with her father and then agreed to cooperate and go off the ship for the questioning.

The ship allowed Mrs. Hagel Smith to place any call she wished. Soon after she was informed that Mr. Smith was missing, she said she wanted to call her own father and Mr. Smith's family. Marie helped her with the former, but noted that Mrs. Hagel Smith had previously told the ship's officers that Mr. Smith's absence from their cabin was not necessarily suspicious, as he might have been with friends. Marie therefore suggested she might want to wait to call Mr. Smith's family until it was clearer that he really was missing. Marie still hoped that Mr. Smith would turn up and thought Mrs. Hagel Smith wouldn't want to frighten the family unnecessarily, especially in the middle of the night in the U.S. as it was 11:35 a.m. Turkish time (4:35 a.m. EDT). However, within 25 minutes it became clear that they should be informed, and the ship facilitated the calls, starting at noon (5:00 a.m. EDT). In all, Mrs. Hagel Smith made at least seven calls home, all but one via the ship or other company representative. The only difficulty Mrs. Hagel Smith encountered was with respect to two calls she attempted but was unable to get through due to problems with the connection.

Royal Caribbean also tried to keep the Smith family informed of all available information. In all, our company called the family five times to provide them what little information was available. We stopped calling when Bree Smith, Mr. Smith's sister, told us that she was an attorney and did not want any more calls from the company. Mrs. Hagel Smith initially met with police at the port terminal station at 1:30 p.m., and later in the main police office approximately one hour later. The Turkish judge who conducted the official interview at the main police station decided to wait for the U.S. consulate official to arrive before questioning Mrs. Hagel Smith. Marie was with her during the questioning at the terminal as well as sitting with her at the police station. Contrary to reports, Marie she saw no incidents of taunting or efforts to humiliate Mrs. Hagel Smith.

As part of their investigation, the police requested a doctor to examine Mrs. Hagel Smith for bruises or other signs of a struggle. Marie insisted on going with her. Upon arrival at the hospital, Marie insisted that all individuals in the room leave other than the physician, a female nurse, and herself. Marie turned her body away to give Mrs. Hagel Smith privacy. The exam lasted two minutes.

There have been suggestions that Mrs. Hagel Smith only cooperated with the investigation by Turkish authorities because the captain told her two officers would accompany her when interviewed with the authorities and that the interview would be limited to a simple statement. The captain was true to his word. As noted above, two officers accompanied Mrs. Hagel Smith while she was first interviewed by Turkish authorities at the terminal. When they were advised that a U.S. consular official and an FBI agent were going to meet them at the next location, one of the officers returned to the ship. One Royal Caribbean officer, Marie, remained with her at all times, except when Mrs. Hagel Smith was interviewed by a female Turkish judge, and the FBI agent specifically told Marie to leave the room. The FBI agent and the U.S. consulate official remained in the room with Mrs. Hagel Smith.

The Captain never assured Mrs. Hagel Smith that she would only have to give one statement  he would never be in a position to control the Turkish investigation, and, thus, would never give such an assurance. Our first priority was to determine what happened to Mr. Smith. It was our belief then, and it remains so today, that Mrs. Hagel Smith shared that priority. The best way to advance the investigation was obviously to cooperate with the investigators. The ship was docked at a Turkish port and the Turkish police had jurisdiction over the ship and all its passengers and crew. Refusing reasonable demands by the police would not only be imprudent for everyone (including Mrs. Hagel Smith), it would probably be counterproductive.

The Turkish authorities performed their important duties responsibly and professionally. For example, part of the reason that the questioning took longer than expected was that the Turkish authorities waited for the arrival of the consular officer and the FBI agent before continuing the questioning. Altogether, it took approximately four hours from the time Mrs. Hagel Smith left the ship until the authorities released her. It must have been a difficult time for her, but it is unfair to suggest that this was an unreasonable imposition that the Captain should have or could have spared her in an investigation of a possible murder.

As the day continued, Mrs. Hagel Smith repeatedly said she wanted to be reunited with her family. Royal Caribbean was fully prepared to assist with these arrangements, and the Captain even offered to have Mrs. Hagel Smith remain on the vessel until arrangements could be made for her to fly home from Pireaus, but he was advised the U.S. consulate official was already arranging for her travel home on a Lufthansa flight. The final arrangements were subsequently made by Royal Caribbean's port agent, who also made arrangements for a hotel and transportation for Mrs. Hagel Smith to go to the airport on the following day. Suggestions that she was kicked off the ship in Turkey are false.

Later that afternoon, at approximately 5:45 p.m., the police released Mrs. Hagel Smith and told her she was free to fly home. Mrs. Hagel Smith gave the FBI agent on the scene the combination to her cabin safe in order to be able to pack up Mr. and Mrs. Smith's personal belongings. Marie offered to return to the ship to do so, and the FBI agent gave Marie the combination to the safe. After verifying with Mrs. Hagel Smith that she was authorized to open her safe, Marie returned to the ship. She packed Mrs. Hagel Smith's clothes and retrieved her passport and other valuables from the cabin safe using the code the FBI agent gave her. Marie handed the valuables directly to the U.S. Consulate official who was in the cabin with Marie. Ship officers were only responding to Mrs. Hagel Smith's repeated requests to be with her family. Marie carefully packed the nicer clothing in the suitcases and used company's shopping bags for the excess. The consular officer then took Mrs. Hagel Smith to her hotel, which had been arranged by Royal Caribbean's port agent. The consulate officer stayed at the same hotel so she could accompany her to the airport in the morning. The ship departed Kusadasi at 7:08 p.m.

During the day, ship officers and the company's port agent worked closely with the U.S. Consulate and the FBI to ensure that Mrs. Hagel Smith was treated with care and compassion. Together, these individuals worked hard on her behalf and unquestionably softened some of the worst edges of her ordeal. Each contributed as much as he or she reasonably could and, while nothing could eliminate her ordeal, to attack their individual efforts and contribution is unfair.

V. WE WILL CONTINUE TO SEARCH FOR ANSWERS

The tragic disappearance of George Smith is a terrible heartbreak for his wife and family and we understand that they are inconsolable. We sympathize with their loss and their grief. We will continue to cooperate fully with the FBI and other authorities in an effort to find the answers we all want. The ship's officers and crew did their best to assist Mrs. Hagel Smith in every way possible and to facilitate a complete and untainted investigation. We commend them for responding to this tragedy carefully, compassionately and professionally.
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