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Cruise passengers recount nightmarish experiences, ask Congress for more passenger protections

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WASHINGTON - Laurie Dishman told senators through tears that she was choked and raped on a Royal Caribbean cruise by one of the line's employees, using her experience to shed light on the dangers that passengers might face on cruises.

"Cruise consumers have virtually no rights or protections," Dishman, a resident of Sacramento, California, said Wednesday during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in which witnesses called for more passenger protections on cruise liners. "I know this first-hand."

Dishman said she was hurt and humiliated during the 2006 incident when staff members were slow and discourteous in helping her. They made her collect evidence in trash bags, she said, and didn't take her to the infirmary immediately, administer anti-retroviral medications or give her another cabin in which to stay during the cruise to Mexico.

Even after an FBI investigation when the ship docked in the U.S., her rapist was never arrested or tried in the United States, Dishman said. The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual assault unless they come forward publicly.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the committee chairman, said Dishman's experience and other horror stories recounted at the hearing point to a lack of oversight and accountability for passenger safety in the cruise industry.

"In spite of the evidence that crimes, fires, mechanical failures, drownings and mishandled medical emergencies occur with disturbing regularity on cruise ships, the industry continues to deny that it has a problem," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller introduced a bill last year to improve protection of passengers on cruise ships. The hearing Wednesday was the second he has called to raise awareness of the problems and how his bill could address them. While cruise line officials appeared at the earlier hearing, no industry representatives were present for Wednesday's session.

Rockefeller repeated throughout the hearing that the majority of people who take cruises have a good and safe time, but he added that even those relatively rare occurrences of passenger peril drive home the necessity of putting more protections into place.

Philip Gerson, a Miami-based civil trial lawyer who has litigated cruise liner cases, said significant improvements in passenger safety are needed.

Gerson said that one of his clients was a 15-year-old girl with Asperger syndrome who was raped by a juvenile and an adult while on a holiday cruise in the Caribbean. Her mother believed that teen activities would be supervised by cruise staff as suggested by promotional material, he said. There were not enough security personnel on the ship, he said, putting the teenager at risk.

"If you think that young women are safe on cruise ships, think again. They're not," he said.

Another witness, Kim Ware of Houston, said she was a passenger on the Carnival Triumph in 2013 when it lost power in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine room fire that disabled basic systems including water and sewage. She described how feces in red biohazard bags lined the hallway, a "tent city" appearing on the deck to shield passengers from the sun, and sewage coming up through the shower drains.

Ware said she was scared that fights would break out on the ship as food hording became common and the stench became worse. There was little to no direction from staff, she said.

"It was soon very clear that Carnival Cruise Lines had no plan in place for such a disaster," she said. "They were essentially winging it."

Committee members said cruises need to make it clear to passengers before they buy their tickets what rights they have onboard and what rights they are giving up. They also need to make more clear how safe cruises actually are, they said.

Last August, major cruise liners began voluntarily posting crime data online amid pressure from Congress and victims for more transparency. But the panelists and committee members said it wasn't enough.

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