Inside a small guest cabin on the Carnival Victory, 6-year-old Qwentyn Hunter and his 10-year-old brother, Jermaine, begged their parents to order peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from room service. It was the last day of the family's four-day trip from Miami to Mexico in October 2013, and the ship was chugging across the Gulf on its way back to the port. As the boys gobbled up their sandwiches, they pleaded to go up to the pool.
With their dad in tow, the two brothers bolted onto the deck and hopped into the shallow hot tub. It was a steamy Sunday afternoon, and the DJ was just setting up on an upper deck.
As he watched his sons splash around in the waist-high water, Caselle Hunter, a 40-year-old construction engineer with a stubbly goatee, bumped into one of his wife's church friends. Caselle chatted with the man for several minutes while they watched the boys swim, their conversation interrupted only when they saw Jermaine jump out of the hot tub to join a group of passengers dancing to the DJ's first song. Only a few minutes passed before Caselle heard the words that would forever haunt him. "Somebody get that kid!" the DJ shouted over the mike.
A nearby passenger dove into the water, and a crowd quickly gathered around the pool. As the man surfaced with a young boy in Toy Story swim trunks, Caselle came to the horrifying realization that it was his youngest son. He shoved his way through the crowd and knelt by his 6-year-old's side as other passengers began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Caselle hardly knew what to make of the situation. He hadn't spotted Qwentyn climbing out of the hot tub, nor had he heard him pitter-patter over to the pool.
"Come on, Qwentyn. Come on, Qwentyn," he repeated.
Tashara Hunter emerged from the family's cabin just in time to see a passenger giving Qwentyn chest compressions. "Is that my baby?" she shrieked.
Seeing her distress, the church friend pulled her back and pushed her onto a lounge chair while covering Tashara's ears and telling her to pray. The crew's medical staff carted Qwentyn down to the clinic, but less than an hour after the rescue attempt, the ship's doctor said there was nothing more he could do.
To his family, Qwentyn's death was an unimaginable blow, but back on land, they learned it was far from an isolated incident. In fact, just seven months earlier, a 4-year-old Minnesota boy had nearly drowned in a pool on a Disney cruise. Since 2013, at least eight children and two adults have drowned or nearly drowned in cruise ship pools.
Even worse, advocates say those deaths could've been easily prevented: With the exception of Disney, none of the major cruise lines — Carnival, Royal Caribbean, or Norwegian, all of which are headquartered in Miami-Dade County — employs lifeguards.
Cruise line representatives insist that signs posted around the pools make this known. "Many cruise lines provide clear and conspicuous signs that a lifeguard is not present," says the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group.
Though Carnival extended its "heartfelt sympathy" to the Hunters, the cruise line says children's safety primarily falls on parents.
"Our perspective is that close parental supervision is the best practice to ensure pool safety," Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell says. "This is a similar policy to most hotels and resorts."
But there is one big difference between cruise ship pools and those on land. Thanks to an obscure, nearly 100-year-old law, cruise lines aren't liable for the big-money lawsuits that can be filed against land-bound resorts and hotels when a child drowns. If a passenger dies at sea, the cruise line is typically on the hook only for actual expenses, like the cost of a funeral. For a child like Qwentyn Hunter, that might total only $10,000.
So rather than pay for lifeguards to watch out for swimmers, the cruise lines simply chalk up lawsuits from occasional drownings as a lesser cost of doing business, says Jim Walker, a South Miami maritime lawyer who writes a popular cruise blog. "My view of course is that cruise lines don't hire lifeguards because it doesn't fit their business model," he says. "That's a place they can squeeze and make additional profits in a very competitive industry."
That obscure law is so important to the cruise industry's bottom line that the companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying against any efforts to make shipowners pay families for their pain and suffering, or even for the cruise lines' own negligence.
The Hunters say they aren't seeking big money from the cruise line — they simply want the industry to make a small investment in lifeguards. While they accept responsibility for their son's death, they also desperately hope they can save future cruise passengers from dying.
