Disappearance of Rebecca Coriam
Crewmember Rebecca Coriam disappeared from the cruise ship Disney Wonder off the Pacific coast of Mexico on the morning of 22 March 2011. She was last seen in the crew lounge, where a security camera recorded her during a phone conversation that appeared to be causing her some emotional difficulty. It was the first such incident in the history of Disney Cruise Lines.
The case remains under investigation, and her whereabouts since that phone conversation have not been established. While some of the crew who sailed on that ship believe that she went overboard, there is other evidence that suggests she may be alive. Her parents have been critical of Disney's handling of the investigation, believing the company knows more than it claims to and has been more interested in avoiding unfavorable publicity than solving the case. In early 2013 they indicated they would sue Disney in an American court.
The Coriams have been joined by British government officials, who instituted policies allowing for more comprehensive investigations of such incidents in the future, and advocates for the relatives of many other crew and passengers who have been reported missing from cruise ships over the last decade. Some claim the company has more extensive evidence than it has so far admitted, and accuse it of a coverup.
Rebecca was born on 11 March 1987 in Countess of Chester Hospital, Chester, England. She lived in Chester with her parents, sister Rachael and two foster brothers. She graduated from Chester Catholic High School. In her youth she also worked at the Chester Zoo, where other relatives had worked. A memorial bench to her grandparents Kevin and Dolores is on the zoo grounds.
She joined the British Army cadets in her teens, and attended Plymouth University at Exeter, where she studied sports science. Later she got a Staff Volunteer position within the cadets, and participated in some outdoor events. She took additional studies in youth studies at Liverpool Hope University, and then spent four months teaching sports at Camp America in Maine.
In June 2010 she went to London to interview for the Disney Cruise positions along with hundreds of other hopefuls. She was hired and went to the company's theme parks in Florida for training. After four months on cruises to the Bahamas, where the ships are registered, she went back to Britain for two months off. When she returned to work, it was on the Disney Wonder, based in the Port of Los Angeles. She visited all its ports of call on the Mexican Riviera, and went through the Panama Canal.
During this period her grandfather died. She returned to Chester for two weeks. It was the last time her family saw her in person.
Coriam returned to the Wonder and her duties as a youth worker. She maintained contact with her family via Facebook and Skype. Six weeks later, on 21 March 2011, the day the ship pulled out of Los Angeles, she sent what would be her last message to her parents via the former, saying she would call the next day.
Her mother grew concerned when, following her reply, 12 hours went by without a response. As she and her husband were going to bed that night, 22 March, the phone rang. It was not Rebecca but an official with Disney, saying that the Coriams' daughter was missing.
At 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time that morning on the Wonder, off the coast of Mexico bound for Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, Coriam had missed the start of her shift. She was not in her room or anywhere else on the ship, and did not respond to pages over the ship's public address system. A review of security camera footage found one appearance of her, timestamped 5:45 a.m. An early, unverified account, purportedly from another crew member, claimed she had gone overboard at 3 a.m., nearly three hours earlier.
In the video, Coriam is talking on one of the ship's internal phones in a crew area. She appears distraught. A young man walks up to her and asks if everything is all right. Her mouth can clearly be read to be saying "Yeah, fine", after which she hangs up. She then walks away, pushing her hair back and putting her hands in her back pockets, mannerisms her parents say were common for her. The sequence is the last known sighting of her.
The crew searched the ship but found no sign of her. Ships of the U.S. Coast Guard and Mexican Navy searched the international waters through which the Wonder had been sailing during the hours in which Coriam could have gone overboard, if that was what had occurred. They, too, found nothing.
Since the Wonder is registered in The Bahamas, a detective from the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) flew to the ship to begin a formal investigation once it had returned to Los Angeles, three days after the disappearance. He was reported to have undertaken "several days of onboard investigations".
Mike and Annmaria Coriam, Rebecca's parents, were flown out from England to meet the ship when it returned. They met the Bahamian detective and said he told them he had spent only one day on board investigating before flying back home. The detective also told him he had interviewed only a few crew members, and none of the passengers. They claimed Disney kept them in a car with blacked-out windows and brought them on board via a little-used side entrance after all the passengers had disembarked. The Wonder's captain gave his condolences and expressed his theory that Rebecca had been washed overboard by a wave while at the crew pool, a theory they doubted due to the high walls around it. After that, they were taken to a meeting with Disney executives and the woman Rebecca had been speaking to on the phone.
They were both tired and suffering from jet lag, therefore did not ask too many questions. Mike Coriam believed they would have another chance to do so later, but they never did. Afterwards, they were taken to her room and presented with her belongings.
A few weeks after the Coriams returned home, in early May, Annmaria received an email from Rebecca's bank reporting that there had been activity on one of her accounts in the weeks since the disappearance. Although they were asked by authorities to keep the details confidential, they were nevertheless hopeful. "The fact that her credit card's been used could only mean someone has stolen it or she's still alive," Mike Coriam told the Daily Mail. Later the Coriams were able to say that the email informed them that someone had apparently tried to access the account on 19 April. They were not aware of it, but later found paperwork among Rebecca's belongings that linked the account to her. However, they could not find the actual card. In September John Jennings, Rebecca's uncle, said the password to her Facebook account had apparently been changed by someone unknown.
