July 13, 2006

Cruise from hell inquest reveals sex predators, death

By Paul Tait

SYDNEY -- It began as the holiday of a lifetime but descended into a lurid spiral of alcohol, drugs and sexual predators for a suburban mother of three whose humiliating death at sea could help change the global cruise industry.

A coroner's inquest into the 2002 death of Dianne Brimble on board the P&O liner Pacific Sky has shocked Australia with its graphic descriptions of her treatment by a group of men she met on board.

The inquest has heard that Brimble, 42, died of an overdose of gamma hydroxybutyrate, a "date rape" drug also known as fantasy, mixed with a high blood alcohol level.

No charges have been laid and the inquest is being held to determine the circumstances in which she died.

Her family has joined an international group set up by victims of other apparent crimes at sea in demanding cruise ships be made more accountable and better protect passengers.

International Cruise Victims (ICV) says at least 18 people are believed to have gone missing from cruise ships since 2004.

"When you put 3,000 people on a piece of metal floating around in the ocean, you would expect things are going to happen," Diane Brimble's former husband told Reuters.

"Why should they be a law unto themselves?" said Mark Brimble, who represents ICV in Australia after being contacted by the group's American founders.


The coronial inquiry has attracted blanket media coverage, making it one of the highest-profile inquests since the infamous backpacker murders in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It has painted an unflattering picture of predatory, drunken behavior, where nudity and public sex were said to be common, and of a flawed and delayed investigation.

Local media have shown photographs of a beaming Brimble boarding the ship in September 2002 with her then-12-year-old daughter, her sister and friends at the start of a South Pacific cruise for which she had saved for two years.

Within hours Brimble was lying naked and dead in the cabin of four men whose main concern was that the death of a woman one of them described as a "dog" had ruined their holiday.

The inquest last month began hearing testimony from the first of eight men, all gym and nightclub friends, who police describe as "persons of interest." Unemployed store clerk Letterio Silvestri said in the transcript of a police interview that he had brushed Brimble off when she spoke to him in a bar soon after the ship sailed because she appeared drunk and was not his type.

"She smelt, she was black and she was ugly," he told police.

"Anything that's over 60 kilos (132 pounds), I don't talk to," he said.

Silvestri said he left the bar and went back to the cabin he shared with three friends, took three sleeping tablets and went to bed.

He said he later awoke to find Brimble in bed with him and trying to arouse him for sex. Silvestri said he pushed her onto the cabin floor and went back to sleep.

"Apparently she helped herself to me," Silvestri said.

Silvestri, who demanded an apology from the ship's captain, told the inquest that cabin-mate Mark Wilhelm had given Brimble the drug when he brought her back to the cabin.

Melvyn Armitage, a former P&O passenger services director on the ship, said Silvestri became agitated when he was stopped from returning to the cabin while a doctor and two nurses tried to revive Brimble.

"He was saying, 'Get the bitch out of my room, that's my room'," Armitage told the inquest in June.

The inquest has heard from other passengers who accused Silvestri and some of his friends of "cruising for sex" and offering to pay a teen-age girl to dance in their cabin the night after Brimble died.

P&O has said it deeply regrets Brimble's death but could not comment on her case, although it said it has increased security on its ships since the inquest began.

"We cannot begin to imagine what Mrs Brimble and her family went through and we are determined to do everything in our power to ensure that this never happens again on board one of our ships," P&O Cruises Australia said in an April statement.

The inquest has heard a string of damaging testimony, including claims staff had tried to cover up Brimble's death.

Kathleen Taylor, a night shift manager on board the Pacific Sky, told the inquest that incidents of nudity and public sex on board P&O cruise ships happened up to 20 times a night.

P&O said after that testimony that unruly passengers would be kicked off future cruises.


International Cruise Victims has lobbied the U.S. Congress with a 10-point plan to tighten security on board cruise ships and address what it sees as a fundamental problem: the hazy legal jurisdiction of ships once they enter international waters.

The advocacy group was formed early this year after several U.S. families found they had similar cruise ship horror stories after family members mysteriously disappeared at sea.

It lists dozens of cases of apparent crimes at sea.

The group wants faster reporting, revision of alcohol-serving procedures on cruises and tighter security including independent marshals on board ships.

"It's to post international police on a boat and have them being independent to the ship itself because cruise liners are driven by profit, they're not driven by responsibility, security and safety," Mark Brimble said.

P&O has just announced it will refund Brimble's fare. An earlier insurance claim lodged by the family was rejected because illegal drugs were listed as the cause of death.