"We were never looking for monetary gain, because no amount of money can bring our son back," Tashara says. "But the fact of putting lifeguards on there, on their ships to prevent someone else going through what we experienced, was the only request we had."
Growing up in Memphis, Caselle Hunter dreamed of palm trees. As a kid, he spent hours watching Nickelodeon and seeing a rotation of commercials for Universal Studios and Disney World, places he could never visit. His parents split when he was in junior high, and after that, he stopped asking. Instead, he vowed to make the trip with his own children.
"I said that one day I wanted to have a family and take my kids to Orlando, take 'em on Double Dare, see Mickey Mouse, all that good stuff," Hunter says.
He was 22 when his cousin introduced him to a pretty 20-year-old named Tashara, with big brown eyes and a shy smile. She had grown up in Memphis too but had gone to a different high school. The two quickly hit it off.
At the time, Tashara was raising an 11-month-old son, David, while Caselle had a 2-year-old daughter named Cassundra. Tashara admired the way Caselle cared for his daughter, even learning to braid her hair. Soon the couple had a child of their own on the way. Their daughter Jamila was born in April 1996.
That fall, Caselle moved down to Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando, to start technical school, and on May 30, 1997, he and Tashara wed in Memphis. Immediately after their two-week honeymoon in Hawaii, Tashara and the kids joined him in Florida.
After school, Caselle got a job with Bright House installing cable in new subdivisions, while Tashara stayed home raising the three kids. After a bit of a gap, they tried for one more child. In 2003, their son Jermaine was born, and finally, in 2007, Tashara gave birth for the last time, bringing their family to seven.
Qwentyn was an easy baby who rarely cried; sometimes his parents grew worried when he went the whole night without making a fuss. But as he grew older, he turned out to be the ham of the family. There was something about him that was so charming that he always seemed to get away with whatever stunt he pulled.
Most people called him Q. Strangers were always telling him how cute he was, and women often remarked that if he was "just a little bit older..." He had a special way of wiggling his ears, which stuck out like butterfly wings. Qwentyn loved to show off that trick.
He thought of himself as a superstar, someone who would obviously become famous some day. He never passed up an opportunity for a photo and knew his good angles from an early age, even working with a modeling agency. Although he was a daddy's boy, Qwentyn was fiercely protective of his mother, constantly checking up on her: "Mom, you OK?" "You good, Mom?"
When he was in kindergarten, his parents separated for several months, an interruption from their 15 years of marriage that ended with a reunion eight months later. The trip to Mexico was their first family vacation since the split.
"[In] 2013, I was really just getting back home working on our marriage and being around the kids," Caselle says. "Going on the cruise was kind of our way of trying to bring the family a little bit closer together."
On the Victory, the kids met the crew and went to a magic show. When they docked in Cozumel, the Hunters rented a Jeep and took it down an isolated dirt road, kids bouncing in the back seat and giggling as the mud splashed onto their faces. Tashara recorded the ride on her iPhone but deleted it hours later because the storage was full. That was Saturday, the day before the pool.
"The next day after that, I was just like, killing myself," Tashara says. "If I would have known, I would have saved that. It's those things that you kick yourself for afterward."
That Sunday afternoon is in many ways still a blur to both parents. Somehow they choked the words out to tell their other children what had happened. Carnival flew Tashara's mother to Miami from Memphis, and her pastor drove south with their eldest son, David, who hadn't been on the cruise. The family holed up overnight in a hotel in Miami so the medical examiner could perform Qwentyn's autopsy.
"It was a horrifying experience," Caselle says. "To this day, I just wish I would have been paying more attention to what was going on."
The truth is, though, that the Hunters' experience isn't that rare. Quite a few children drown on cruise ships. In most cases, at least one parent or guardian is with the child when the drowning occurs. None of those parents has been criminally charged in the deaths because authorities have ruled them accidental.
Seven months prior to the Hunters' cruise, 4-year-old Chase Lykken had been swimming on the Disney Fantasy in a pool emblazoned with Donald Duck's image when his mother turned to grab sunscreen. In just a few moments, Chase disappeared, sending his parents on a frantic search before they realized he had been underwater the whole time. Though he survived the incident, Chase sustained serious brain damage.
