A Phoenix man who has led an international crusade to hold cruise ships accountable for on-board crimes received a national award from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Kendall Carver received the Ronald Wilson Reagan Public Policy Award during the annual National Crime Victims’ Service Awards ceremony Friday in Washington, D.C.

Carver launched the International Cruise Victims Association Inc. after his daughter mysteriously vanished during an Alaskan cruise in 2004. What started as an effort to connect with other grieving families turned into a mission to force accountability and legislation on a loosely regulated industry.

Carver, a retired New York insurance executive, said receiving the award was “the outstanding honor” of his life.  But he said his organization still has more work to do.

“I really feel like I am getting this for all of the victims, and the families that have had this happen to them,” Carver said after a ceremony at the National Archives. “It has taken their passion to get this done worldwide.”

THE FIRST STORY, IN 2005: Daughter vanishes while on Alaskan cruise

CHANGE, 11 YEARS LATER: Travelers can get reports on cruise-ship crime

Alan R. Hanson, acting assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, said Carver showed incredible emotional strength by channeling his grief into action.

“Mr. Carver has worked through the anguish of losing his daughter to fight for the rights of families across the globe,” Hanson said in a statement. “The Department of Justice is proud to honor him for his outstanding service and for his unflagging pursuit of justice on behalf of the injured and aggrieved.”

An effort built on a demand for transparency

More than 22 million people take cruises each year. The vast majority of passengers experience worry-free vacations and bring home exciting memories of exotic ports of call.

But hundreds of other passengers have darker experiences. Some never come home. Others bring back stories of rape, assault and theft. They tell of ship officials unqualified and unwilling to conduct investigations, of being ordered to collect their own evidence, of being ignored or disregarded.

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Carver brought victims of shipboard crime and their families together to take on the multibillion-dollar cruise-line industry and their lobbyists with little more than personal anecdotes of loss and violence. The International Cruise Victims Association, which is staffed by volunteers and operates on donations, now has members in 35 countries.

Carver and the association helped families and victims of cruise-ship crimes to publicize their stories and expose the lack of rules for reporting, investigating crimes and maintaining evidence aboard ships operating out of U.S. ports.

The association’s key achievement was pushing lawmakers to approve the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2009, which President Barack Obama first signed into law in 2010 and was amended last year.

The bill allowed travelers for the first time to see what crimes are being reported aboard ships, including deaths, rapes, sexual assaults, assaults, thefts, and people going overboard.

Loss of a daughter sets a cause in motion

In 2004, Merrian Carver, 40, boarded a Celebrity Cruise ship for a weeklong Alaskan cruise. Sometime after the second day of the voyage, she vanished.

As Kendall Carver sought to piece together his daughter’s last days, concern turned to outrage at the behavior of cruise officials.

He learned ship officials were aware of Merrian’s absence but filed no official reports. They didn’t alert the U.S. Coast Guard or police in any port. And when she failed to disembark at the end of the cruise, ship officials didn’t notify her relatives.

An investigation determined that Merrian’s cabin steward, worried about Merrian’s sudden disappearance, was ordered to say nothing about it; ship officials packed her belongings in a storage locker and then gave them to Goodwill; Merrian might have been intimate with a crew member on the ship, but the crew member refused to give a statement; the cruise line first denied there was video-surveillance footage of the ship and later admitted that officials had video footage, kept it for several months and then erased it.

In 2005, Royal Caribbean, which owns Celebrity, issued a statement saying Merrian committed suicide, a conclusion that Carver says was based on nothing more than the cruise line’s desire to minimize the case.

Carver, who attended Friday’s ceremony with his wife, daughter and two granddaughters, said he felt as if Merrian’s spirit was there with him.

‘We’ve still got a ways to go’

Carver said the International Cruise Victims Association is pushing for increased passenger safety legislation in Europe and Asia. He also said Department of Justice officials told him this week that they are seeking to use his model for new passenger-safety laws on airlines.

“Part of (my) success is that I have been able to attract other people to get involved,” he said. “We’ve still got a ways to go.”

President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first Victims’ Rights Week in 1981. This year’s observance was to run April 2-8, with the theme Strength. Resilience. Justice.

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