On the day before the anniversary of her disappearance, her father received an email from a woman who claimed she had seen Rebecca with a dark-haired man on the street in Venice the previous August. The woman said she was "85% sure" it was Rebecca, and seeing the family's website had roused her memory. "It was just an email but it seemed legitimate," said her uncle. "It was very upsetting for everyone to think she could be out there somewhere after all this time." However, he wondered how she could have gotten there without her passport, which had been among the belongings her parents had recovered from her quarters.
In October 2011, journalist Jon Ronson took the Wonder along the same route and made discreet inquiries while aboard. With the Coriams' blessing, he wrote about it in The Guardian. Several crew members, none of whom wanted their names used, who had been on the ship at the time of Rebecca's disappearance, spoke to him. They suggested that more was known about her fate than Disney or the Bahamanian police had publicly admitted.
Many were circumspect. "It didn't happen," a bartender told Ronson. "You know that's the answer I have to give." After touring the areas of the ship open to passengers, he decided that Coriam had probably slipped and fallen while jogging on the Deck 4 jogging track. Only there were the railings low enough for that accident to happen, and she regularly kept herself in shape that way. However, the track was well covered by disguised security cameras.
He shared this theory with a deck worker, who told him he was mistaken. Coriam had actually gone overboard from the crew pool on Deck 5. "I was on the ship that day." the man said. "Everyone knows". He cited a slipper found in the area as proof. After he returned, "Melissa", a woman who the Coriams had told to contact him, told him that the day after the disappearance, flowers were placed on the wall near the pool, apparently by the company. "It really stirred things up," the woman recalled. "Why [we]re they putting them there? Nothing was clear."
When he took a look at the crew pool, visible from the fore of Deck 10, he doubted these claims. Around the railings on the pool is a steel wall high enough to completely block any view (another crewmember had told him it was a popular place to go when not working as their cabins were very small and it was a place crewmembers could be themselves, away from guests). There were conspicuously mounted security cameras as well. Although he allowed they could have been placed since the incident, Ronson did not see how anyone could have jumped or fallen from there.
But all crewmembers who spoke with him insisted that Coriam had gone overboard from the crew pool. "Disney knows exactly what happened", one said. "Everything here is taped. There's CCTV everywhere. Disney have the tape." Near the end of a voyage, another crewmember who sought him out explained in further detail that even though the walls around the pool are high, the seas were rough at the time and she could have been tossed off the ship, especially if the deck and walls were slippery. He said a friend of his had had to get someone inside in similar conditions, and the offence of being outside on the pool deck in such conditions was serious enough that Disney sent that person home from the cruise.
Since Coriam was not found on the ship, it has been concluded that she went overboard. How, and why, and whether she might have been able to survive are unknown. Many theories hinge on the emotional phone conversation she was having in the video that is the last known sighting of her.
A crew member told Ronson that the call was taped. Many believed it was with a romantic partner. "She was in a relationship, and there were problems, and it was upsetting her," "Melissa" told Ronson. "It was a very, very intense relationship. It was great and then it was awful ... I can't think of any other reason why she'd have been upset and wandering around by herself at 6 a.m." However, she says Coriam was on the phone not with the partner but a mutual friend. On the anniversary of Rebecca's disappearance, their parents told the Liverpool Echo that they heard the names of a young woman and older man on the ship mentioned as possibly being involved in a love triangle with her, and called for them to come forward. They also disclosed that they had heard Disney had sent some additional footage to the FBI for enhancement, but could not say what that footage might contain.
It was suggested that, despondent over the relationship, an emotion possibly exacerbated by the cabin fever of months at sea in close, cramped quarters, Coriam committed suicide. Her family, and friends among the crew, doubt that. "[W]e know she would never harm herself," said her father. "We just know. That's why we have been totally mystified from day one."
They recall her personality as constantly cheerful and upbeat, traits that got her the Disney job in the first place. When her parents visited her quarters after the disappearance, they found passes she had obtained for them and her sister to visit Disneyland Paris, a gift trip she was apparently planning to surprise them with on her next break at home. These plans, as well as her continuing Facebook exchanges with her mother, argue against a suicide theory.
The Coriams said Disney officials had told them that Rebecca was drunk and furious on the footage, banging her head into the walls, but that was belied by the actual video. Later, they were able to speak with the woman on the other end of the phone conversation, who told them that while their daughter had been upset at first she calmed down quickly and said she was going to her room. "Melissa", who had last seen Coriam at 11 p.m. the previous night, told Ronson that she believed that Rebecca went out to the crew pool, one of her favorite places on the ship, to be alone and relax for a while. While there, she might have climbed up and sat on the wall, and then fell. "Bex was a bit of a risk taker," she said.