The horrifying scene repeated the following year on a cruise from New York to the Bahamas. Four-year-old Dante Curtis and his 6-year-old brother, Victor, were at the pool on the Norwegian Breakaway with their grandmother when she stepped away for a smoke break. Before long, both boys were being pulled out of the water by other passengers who realized they were not snorkeling, but unconscious, floating on the top of the pool face down. While Victor was flown to land by medical helicopter for treatment, his little brother died onboard.
In 2015, two other children died on cruise ships. That May, 10-year-old Katelyn Blair drowned in the pool on the Norwegian Gem, and seven months later, 8-year-old Ricky Nguyen drowned aboard the Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas.
Though many cruise ship drownings seem to make the local news, there's no agency that specifically tracks them. Cruise lines began reporting suspicious deaths to the Coast Guard only six years ago, after Congress passed a law requiring them to do so. But those reports don't specifically note how many were the result of drowning.
The Cruise Lines International Association points out that relatively few drownings happen on ships. Statistics say there are roughly 340 fatal childhood pool drownings per year in the United States, and media reports suggest only one or two of them occur on cruise ships.
But not all passengers who fall unconscious in cruise ship pools die. Less than an hour after departing Fort Lauderdale on a Royal Caribbean ship in January 2015, the parents of Ascanio Azzia, a 4-year-old Italian boy, briefly lost sight of him on a crowded pool deck. Six minutes passed before a swimmer noticed him at the bottom of the pool. After spending several days in an induced coma, he made a near-full recovery.
And not all cases involve children. At least two adults have floundered. In September 2013, 42-year-old Michael Moses Ward drowned in a hot tub on the Carnival Dream after downing too much Scotch, according to a police report. And this past August, a 72-year-old woman suffered a medical emergency in the pool on Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas, causing the boat to be redirected back to New Jersey so she could be hospitalized.
The day after Qwentyn Hunter died, Carnival released a statement offering its condolences to the family and explaining from its perspective how the drowning occurred. "Carnival Cruise Line does not have lifeguards on duty at our pools. As with many land-based hotels and resorts with swimming pools, cruise ships provide conspicuous signage to alert passengers that a lifeguard is not on duty," it read.
By the time the company released the statement, the next group of passengers had already boarded the ship for a five-day cruise in the "exotic eastern Caribbean." The pool had reopened, but still, no lifeguard was posted. The message was the same as it had always been: Swim at your own risk.
The Hunters returned home devastated, mourning and in shock. But as they looked into suing the cruise line over their son's death, their painful ordeal was only beginning.
On a chilly April morning, a group of wealthy bankers, politicians, and socialites said their goodbyes and left for a six-day transatlantic cruise, where a heated swimming pool, a squash court, and nightly ten-course dinners awaited them.
The year was 1912, and 2,300 passengers had boarded the RMS Titanic for what would become history's most infamous cruise. When the ship hit an iceberg and sank on the eve of April 14, the eight-member band famously played "Nearer My God to Thee" as the behemoth luxury cruise-liner sank.
Survivors and families of the nearly 1,500 passengers who perished soon filed suit against the shipowner. But in the end, they received only a fraction of what they had requested, settling with the White Star Line for $664,000. The paltry offering, which was to be split among all of the plaintiffs, eventually pushed U.S. lawmakers to create a federal wrongful-death statute for victims lost at sea. It was dubbed the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) of 1920.
"It was one of those bills that kind of lays around Congress for a long time and needed something to jump-start the force behind it," says Michael Eriksen, a maritime attorney in West Palm Beach. "The Titanic helped that process by highlighting the problem seen all along — that there was not any clear wrongful-death law to apply to something that happened on the high seas."
Although well-intentioned, the law would become one of the best protections for the cruise ship companies. And in recent years, the industry has spent millions of dollars making sure that law never changes.
