PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. - A nightmare is how Valentina Azzia described the moment that her son nearly drowned in a pool while onboard Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas.
Now, the mother has filed a lawsuit demanding cruise lines staff lifeguards at children's pools.
"Really in a matter of seconds we realized that our son wasn't there anymore and we started looking for him," Azzia said. "He was at the bottom of the pool."
This was in January 2015, and Azzia’s family traveled from Italy to Port Everglades for a trip on the cruise ship. Just an hour into the trip, her 4-year-old son, Ascanio, nearly drowned after she lost sight of him in the toddler pool.
Ascanio had somehow made it to a nearby current pool where the water was deeper.
He spent five minutes underwater and no longer had a pulse.
Azzia said it was passengers, not cruise staff, who jumped in to perform CPR.
The boy spent a week in critical condition before waking up, and now suffers from vision problems and other possible long-term health issues.
To prevent a similar situation happening to other families, Azzia filed suit against Royal Caribbean. The lawsuit is pushing for lifeguards at pools on board marketed as "kid friendly."
"How many children have to die on their cruise ships before they decide to put a lifeguard on their ships?" maritime attorney Mike Winkleman said.
Winkleman represents the Azzia family and others who have lost their children to cruise ship drownings.
"There is 100 percent an element of parental responsibility involved in this," Winkleman said, adding there are several factors involved on board cruise ships. "But let me tell you, when you're on a cruise ship, your guard is let down. You're on vacation."
Several cruise lines explained to Local 10 News that they have signs, just like many hotels, saying no lifeguard is present.
Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean, explained in an email, "We do not have, nor plan to add, lifeguards on our ships."
Only one company currently provides lifeguards at on-board pools and that is Disney Cruise Lines, which has been doing this since 2013, after a 4-year-old boy nearly drowned and suffered brain damage on one of their ships.
The Cruise Lines International Association which represents the cruise ship companies sent Local 10 News a statement:
Cruise lines manage pools with the safety of passengers and crewmembers in mind at all times. As with the vast majority of land-based hotels and resorts, many cruise lines provide clear and conspicuous signs that a lifeguard is not present.
With guidance from public health and safety authorities, CLIA’s member cruise lines continue to assess the need for further action beyond current practices, including evaluating the level of supervision of pools onboard.
"I think families should know they are taking this risk," Azzia said.
In the last three years, at least five children have drowned and four have nearly drowned in cruise ship pools. In December, an 8-year-old boy drowned on Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas. In May 2015, a 10-year-old girl drowned on the Norwegian Gem.
In 2013, it was Qwentyn Hunter, a 6-year-old boy from Orlando.
"He was a light, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him," Qwentyn’s mother, Tashara Hunter, said.
She said Qwentyn was sitting in the Jacuzzi on the Carnival Victory as it sailed back to Miami on the final day of the cruise.
"Getting a little bit more and more crowded," Casselle Hunter, Qwentyn's father, said. "All of a sudden I hear the DJ yell, 'Somebody get that kid.'"
A passenger found Qwentyn at the bottom of the pool.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Is that my baby?’” Tashara Hunter said.
The family said no one noticed him drowning, not even swimmers right next to him.
"It's silent," Tashara Hunter said. "And nobody, unless they're trained to know that he was in distress, would have known that he was in distress."
The Hunters said it was a passenger who jumped in to help as they waited several minutes for medical staff.
The family took legal action but got nowhere, because of a law they had never heard of called the Death on the High Seas Act, which has been on the books since 1920. The law allows no compensation for pain or suffering, and only a reward for loss of income, like the death of a family provider.
As the Hunters learned, the law means a child's life at sea is essentially worthless.
"I just broke down crying because I'm like, OK, so you mean to tell me that this just goes away for them?" Tashara Hunter said.
The parents explained that no financial payoff would bring back their son. They said they want to keep another family from going through this type of loss.
"Somebody looks at this and (should) say, OK, enough is enough," Tashara Hunter explained. "Our son isn't the only one."
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