My thoughts on how the cruise line handled the murder of one of its passengers

The past ten days or so have been tumultuous as I have been writing about the murder of one of the passengers on the ship I was traveling on. It had to be reported, of course, but it did sidetrack me from writing about the cruise.

So, I hope to wrap up that topic today and then write some more about the cruise itself. A suspect has been arrested in the murder and Star Clippers has decided not to visit Antigua again this season, so…

Let’s talk about how the issue was handled  on board the ship.

The body of 29-year-old Nina Nilssen was found at about 5 p.m. near the Pigeon Point Beach on Antigua on Tuesday, Jan. 19, and her family onboard did not discover that she was missing until around 11 p.m. (she was part of a large wedding party and everyone thought she was with someone else, I think)…anyway, the immediate family departed the ship that night and we sailed for St. Kitts about 3 a.m.

It has taken some days for me to collect my thoughts about all of this, but here are some of the problems with the way it was handled on board.

1. The crew blabbed. Most of them did not find out until early morning and, according to one, they were “freaked.” After all, they visit Antigua regularly and hold a barbeque on that beach. I do not think they were formally informed by the ship’s officers, but rather learned it through the rumor mill…which was in overdrive. The problem was that they started telling all the passengers and their information was inaccurate.

The first version I heard, as I was about to board the tender the next morning for St. Kitts, was passed on from a member of the deck crew. It was that the woman killed was brutally mauled with a broken beer bottle and that she was a member of a 25th wedding anniversary party. Both of those facts were wrong, as we later learned. But they certainly scared everyone.

I believe that the crew should have been gathered together early in the morning and given some basic facts by the ship’s officers and then told to not discuss it with passengers. They should have been told who to refer passengers to for information.

2. No one was giving out any formal information. It appeared that the ship’s officers were stymied by the situation and they were reluctant to talk with passengers. However, on a small ship news travels fast.  This just fueled the rumor mill. Early that afternoon, I heard through another passenger, who had lunched with the chief engineer, that the woman killed was the sister of the bride that I had written about earlier in the week. This, of course, increased our horror as we had all shared the joy of the wedding party. This information, regretfully, was true.

3. The police form. When we returned to the ship from the morning shore excursions there was a printed form in our cabins from the Royal Police Force on Antigua and Barbuda which stated that it was “investigating a homicide…” that “the offender might have been captured in tourist photographs” and asked us to review our photographs for anyone fitting a certain physical description.

This confirmed for all of us that indeed there had been a murder but there was no information about the victim. No information was given to us about this from the ship.

4. Finally, a reluctant confirmation. About 4 p.m., I finally managed to talk with the cruise director. I told her that there were all sorts of rumors swirling around the ship and suggested they gather the passengers together and give them some facts.

She did confirm for me that the sister of the bride was the woman who was killed (although I did not know her name at that time), and that the family had disembarked the night before. She noted, with some surprise, that the last time the girl was seen was 3:30 p.m. That is all she told me but it was enough for me to post it in this blog. I could not ignore the fact that this kind of tragedy had occurred.

5. A cryptic announcement. Just before dinner Wednesday an announcement was made that a family had disembarked because one of their party was missing and asked that any passengers with information should report it to the police. Then we were asked for a moment of silence. This was just plain weird, and more evidence of the officers avoiding the issue.

Again, I believe they should have called all passengers together and confirmed the basic facts because for the next three days on ship it was just about all the passengers were talking about. Everyone was trying to figure out exactly what happened, how it happened and what the timeline was.

As my sister-in-law, who has a background in psychology, explained: We were all trying to process what happened. This tragedy struck very close to us. We had all been on that beach, with that woman, just a couple of hours before she was murdered. And we felt close to that family, as we saw them all celebrating the marriage of their older daughter.

6. We sailed away in the dead of night. Over the next few days, this was the issue that most concerned many of the passengers…that we had sailed away, leaving a grieving family behind. Many felt we should have stayed in Antigua at least one more day in case we could have assisted the police investigation in any meaningful way. Perhaps a police official could have come on board to answer passenger questions.

To be fair to the cruise company, Star Clippers, the murder was not their fault. This was our late night in port, so they had no way of knowing a passenger was missing. However, we received no specific warnings about being safe on shore, never being alone, etc. but most passengers are fairly well traveled and, hey, this kind of thing had never happened before.

There really seemed no one on board who was capable of making the appropriate decisions. Both the captain and the cruise director were quite young. And, frankly, the captain’s English was so difficult to understand that he would not have been an effective communicator in this instance. The hotel director seemed the most mature person, but he never spoke to the passengers in any official capacity, although this might have been the time to bring him forward.

What should they have done? Perhaps flown in some official from either the company or its public relations firm to talk to the passengers.

I gather that the family of Nina was very well treated by the cruise line, the cruise agent and people on Antigua, according to their travel agent. And part of the confusion as to what to do about the passengers on board might have occurred because the travel agent apparently asked that the matter be kept private. But that whole idea was misguided.

The next few days on board were still pleasurable for many. Actually, the majority of the wedding party was still on board, but this event did overshadow much of the discussion. However, the ship’s officers just carried on like usual, as if nothing had happened and I think that was wrong to ignore passenger concerns and anxieties.

I had thought we might hear from the company after our return, in the form of an email or letter, but so far we have received nothing.

Again, I want to express my condolences to the Nilssen family.

About Cynthia Boal Janssens

Cynthia Boal Janssens is the editor and chief blogger for AllThingsCruise.com. She is a former national president of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). She has sailed on over 40 cruises all over the world.

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