In the 1920s, both DOHSA and state wrongful-death statutes allowed surviving family members to sue only for economic damages due to the death. Over time, however, Florida and most other states began allowing families to recover damages for their pain and suffering, or for when the deaths were caused by another party's recklessness or negligence. But while state laws changed with the times, DOHSA did not.
Originally, survivors could choose between federal and state statutes. But when a helicopter headed to a Louisiana offshore-drilling platform crashed in 1980, the district court ruled that the workers' widows could use only the federal law. Since then, families have been limited to recovering only actual economic losses when their loved ones die at sea — things such as funeral expenses, lost wages, and loss of child care.
"After 1986, you didn't have a choice anymore," Eriksen says. "If you get killed outside the territorial U.S., you're stuck with DOHSA."
The timing of the decision in many ways coincided with the rise of modern cruising. In 1988, Royal Caribbean broke records when it launched the Sovereign of the Seas, at that time the world's largest cruise ship. The '90s heralded insane growth as cruise lines began snatching up their own private islands in the Caribbean. And the bet paid off over the next decade: By 2010, 14 million people were cruising per year in North America, and the industry was raking in a whopping $24 billion annually. PortMiami and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale are now the two busiest ports in the nation, servicing a combined 8.5 million passengers last year.
The cruise lines smartly set themselves up to avoid pesky regulations while holding on to as much of their profits as legally possible. Bad-publicity crimes such as rape went notoriously underreported, while cruise ship workers complained of long hours and abysmal wages. Critics like Walker point out there's no equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration to oversee cruise lines, leaving the job to countries like the Bahamas that have "neither the interest or capability of regulating the billion-dollar U.S. cruise industry."
And because they register their ships overseas and incorporate in foreign countries, cruise lines are able to avoid paying nearly all U.S. taxes. That's true for the three major lines based in Miami-Dade. Carnival, headquartered in Doral, is actually incorporated in Panama, while Miami-Dade-based Norwegian is incorporated in Bermuda. And though its main address is in the City of Miami, Royal Caribbean is incorporated an ocean away, in Liberia.
"When you get on a cruise ship, you're basically boarding a foreign country," Eriksen says. "The cruise industry deliberately registers their vessels elsewhere to avoid some U.S. regulations and safety regulations."
It takes a high-profile tragedy to get Congress to notice those problems, Eriksen says. That's what happened in 1996 when a TWA flight bound for Paris crashed off the coast of Long Island, killing all 230 people onboard, including 16 high-school students traveling with their school's French club. The teens' parents put pressure on their local representatives, and Congress listened, amending DOHSA to allow them — and any future survivors of commercial plane crashes — to seek noneconomic damages.
Ten years later, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, a Democrat, hoped to extend the same rights to cruise ship passengers. In 2006 and 2007, he introduced bills that would have done that, following pleas from a woman whose mother was killed during an excursion in Cabo San Lucas while on a Carnival cruise. But both times, the bills died in committee.
Change seemed inevitable, however, when Sen. John Kerry introduced the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act in 2009. The bill sought to force cruise lines to report crimes to the FBI and the Coast Guard, to keep rape kits available for sexual assault victims, and to install man-overboard alert systems. As originally written, it also would have amended DOHSA to give victims' families more leverage, but that provision was struck before the bill passed in 2010. All the while, the cruise line industry spent $6.8 million lobbying Congress.
The failure couldn't have come at a worse time: On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers off the coast of Louisiana. Realizing their claims were limited by the 90-year-old law, family members petitioned Congress to help fix DOHSA. In response, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, introduced the Survivors Equality Act, which would have given them the same rights as survivors of airline crashes.
The cruise industry pushed back hard, and Leahy's bill was gutted so that the changes applied only to the families of the 11 Deepwater Horizon victims. But even that couldn't pass.
Leahy blamed South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican who blocked a vote on the legislation. Campaign finance records show DeMint received $6,000 from the cruise line industry that year.
