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Cruise ship horror: ‘We missed it by 30 seconds,’ family says

By Anne Geggis From Sun Sentinel

For the Whittens of Jacksonville, being a large family proved fateful: It stopped them from boarding the bus that flipped over along a winding Mexican road, killing 12 people.

Michelle Whitten was traveling with her husband and three kids Tuesday. Had they shown up to catch the bus seconds earlier, there still might have been five empty seats left for them to board, she said. Only four seats were left, so they grabbed the next bus.

“We missed it by 30 seconds,” Whitten said, shaking her head.

The Whittens were among thousands of Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas passengers who disembarked Friday morning at Port Everglades after hearing of the tragedy in some way. A number of them saw the aftermath of the crash as they rode past in separate buses, en route to visit ancient Mayan ruins.

“We saw bodies on the road,” Michelle Whitten’s husband, John, said. “There was blood everywhere.”

Others heard about the deadly crash when it was announced on the cruise ship’s intercom.

Eleven tourists who died were from two Caribbean cruises that originated from South Florida.

Ten passengers were on the Celebrity Equinox, which returns to the Port of Miami on Saturday. One was a passenger aboard theSerenade of the Seas, passengers said.

Pamela Presley, 48, and her husband, Glenn Wildenmann, 50, of Montreal, Quebec, said they were puzzled Tuesday when they suddenly started getting messages from relatives calling from Canada.

They said they dared not answer because of data charges, but then they heard the captain’s announcement.

“At first, people were talking over what he was saying, like they always do, but then when we started to hear ‘fatalities’ and ‘accident,’ it went dead quiet,” Wildenmann said.

“I’ve never been in a place with so many people so quiet like that,” Presley said.

Royal Caribbean allotted passengers 30 minutes of free internet time to contact relatives and reassure them, Wildenmann said.

At an earlier stop during the cruise, the couple had taken a bus snorkeling in Honduras, Presley said. That experience convinced them they didn’t need to take any more tours.

“The roads there have no lanes,” Wildenmann said. “They are narrow and treacherous.”

Dave and Victoria Simpson, of Avon Park in Central Florida, took their honeymoon on the Serenade of the Seas and were on a bus from the same tour company when they passed by the wreck.

The driver of the ill-fated bus appeared to be at fault for speeding on the road, which had no guardrails or shoulder, a prosecutor in Mexico said.

Later, the Simpsons met a couple at their dinner table who had been right behind the bus when it flipped over. “They saw a woman carrying a small child with a gash on her cheek,” Victoria Simpson recalled.

Others disembarking the Serenade of the Seas were contemplating brushes with fate and why they hadn’t gotten on that bus.

Nita Burg, a retired psychologist who splits her time between Fort Myers and Kentucky, said she planned to visit the Mayan ruins.

But she wasn’t feeling well that morning, she said. Later that day, she and her traveling companion were sitting at a bar around dinner time, having a drink when the news came.

“It’s an awful thing — it could happen to anyone,” she said. “The room went silent for quite a while. We left our drinks at the bar.”

Dining companions at their table had witnessed the crash’s aftermath firsthand, she said.

“They were traumatized,” she said.

The ship’s departure from the Mexican port was delayed by two hours the day of the crash, passengers said.

After that, though, all the regular activities went on as usual, they said.

Burg said the news cast a pall over the proceedings, however. She loved the music on the cruise — top-notch performances, she said — but when she sat to listen, tears began streaming down her face.

“There’s so much pain in the world,” she said. “And this could have been avoided.”

A Coconut Creek woman, Fanya Shamis, 78, her daughter, and her grandson, both from Lorton, Va., were among the dead who had been passengers on the Celebrity Equinox, their family said.

IMAGE: Screen shot A Jacksonville family talks about seeing the aftermath of a bus crash in Mexico. Some passengers from the Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas were on a bus that crashed killing 11 during a shore excursion to Mayan ruins.

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