The vanishing passengers: It's a mystery as bizarre as it is disturbing - why have 165 people gone missing from cruise ships in recent years?
By Natalie Clarke
Last updated at 11:06 PM on 21st September 2011
On the evening of April 6 this year, John Halford packed his suitcase and left it outside the door of his cabin on the cruise liner Thomson Spirit. It was the last day of a week-long Egyptian cruise and the ship was due to dock at Sharm-el-Sheikh the following morning.
Mr Halford, 63, texted his wife Ruth, who was at home in Britain, to say he would see her at the airport the next day, then went off to dinner. At about 12.30 am, he was seen by other passengers drinking cocktails in an upper-deck bar. He then vanished.
Mrs Halford, who has three children, Lucy, 20, Sophie, 18, and Connor, 17, learned of her husband’s disappearance as she was getting ready to drive to the airport to collect him.
‘The phone rang, it was the Thomson’s desk at the airport in Egypt,’ she said. ‘I was told the plane was in the air but my husband was not on it. He’d gone missing from the ship. You could have knocked me over sideways. It made no sense. The children and I were shell-shocked.
‘At first I thought he must have somehow gone ashore without anyone realising, but it would have been impossible because there are various checkpoints when you disembark. He’d simply disappeared.’
Today, more than five months on, Mr Halford, a bookseller from Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, remains missing, his fate unknown.
His case is far from unique. Over the past few years, there have been an alarming number of unexplained and unsolved disappearances on board cruise liners.
According to the U.S.-based International Cruise Victims Association, 165 people have gone missing at sea since 1995, with at least 13 this year alone — many of them from vessels popular with British holidaymakers.
Cruise ship holidays are enormously popular. According to the Passenger Shipping Association, 1.7 million cruises will be taken in Britain this year (many will be repeat cruises by the same holidaymakers). But what is happening to all these passengers who simply vanish while at sea, never to be seen again?
Are they the victims of a sinister crime wave? Have they had a mishap at sea and fallen overboard, or perhaps chosen to take their own lives?
The sad fact is that, in many cases, no one knows. And for the family and friends they left behind, that only compounds the heartache. Loved ones such as Ruth Halford and her children, who remain in limbo; bereft, baffled and unable to grieve.
‘John had been really looking forward to the cruise,’ says Mrs Halford.
‘He’d once worked in Libya and was intrigued by North Africa. He was fascinated by ancient Egyptian culture and wanted to see the pyramids.
‘He went alone because we couldn’t afford to go as a family, plus the children had exams coming up. Ships are places where it’s easy to meet people, and John didn’t mind going on his own. The passengers who saw him in the bar say he was not drunk and was in good spirits.
‘He’d packed his suitcase ready to go but his other belongings — his passport, glasses, mobile phone and rucksack — were found in his cabin. But there was no sign of John.
‘John wasn’t depressed — there was no sign at all that he was contemplating suicide. He just wasn’t like that.
‘His suitcase was later returned to us and in it were three necklaces for me, Lucy and Sophie with our names written in hieroglyphics and a similar name bracelet. John was planning on coming home to us.’
At first, Mrs Halford, 46, believed that her husband, with whom she was about to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, would turn up. But, as time has passed, her hope has nearly all gone.
‘It has been incredibly difficult, surreal really, and terrible for the children,’ she says. ‘In my heart I believe he is dead, that he is gone, that he somehow slipped and went overboard. I can’t think of any other explanation.
‘A search of the sea was carried out at the time, but nothing was found. I am told there are sharks in the area: it is very painful to think about.’
But is the idea of someone ‘slipping overboard’ credible? The rails on cruise ships are at least 3ft 6in high, which makes it incredibly difficult for anyone — even someone who might be drunk or ill — to pitch overboard.
With no clues as to where or how her husband vanished, Mrs Halford is struggling to rebuild her life. After taking time off work after John went missing, she has now had to return to her job as a medical secretary to pay the bills and support the children.
‘Life goes on,’ she says. ‘I need money to pay the bills and we’ve lost John’s salary. John took out travel insurance and I’ve been on to the company to try to make a claim but they simply say: “What are you claiming for?”
‘Thomson haven’t given me any support, either. John was in their care, but I haven’t had so much as a letter from them. I can’t get a widow’s pension because we don’t know if John is dead.
‘We’re living a nightmare and we can’t see a way out of it. It is so unreal that we can’t grieve. We are in limbo. What do we do? Should we hold a funeral? But how can we if we’re not sure he’s dead?’
The parents of 24-year-old Rebecca Coriam, who went missing from a Disney cruise liner in March this year, can empathise with the tumult of emotion Mrs Halford is experiencing.
Last Monday, Mike and Ann Coriam met MP Mike Penning, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, who has responsibility for maritime issues, to discuss a change in the law that would allow UK authorities to investigate cases of British nationals who go missing on vessels while abroad.
At the moment, investigations are handled from where the ship is registered.