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Princess Cruises to Investigate Why Captain Ignored Distress Call

Steve Mason/Photodisc/Thinkstock (file photo)(NEW YORK) -- Princess Cruises is conducting an internal investigation after the captain of one of their ships reportedly ignored a passenger's report of a distress signal and continued on course, rather than coming to the rescue of a stranded Panamanian fishing vessel.

Two of the fishing boat's three crew members later died of dehydration -- just one day after the encounter with the cruise ship.

On Feb. 24, 2012, Adrian "Santi" Vasquez, 18, set out on a fishing trip with two friends, Oropeces Betancourt, 16, and Fernando Osario, 16.  The trip turned deadly when the trio discovered that the outboard motor on their small fishing vessel "The Fifty Cent" would not start, leaving them stranded in the middle of the ocean.  The three Panamanian fishermen drifted at sea for over two weeks, hungry, hot and dehydrated, before they spotted the Star Princess cruise ship and started desperately signaling for a rescue.

"It was a really big, white ship.  I was waving a red t-shirt, and Fernando was waving a bright orange life jacket over his head.  For a minute it looked like they were going to turn to come for us, but then they just went on their way," Vasquez, the crew's sole survivor, said in an interview with panama-guide.com.

Meanwhile on the deck of the Star Princess, Judy Meredith of Bend, Ore., and Jeff Gilligan were bird watching with Jim Dowdall of Dublin, Ireland, when they spotted the Fifty Cent far off the ships starboard side.

Equipped for bird watching, the group was armed with high power binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras fitted with telephoto lenses -- all of which gave them a good view of the fishing boat in the distance.

"I saw a young man in the front of the boat waving his shirt up and down.  Big motions, up over his head and down to the floor, waving it vigorously.  Frantically I would say," Meredith told ABC's Good Morning America.  "That signal told me that they were in trouble.  They were trying everything they could to get our attention."

Meredith said that they told someone at a desk they wanted to call the bridge and be sure they checked on the boat.  She said that the man at the desk made a call, then came back out and looked through their spotting scopes at the boat, then went back inside.

"Nothing happened," she told GMA.  "The ship didn't slow down.  It didn't seem to change course.  And so I went back in and asked what the captain was going to do. And he said he didn't know."

Not pacified by the encounter, Meredith returned to her room where she wrote down the ships coordinates and sent an email to U.S Coast Guard in hopes that they would take action.

The Coast Guard did not find the Fifty Cent, however, and the boat floated aimlessly for another two weeks, during which both Bentancourt and Osario died of dehydration.  On March 24, Vasquez, the sole remaining fisherman was rescued at sea by an Ecuadoran fishing boat.  He was found 650 miles off shore, having thrown the bodies of his two friends overboard.

"It's really frustrating that those young men were at sea two more weeks and two of them died!  Two of them died because the ship didn't turn around," Meredith said.

Princess Cruises confirmed in an email that they have launched an internal investigation into the matter, writing "We're aware of the allegations that Star Princess supposedly passed by a boat in distress that was carrying three Panamanian fishermen on March 10, 2012.  At this time we cannot verify the facts as reported, and we are currently conducting an internal investigation on the matter."

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Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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