The ship, which has been sailing South American itineraries all winter, was four nights into a rather unique 14-night repositioning itinerary that began in Valparaiso (the port for Chile's Santiago) and which will eventually wind up in Ft. Lauderdale's Port Everglades (Millennium has, this winter, primarily served the Buenos Aires - Santiago round-the-horn route).
The passengers who died had embarked on an independently arranged shore excursion to Lauca National Park, in the high Andes Mountains, also known as the highlands of Chile. On the way back to Millennium, the 16-passenger mini-bus reportedly swerved to avoid an oncoming car and tumbled 300 ft. down a gorge. There were 12 passengers from the ship plus two more -- a Chilean driver and tour guide. The accident occurred, according to news reports, approximately 25 miles from Arica.
On its Web site, Viatour, a tour excursion operator -- and we emphasize strongly that Viatour is not serving Celebrity's own shore excursion operations -- self-describes the tour, priced at $85 per person, as this: "Depart from the coast, passing through the Lluta Valley, the desert and the foothills of the Andes until arrival at the altiplanico or high plateau of this mountain range where the Lauca National Park is situated. There is a wide variety of flora and fauna here which gives a beauty and nature which is venerated and respected by the native Aymara Indians of this zone. The Chungara Lake, one of the highest in the world at 4,517 meters above sea level (14,906 feet) is a Biosphere Reserve and the backdrop is the 'Los Payachatas' Volcanoes which house the guardian Malkus or Gods according to the local Indian culture. The tour includes visits to the Lluta Valley, Cardones Gorge, Pukara (Fort) de Copaquilla, Tambo Inca de Zapahuira and the villages of Parinacota and Putre."
According to its Web site, Vaitour is an internationally minded company that provides on-land experiences in places ranging from Venice to San Francisco and, obviously, beyond. There is neither a mention on Viatour's site of the tragedy nor of a place within the company to get additional information. Indeed, the most recent news on this company's Web site was more financially rather than consumer-oriented, and we quote: "Viator Secures $6 million to advance leadership position in online tours and activities market."
There is no evident contact or connection on their Web site for use in the case of a tragedy such as this, and Viatour did not respond to an e-mail request for information from Cruise Critic (no phone number is offered).
Viatour claims, according to its Web site, to arrange tours through outlets such as Hotwire.com, Priceline.com, and Travelocity and via hotel chains such as Wyndham and Fairmount.
In quite a contrast to Viatour's utter silence, what's highly unusual is that Celebrity, which has no responsibility for folks who book tour excursions other than those it offers onboard, is taking responsibility to an unusual degree. It has contacted appropriate Chilean and American consulates, is holding the ship in port and pledges to find out what caused the accident.
Additionally, the line plans a press conference for later this morning (stay tuned for Cruise Critic's report). Let us just say: They are going above and beyond what is required of them, because the tour was independently arranged.
The tragedy impacted, at least so far this evening alone, folks who aren't necessarily patrons of Cruise Critic's Celebrity message board. We read messages from folks who cruise on Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, among others, all offering heart-felt prayers.
At the same time there is, understandably, much grief in Cruise Critic's community over the accident and resulting deaths. Most, and at this point we simply do not know, of the passengers who died were residents of a New Jersey retirement community who were traveling together. Writes Leenie29: "Unfortunately I can tell you what happened. My in-laws were killed on that bus crash today. They were on a private excursion with their friends from their retirement village in NJ who were also killed."
Ultimately, regardless of whether the passengers who died were American or not, or preferred Celebrity over other cruise lines, or just happened to be adventuring at the right place at the wrong time (and it could happen to any of us, couldn't it?), MCCA2, otherwise known as Houston's Kate and Alan, said it pretty well: "They were our family too. Our cruising family. We all lost tonight."