Holland America Line knew that the small Mexican airline it used for charter flights had a long and troublesome history of mechanical problems...
Holland America Line knew that the small Mexican airline it used for charter flights had a long and troublesome history of mechanical problems, cancellations and safety violations years before the plane crash that killed 16 vacationing University of Washington football fans in September 2001, according to documents filed in the recently settled lawsuit by relatives of the victims.
Some of the cruise giant’s own employees had urged cancellation of the trouble-plagued excursion to the ancient Mayan ruins years before the ill-fated Sept. 12 flight. Passengers on earlier flights had written letters to Holland America complaining of “white-knuckled” and terrifying experiences aboard the planes used by the charter company, Aero Ferinco, including one flight in which a door fell off while a plane was in midair.
Attorneys for the victims’ families say Holland America chose to overlook the airline’s problems because the tour of the Chichén Itzá ruins was extremely popular and distinguished the cruise line from its competitors.
“Their records told a sad story about what appeared to be a company putting profits ahead of safety,” said attorney Bradley S. Keller, who represented one of the victims’ families.
“Tailgate at Sea” cruiseThe 19 victims were on a shore excursion from a University of Washington alumni cruise billed as a “Tailgate at Sea” when the twin-engine, Czech-built LET 410 plane crashed into the jungle after one of the engines failed. Everyone aboard, including two pilots and a tour guide, perished.
In October, families of 14 of the victims settled their lawsuit with Holland America, Aero Ferinco and Mexican tour operator Turismo Aviomar. Court documents filed in connection with the suit were unsealed at the request of The Seattle Times.The documents, including internal memos provided by Holland America, support the plaintiffs’ contention that Holland America was aware of the tour’s troubled history and had received numerous complaints about the safety of previous flights.
Though the amount of money paid out to the survivors cannot be disclosed as a condition of the settlement, Holland America’s own insurance and risk managers estimated the cruise line’s liability in 1995 at $1 million to $3 million per passenger in the event of an accident on an underinsured flight.
Holland America, which is headquartered in Seattle and owned by Carnival Corp., has not admitted blame or liability in the crash. In its legal responses to the lawsuit, Holland America said it could not be held responsible because passengers had signed a waiver absolving the cruise line of responsibility in the event of an accident, because the tour operator and airline were subcontractors, and because passengers who travel in foreign countries are responsible for assessing their own risks.
After repeated attempts to reach the cruise line to comment for this story, Holland America issued the following statement: “The airplane accident in September 2001 was a terrible tragedy, especially for loved ones and friends. Holland America Line will not discuss the details of the accident or the settlement agreements.”
Washington state residents killed in the crash were: Karen Burks of Seattle; Scott Columbia of Renton; Charles and Shirley Genther of Seattle; Mary Kearney of Oak Harbor; Barbara Martin of Lake Forest Park; Dwight and Lois Mitchell of Oak Harbor; Larry and Linda Schwab of Seattle; Lisa Styer of Seattle; Geoffrey and Judith Vernon of Clyde Hill; Larry and Judy Wade of Seattle; and Theodore Zylstra of Oak Harbor. Two Aero Ferinco pilots and a tour guide were also killed.
“Flight-seeing” tripAbout 1,100 Huskies fans signed up for the weeklong booster event featuring former football stars and port calls in the Caribbean, Mexico and Florida. The cruise was to have culminated in Miami where the Huskies were to play the University of Miami. The game was postponed, however, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
During the cruise, Holland America offered passengers several shore excursions, including a “flight-seeing” trip from Cozumel to the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá.
Holland America assured passengers in brochures and onboard promotions that the tours were “carefully prepared” and “fully insured” and that they used the “best available transportation,” court documents say.
Passengers who asked were told they would be flown aboard an American-made Cessna and not the Czech-built LET, according to passenger declarations filed in the lawsuit.
“Go ahead,” Ron Martin said he told Barbara Martin, his wife of 34 years, when she called him at home for reassurance during a port call the day of the terrorist attacks.
“Holland America is a good company,” he recalls telling her. “They wouldn’t put you on an unsafe plane.”
But attorneys for the victims’ families claim that is exactly what Holland America did.
Long record of concernsCourt documents show that Holland America employees had been concerned for years about the Chichén Itzá tour, which had been plagued by unexplained cancellations and mechanical problems since it was first offered in 1991.
According to a deposition by David A. Berge, the company’s former shore-excursion supervisor, he and other Holland America employees repeatedly warned the company about the tour.
“You weren’t sure whether it was going to go off as planned, and so you were holding your breath until the port-of-call day,” Berge said during his deposition. “It seemed like it was constantly something that we were having to baby-sit.”
The tour was canceled in 1995 when an internal audit by the company’s risk managers singled out the Chichén Itzá tour as being particularly risky because the LET 410s were manufactured in an Eastern-bloc country and because the tour company had almost no insurance. Holland America’s policies at the time required that a tour operator or airline carry a policy of at least $40 million.
According to an internal memo obtained by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Holland America’s Chief Executive Officer Kirk Lanterman responded to news of the cancellation with a memo to his chief financial officer that said, “We can’t allow this type of problem to put us out of the Western Caribbean. Please resolve this now!”
The next day, court records show, Lanterman ordered the tour resumed even though the risk issues were not resolved.
In 1996, the tour was again canceled when the door of an Aero Ferinco LET 410 flew off in mid-flight with Holland America passengers aboard. There were no injuries.
Customer complaintsShortly afterward the tour was again resumed — without apparent explanation — and one passenger wrote to Holland America: “The small plane was very frightening on the Chichén Itzá excursion, though. I think you have no idea how unsafe that was.”
Over the next five years, court documents show, Holland America continued to receive customer complaints and warnings about the trip, including descriptions of it as a “white-knuckled aircraft ride” and a letter from a passenger who was a professional pilot decrying the tour pilot’s decision to fly in a thunderstorm.
Jan Kennaugh’s mother, Shirley Genther, was among those who perished.
“We were horrified to learn that not only should they have known, but they clearly did know there were unacceptable risks and they chose to promote and profit by this tour,” Kennaugh said. “The people in the business office and the people in risk management are scoundrels.”
Ron Martin, whose wife had longed to see Mexico’s most-famous ruins, said that while the settlement that survivors received was not insubstantial, it was not enough.
“They probably didn’t even feel it,” he said about the financial impact to the company.
The families of eight of the victims still have a lawsuit pending against the manufacturer of the plane’s engine and against the man who they say illegally imported and overhauled the plane that crashed.
Aero Ferinco lost its certification to fly after another LET 410 plane crash in Mexico two months later.
Turismo Aviomar, which arranged the tour for Holland America, is still conducting tours for cruise lines.
Holland America stopped offering a flight-seeing tour to Chichén Itzá. Cruise-line passengers who want to see the ruins now must take a bus.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org