By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The crowded Carnival cruise ship that left on June 20 carried hundreds of giddy passengers. Some were celebrating momentous family occasions. Gloria Hernandez was onboard for her daughter's quince. Deborah Osgood took her 18-year-old son along as his high-school graduation gift. An Italian couple was honeymooning.
For at least six passengers, though, the fun was cut short. Ship authorities ejected them in the Cayman Islands for violating cruise rules. The vacationers say they had no idea they were being disobedient and that authorities greatly overreacted.
The humiliated travelers paid between $900 and $1500 each for the weeklong trip that left the Port of Miami on the Paradise, the industry's first smoke-free ship. To ensure the no-lighting-up rules were followed, Carnival sent out pamphlets and fliers to all ticket purchasers. Travel agents also held meetings to warn of the consequences: a $250 fine and possible expulsion from the boat.
But several passengers say there was an important shortcoming in the orientation. They weren't informed that mere possession of tobacco could be cause for them to be thrown off the ship. The only two admonitions appeared in fine print. One was on page 5 of the 23-page ticket contract, under section C. It reads: "All forms of smoking or the use or possession of smoking materials are prohibited at all times ." Four sentences later it states that a guest in violation of the contract can be "disembarked" at his or her expense. Carnival's receipts for passage, coupons that passengers must sign, also note in small type that possession of tobacco is prohibited.
New Times called Carnival's public relations department three times over five days, seeking comment. A woman who answered the third call explained the company was launching a new ship, the Carnival Triumph, and officials were too busy to respond to questions. Another report also may have kept Carnival's PR department occupied. The company acknowledged early in July that there had been 62 claims of sexual assault in five years aboard its ships. (The number was raised to 108 on July 28.)
Gloria Hernandez, a vice president of asset services at AFA Real Estate in Miami, was blissfully unaware of such controversies a month ago. She imagined the cruise would be a serene vacation in a safe environment, the perfect setting for a family event. She had planned the trip for a year. Her daughter, Annellys, was celebrating her quince, the 15th-birthday celebration that for some Hispanics is equivalent to a debutante ball. Annellys was one of 34 teenage girls jointly observing the occasion. Seventeen members of Hernandez's family, including parents, cousins, uncles, and in-laws, also booked passage for the party.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime event," Gloria Hernandez says. Hernandez, a smoker, never worried the choice of boat would be incompatible with her habit. The ship alternated a day at sea with a day in port. Stops included Cozumel, Mexico; the Grand Caymans; and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. While the ship is docked, Carnival allows passengers to exit and light up if they so desire. "It's no problem for me to go a day without a cigarette," Hernandez comments.
To prepare for the trip, Yolanda Martos, the travel agent who organized the cruise for the girls' families, held gatherings at her home. "She reinforced the no-smoking policy," Hernandez recounts. "But she never mentioned that if you were caught with tobacco you could get kicked off the boat." Martos counters that she knew of the policy and informed her clients. "It's common sense," the travel professional says. "Why would you bring cigarettes onboard if you don't smoke them?"
But others in Hernandez's party dispute Martos' account. "We were never told [by Martos] we could not have cigarettes on us," says Zenaida Oneyda Medina, whose daughter Melissa was also celebrating her quince on the ship.
On June 20, as the families boarded, Carnival employees requested that guests sign several receipts in the ticket book. Hernandez recalls that one page was for emergency contacts. Another authorized an onboard credit account. A third was the agreement not to smoke. She inked all three but apparently missed the clause on tobacco possession. A ship employee detached the signed coupons, kept them, and Hernandez proceeded onboard with her family. "The security guard never asked us if we had cigarettes. There were huge signs about not smoking, but nothing about having cigarettes."
Once settled into their cabin, the family started enjoying themselves. There were fancy dinners, casinos for the adults, and discos for the kids. After a day at sea, the boat docked in Cozumel. Hernandez bought a pack of Benson & Hedges onshore and smoked for much of the day. Then she put the pack in her camera bag and walked up the gangplank. She spent the next day at sea smokefree.
That night the quince group held a formal party for the 34 15-year-olds. Afterward the Hernandez family, attired in suits and dresses, retired to change into casual clothes. They planned to return to the casino and disco. But when Gloria Hernandez tried to open her cabin door, the card-key wouldn't work. She called housekeeping. "We thought it was a malfunction," she says. But instead of a maid, four security guards and a woman whose title was hotel manager marched down to meet them.
"They told us our cards had been deactivated because there was a report that smoking material had been found in our room. I said, 'Yes, I had cigarettes on top of the dresser. But I did not smoke them,'" she recalls. "They said, 'We know you have not smoked. There are smoke detectors everywhere, and you have not activated any of them. But you signed a paper saying you would not bring cigarettes onboard this ship.' I said, 'What paper?'"
The officials showed Hernandez the ticket contract. The family was eventually allowed into their cabin and informed the situation would be dealt with the following day. The next morning Hernandez marched to the captain's office. That's where she met her fellow scofflaws and their families.
Deborah Osgood, a certified public accountant from Atlanta, says her son John Cadle IV bought a box of small cigars in Cozumel and smoked one on the pier before boarding the ship. The crew had seen him. Once he was onboard, security officers confiscated the box. Osgood maintains her son was never accused of smoking on the ship.
Maria Naccarato and her family were with the quince party. (She didn't know Hernandez prior to the trip.) Naccarato says guards accosted her son one morning after breakfast on the way to the bathroom. She speculates that a ship employee saw the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. She maintains he only smoked them onshore after the boat docked.
An Italian couple on their honeymoon also were among the group. Although New Times couldn't reach the pair, Naccarato and Hernandez tell the same story: The couple bought cigarettes in Cozumel, smoked during the day, and reboarded the Paradise. Security officers smelled the smoke on their clothes, searched their bags, and found the butts.
Ship officials then informed the passengers they would be expelled from the boat for their transgressions. Hernandez made several ship-to-shore calls, costing about $500, to a lawyer. To no avail. By noon the captain ordered that six people -- the Italians, Cadle, Smith, Naccarato's son, and Hernandez -- be removed from the Paradise in the Grand Caymans. Osgood, who was not accused, decided to leave with her son. The Hernandez family's mood swung from jubilant to anguished. Annellys sobbed along with Gloria Hernandez's mother. "It was ugly," says Hernandez's friend Medina. "I think if [Hernandez had] had drugs on her she wouldn't have been treated so badly."
Carnival employees booked $240 airline flights back to Miami for the disgraced passengers and tacked a $250 fine onto their bills. With just a few minutes to spare, the group was led from the boat and hustled to the airport for a 1 p.m. flight. "They really ruined the trip for everyone," Medina says.
Back in Miami, Hernandez met with lawyer David Markarian. He immediately drafted a letter to Carnival threatening to sue for damages if the company did not reimburse Hernandez, apologize to her in writing, and instantly enact measures to warn passengers of the possession penalty. Markarian compared the cruise line's no-smoking policy with the one imposed by airlines. "Airplanes do not allow smoking [and] fine people or arrest them for smoking; however, the carrying of cigarettes is allowed and violates no law," he wrote. He went on to compare the behavior of ship security to "gestapo tactics reminiscent of the Nazis."
He's waiting for an answer.