And DeMint was far from the only recipient of cruise line dollars. In total, Royal Caribbean, Disney, and the Cruise Lines International Association spent nearly $3.9 million lobbying against changes to DOHSA that year. At the time, eight of the industry's top 20 recipients in Congress were from Florida, and records show the cruise lines floated $153,000 to representatives such as Corrine Brown, Kendrick Meek, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
All told, the cruise lines have spent $17 million lobbying Congress over the past five years. And it appears to be working.
"The industry is very well organized and makes a lot of political contributions," Eriksen says. "They've got jetcopters that can fly over to Congress and lobbyists who tell the same sad story of 'If you do this, it'll run us out of business.' I hate to predict something, but it's going to take another mass disaster of some type to change that."
Back home in Orlando in 2013, the Hunters passed Qwentyn's urn on a shelf in the movie room every morning. Qwentyn's siblings went to therapy. Tashara would find recordings on her phone of him singing Justin Bieber songs. Most days, her husband couldn't even work up the nerve to look at his son's photo.
At work, Caselle spent his days in the truck, driving from one job to the next, listening to talk radio. There were commercials for cruises where kids could sail for free. There were ads for an attorney who claimed to be "for the people" even though he hadn't been able to help the Hunters. And there was one morning in February 2014 when he heard a news bulletin describing how the two brothers from New York were pulled out of the water on the Breakaway.
For months, Qwentyn's parents had talked about starting an organization to put pressure on cruise lines to hire lifeguards and offer support for other families. But the moment he heard the news about the brothers over the radio, Caselle felt a new sense of urgency.
"Hearing that, it was like, OK, there's another one," he says. "They need to step up the safety as far as having another set of eyes — trained eyes — around the pool."
Through it all, Caselle and Tashara have done their best to find purpose in the tragedy. But they've discovered that pressuring a billion-dollar industry isn't easy — and that putting their cause on the internet can be its own devastating decision.
A year after Qwentyn's death, the couple started an online petition calling for cruise ships to hire lifeguards. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, garnering more than 82,000 signatures. But the Hunters also found themselves chastised over their son's death.
There was the woman from Pennsylvania who called them idiots, the several sets of parents who claimed they would never let their children escape their eyesight on a cruise, and a man from South Carolina who told them: "Your child's death is not on Carnival. It is on you."
Yet the Hunters never blamed Carnival; in their petition, Caselle explicitly wrote that "although it breaks my heart, I have come to terms with the fact that I got distracted and let this happen." The family was simply asking that the industry make as much of a point to hire lifeguards as it did to recruit employees to hawk Mai Tais.
Walker, the maritime attorney, says people who blame the parents miss the point: that poolside safety is a shared responsibility of caregivers and cruise lines. "I'm not asking you to pick one or the other," he says. "My pitch has always been the same: You need both."
But even attorneys who tangle regularly with cruise lines say trying to force that change is almost impossible. Thanks to the Death on the High Seas Act, few parents even bother suing after their children die. For some, the hassle and emotional turmoil aren't worth the small amount they could hope to recover financially.
"The system is so rigged that it makes it impossible to economically pursue the drowning death of a child because the scheme is such that a child's life is worthless," Walker says.
Going public with a lawsuit also opens a family up to scrutiny from the unforgiving depths of the internet. Maritime attorney Michael Winkleman says he tries to prepare his clients for the vitriol of online commenters.
"I guess because they can sort of hide behind their computer screen or their phone, they're a lot more emboldened in thinking that it's OK to treat people so disrespectfully," he says. "Any high-profile case, you have to expect that."
For Caselle, who was already fighting the urge to blame himself for his son's death, the internet became an echo chamber reinforcing his darkest thoughts.
"It really hurt," Caselle says, "especially on top of dealing with the guilt, and then to hear someone say, 'You should have been watching your child,' and 'You can't blame the cruise industry.' "
Eventually, his wife persuaded him to stop reading the comments.
"If we continue to feed into that and listen to that, it'll stop the cause," Tashara says. "And my son didn't die in vain. He died with purpose. And getting that purpose resolved, that's what our goal is."
This past June, Qwentyn's family gathered around a memorial tree that was planted outside his elementary school after his death. It was a sunny day with a bit of wind, and nine green pinwheels they had staked in the ground gently spun around and around.
