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Family wants answers after parents die on cruise

Posted at 5:28 PM, May 06, 2016

Lee’s Summit resident Kelly Lankford is still searching for answers following her parent’s death last month.

"We don't even know where our mom died,” said Lankford’s sister, Jill Malott.

Omaha natives Larry and Christy Hammer died April 10 after their room caught fire during their first night aboard the Estrella Amazonica, an Amazon vacation cruise ship in Peru. The official cause of death was smoke inhalation, but Lankford and Malott said investigators have been negligent and careless.

"International Expeditions resumed operations on that boat within three days of our parents dying. … The cabin was not sealed for 12 days,” said Malott.

"What's mind-blowing to me, we are sitting here 3 1/2 weeks after their deaths and we are yet to see anything that is documentation on how this fire started, what failed to not alert our parents to wake up and what failed in the protocols of the crew to extract them and save their lives,” said Lankford.

The two sisters say they’re disgusted that a local video crew was able to film the unsecured room just hours after the tragedy, but also cited what they believe to be key evidence captured on the video.

"Which not only shows the melted power strip, but also shows our dad's lifeless body on the deck of the boat in broad daylight. … The power strip that was provided by International Expeditions and the boat mysteriously has gone missing,” said Malott.

Alabama-based International Expeditions charters the cruise. The company acknowledged that while the cause of the fire is unknown, they claim a thorough investigation was performed.

Below is the statement IE sent 41 Action News:

“International Expeditions confirms that, to date, IE unfortunately has not received official reports from the local authorities as to the cause of the April 10, 2016 fire that affected a single cabin and led to the fatalities of the two guests in that cabin. IE continues to work with the vessel owner and supplier of the vessel as well as the local authorities and representatives of the two guests’ daughter in Peru to obtain official reports from the local authorities.  Until official reports are issued, IE feels that it is inappropriate for IE and others to comment as to the cause of the fire and other details about this tragic accident.   The Vessel, La Estrella Amazonica, was cleared to resume operations following the accident.  At the time it was cleared, the fire had been thoroughly investigated by the local authorities, including the Chief of Fire Department – Loreto Region, a Chief of Fire Prevention and Investigation Unit, a Chief of Instruction and Investigation, the commanding Deputy District Attorney, the Tourism Police Force, and Port Authorities, including a Navy Captain/marine surveyor of maritime accidents and the Harbor Master/Captain of the Port of Iquitos, all of which cleared the vessel safe to carry guests.  Following that investigation and clearance, the boat owners also commissioned third party specialists who completed additional inspections of the fire systems and electrical systems to additionally verify safety onboard the vessel.  International Expeditions (“IE”) President, Van Perry, made contact with the two guests’ emergency contact, a daughter, soon after the accident.  IE offered its ongoing assistance as a resource in Peru and its condolences.  The family members and friends of these guests remain in IE’s thoughts.”

- Carrie Palmer, International Expeditions

Lankford and Malott have reached out to International Expeditions, as well as local Peruvian authorities, for answers regarding their parents' death to no avail.

"We feel an incredible sense of urgency in this because nobody else seems to. International Expeditions felt an incredible sense of urgency to resume normal operations even though they don't know answers to why this fire happened, why the crew failed to extract my parents and why my parents weren't alerted to the fire before it was too late. And they haven't taken corrective actions,” said Malott.

The situation has caught the attention of Nebraska Rep. Brad Ashford, who’s called the U.S. Embassy in Peru requesting a new investigation.

“I’m writing to make an official request for a thorough, fair, and impartial investigation into the recent deaths of Larry and Christy Hammer of Gretna, Nebraska. … I cannot emphasize enough for the need for an exhaustive and timely inquiry into this heart wrenching situation. I expect you will stay in constant contact with local authorities and the travel company, Alabama-based International Expeditions, throughout the investigation and keep my office fully informed of any and all developments,” said Ashford in a letter to U.S. Ambassador of Peru Brian A. Nichols.

Ashford is also requesting the assistance of the FBI.

Lankford and Malott are also accusing the Peruvian prosecutor’s office of careless evidence handling, which they say include:

  • Allowing 12 days to pass before sealing the cabin where the fire occurred.
  • The disappearance of the power strip.
  • Failing to secure witness testimonies from passengers before departing Peruvian jurisdiction.
  • Allowing crew members aboard the ship to obstruct justice.

"It feels like to me it could have been 100 percent been prevented that they died that night. … It's sickening to me that other people are on this boat that could have the same fate,” said Lankford.

The bodies of Larry and Christy Hammer were finally returned to the U.S. on April 22 after several aggressive calls. Once they returned, their wedding rings were missing.

Both parents were given a funeral just last week.

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Josh Helmuth can be reached at josh.helmuth@kshb.com

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