Last year’s investigations into the COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships at the start of the pandemic, including Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess and Holland America’s MS Zaandam, revealed horrific vacations gone wrong for passengers from around the world. But what happened to the tens of thousands of crew members who remained trapped on ships even after all the guests had disembarked and found their way home?
At Bloomberg Businessweek, Austin Carr tells the devastating stories of cruise line employees found dead — in apparent suicides — aboard Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships, including Jozsef Szaller, a shore excursion manager from Hungary on the Carnival Breeze, and Mariah Jocson, a waitress from the Philippines on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas.
Interviews with affected crew members and their families suggest that despite assurances from cruise operators that crew were well cared for, their mental health was at times an afterthought. An October 2019 study on the mental well-being of crew, commissioned by a group affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the big maritime trade union, found that even before the pandemic about a fifth of mariners surveyed said they had suicidal thoughts. High levels of depression stem from the jobs’ long contract lengths and stressful demands.
On April 29, an electrical engineer from Poland on Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas disappeared while the ship was anchored in the Saronic Gulf, south of Athens. Ship security cameras captured him leaping into the water that morning, according to Greek authorities. Two weeks later, on May 10, Evgenia Pankrushyna, a waitress from Ukraine, died after jumping overboard from Carnival’s Regal Princess near Rotterdam. Around this time a Chinese contractor was found dead on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas. A crew member aboard the ship says many believed it was another suicide, though the company said he’d died of natural causes. Next was a Filipino cook, Kennex Bundaon, who was found dead in his cabin on Carnival’s AIDAblu. Four days later, another worker from the Philippines died in an apparent suicide on Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady.
The details of the deaths of Szaller and Jocson are still not clear, even to their families, who are “desperate for closure.” In Szaller’s case, Carnival has refused to discuss the specific circumstances of his death with his parents, while the father of Jocson, the Royal Caribbean employee, says that his daughter had never shown signs of depression and kept telling him that she wanted to go home. He just wants to know the truth about her death.
It wasn’t just the claustrophobic environment that was distressing. Workers say cruise companies constantly changed repatriation schedules, offering only vague guidance on when or how they’d return home. Without customers on board, Carnival moved many contractors off duty, meaning they could sort of enjoy the amenities of the ocean liners. But that also meant their salaries were eventually cut off—a scary situation for those supporting families on land. The weeks dragged on with limited entertainment options. Internet access was complimentary on some boats, but it could be painfully slow or strong enough only for social media and texting.
Vilmos says communications with Carnival broke down soon after. As the Szallers tried to organize the retrieval of their son’s body, including figuring out which jurisdiction would have to declare him legally deceased, they began to see the cruise company as having had a role in their son’s death. Its labyrinthine corporate structure—a web of international entities designed to lower Carnival’s tax liability—compounded their grief.
Even now, the Szallers have been unable to have Jozsef declared legally deceased. Vilmos says the coroner’s report should move things forward, but it’s been frustrating enough coordinating with U.K. authorities on behalf of his son, a Hungarian citizen. And that’s not even half the headache. As Vilmos frames it, how do you officially process a death that occurred in international waters, on a ship registered in Panama, that’s owned by a company operating in the U.S.?