"God's got us," his mother said.
"Rest in Heaven," his father said.
On the day Qwentyn would have turned 9, the family sang "Happy Birthday" and released a fistful of balloons into the air. They were green, his favorite color.
Three years after Qwentyn's death, the Hunters are still clamoring for protections that might have saved his life. They're hopeful that cruise lines will see that lives are at stake and choose to put their passengers over profits. But it's a battle that in many ways the Hunters admit they are unequipped to fight.
They do their best to celebrate small victories. The first sign of hope came just a couple of weeks after Qwentyn died, when Disney Cruise Line quietly placed lifeguards on its ships. Since then, there have been no reports of drownings or near-drownings on Disney cruises.
Disney has never explained exactly why it made the change and declined to speak with New Times about the issue. But maritime attorneys speculate the cruise line was forced to pay for lifetime medical care for Chase Lykken, a Minnesota boy who suffered severe brain damage after almost drowning on the Fantasy.
"People I spoke to in the industry said that the settlement was for lifetime care and was $15 million to $20 million," Walker says. (The case was reportedly settled out of court without the family having to file a lawsuit, so there's no public record of any agreement between the cruise line and the Lykkens. Disney also declined to comment on that case.)
Shaming the cruise lines into action might be the only hope for change. As Tashara says she has learned: "They're not going to do anything unless you hit them where it hurts, which is the pocket."
In two recent lawsuits, Winkleman has put cruise lines on blast for advertising family-friendly ships while failing to provide safety measures such as lifeguards. But even he's not hopeful a judge would order the companies to employ them.
"Unfortunately, I do think it's likely going to be either Carnival or Royal Caribbean or Norwegian voluntarily putting lifeguards on before I'm going to be able to force them to do it," he says. "Congress is not likely to get involved because they have extremely little regulation over cruise lines, and courts can't necessarily force them to put lifeguards on ships."
Walker and his wife, Lisa O'Neill, who practices alongside him, are equally pessimistic about the Death on the High Seas Act being amended in favor of passengers.
"I just don't see it happening," O'Neill says. "You would have to have some event that would cause it, and even Deepwater Horizon didn't do it."
Walker interjects, "You would need a senator's son to die during spring break on one of those ships to get personally invested in that."
"Even then —" O'Neill says grimly, not needing to finish the sentence.
As regular people with full-time jobs and no legal training, parents such as the Hunters are essentially David trying to take on a billion-dollar Goliath.
"Even with the Change.org petition, I think we got maybe 80,000 to 100,000 signatures. But then it's like, OK, we have signatures, but at what point do we take that and go to the next level?" Caselle says. "Who do we have to talk to as far as governors, senators, mayors?"
The Hunters have since moved out of the Winter Garden home they shared with Qwentyn and into one down a dirt road in Orlando, where Tashara runs a home daycare. The squeals and singing of children fill the house daily, but not always to her delight. There's one song the kids play — "Skidamarink" — that drives her crazy.
"That was the last song he sang to me," she says. "When I hear it, I'm like skip it, skip it, skip it."
The Hunters now run the Qwentyn Hunter Luv Foundation, offering support to other grieving families and visiting apartments in Orlando to talk to parents about swimming lessons and life insurance. Family friends have been supportive, but when those same friends make plans to go on cruises, the Hunters can't help but feel a little betrayed.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to New Times Broward-Palm Beach's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling South Florida's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"I'm like, do you realize what we just went through?' " Caselle says. "To go the same route that we went? On the same boat?"
His wife still has fond memories of the cruises the two of them took before they brought the kids. "I loved cruising," Tashara says. "Even now I want to cruise, but I don't think I can."
If she goes, she'll have to go alone — her husband has vowed never to set foot on a cruise ship again. There's only one circumstance under which he'll consider it.
"The only way somebody could get me on a cruise ship is if we're getting the lifeguard thing signed and they're naming it after my son and the Victory ship is the first ship that we're signing a document on," he says. "Other than that, I would feel like his death would be for nothing."