However, "Melissa" was dismissive of the suggestion that the slippers allegedly found near the pool, which were included among the belongings returned to Coriam's parents, had been hers. "Mike and Ann showed them to me," she told Ronson. "They were too big. They weren't her style. They were pink and flowery and Hawaiian. I'd never seen her wear them. Why didn't Disney come to me or her girlfriend and say, 'Can you identify these as Bex's?'" While the Coriams later claimed they were actually too small, they were unable to find anyone on the ship who had seen her wearing them and learned that no forensics had been done on them.
The unresolved status of Rebecca's credit card has given the Coriams hope that if she did fall overboard, their daughter survived and might have been able to swim to shore, or at least far enough to be rescued. She competed in triathlons and kept herself in excellent physical shape. "We’ve never believed she simply disappeared overboard and drowned," said Mike Coriam almost two months later. "Maybe she fell in the water and was picked up by a fishing boat. Maybe she lost her memory and is in a little village in Mexico. Maybe she was attacked. Maybe she was on board after all and got off."
Criticism of investigation
Ronson reported that at the time his article was published, the Coriams had received no further updates from Disney or the RBPF on the progress of the investigation. "[W]henever we call anyone, all they say is, 'The investigation is ongoing,'" Mike Coriam said. "We've tried emailing, telling them how we feel, how it's getting harder ... But nothing. Just, 'It's ongoing.'" The Bahamanian police officer assigned to the case never returned Ronson's calls.
The Coriams have been joined in their criticism of the investigation by British government officials, Rebecca's friends among the crew, and advocates for victims of other incidents on cruise ships and their families. The latter, especially, note that 170 passengers and crew have disappeared from cruise ships since 2000, many without being seriously investigated or widely reported. All critics contend that Disney, like other cruise operators, is more interested in avoiding adverse publicity related to these incidents than anything else.
In November, Stephen Mosley, the MP for the City of Chester, the Coriams' constituency, brought the case up in the House of Commons. "The investigation into Rebecca's disappearance was appalling," he told Mike Penning, the Minister for Shipping.
"[T]he Bahamian authorities made virtually no attempt at investigating Rebecca's disappearance," he continued, saying the RBPF was "internationally recognised as almost toothless ... Very few people know that when they board a cruise ship that they are so poorly protected." Countries such as the Bahamas, often criticized for the lax standards of such "flag of convenience" ship registrations, did not have the investigative capabilities to deal with such incidents.
Penning responded by announcing that the Marine Accident Investigation Branch would investigate all deaths or disappearances of British citizens from vessels anywhere in the world, paralleling similar legislation signed by U.S. President Barack Obama that gives the Federal Bureau of Investigation that authority in the event of the death or disappearance of any American citizen. The Government would also work through the International Maritime Organization to increase international cooperation on such investigations. Penning, too, was critical of Disney, saying the company was "more interested in getting the ship back to sea than in investigating the case of the missing member of their crew".
"In other corporations, police get involved," said Kendall Carver, an Arizona resident who founded the lobbying group International Cruise Victims after his own daughter's 2004 disappearance from the Celebrity Mercury. "On cruise ships they have, quote, security officers, but they work for the cruise lines. They aren't going to do anything when the lines get sued." Miami lawyer Jim Walker, publisher of the blog Cruise Law News, which is highly critical of the industry, concurs. "The Coriam family does not deserve Mickey Mouse games," he commented on Ronson's article.
Carver and Walker both believe Disney has more evidence than it has shown, particularly security footage of the area by the pool, and is covering up knowledge of what happened out of fear of adverse publicity. "If there's a video that shows your daughter going overboard," Carver told Ronson, "that's the end of the story. There's no way someone can go off a ship and it not be recorded." Melissa told Ronson it was implausible that there was no footage since the pool is close to a number of other important offices, such as human resources and the payroll department, where money and sensitive documents were kept. She believed any coverup by Disney may have been as much about protecting themselves from charges of negligence, since the pool is just below the ship's bridge and would thus be the portion of the ship where a fall would most likely be seen by someone in a position to start a rescue. "If it was 6 a.m. and they were doing their job and watching the front, someone must have seen her go over," she told Ronson. "Or if they didn't, they're covering up why they didn't."
Disney told Ronson that they are deferring to the RBPF. "[They have told] us the investigation is still ongoing. They have not shared a timeline with us, either." Their spokesperson refused to comment on specifics about whether a tape of the phone call or additional security-camera video exists. "[W]e wish we knew what happened as much as anyone ... Rebecca's disappearance has been difficult and heartbreaking for everyone."
- Amy Lynn Bradley, disappeared from a cruise ship in the Caribbean in 1998.
- George Allen Smith, passenger whose controversial disappearance from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean also received wide media coverage.
- List of people who disappeared mysteriously
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- Walker, Jim (14 November 2011). "Mickey Mouse Games: Is Disney Cruise Line Engaged In A Cover-Up On The Disney Wonder?". Cruise Law News. South Miami, FL: Walker & O'Neill. Retrieved 19 March 2012.