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Special: Congressional "Hearing on Safety in Study Abroad Programs"

Hearing on Safety in Study-Abroad Programs
Testimony of John Amato
October 4, 2000

I. Introduction

My name is John Amato and I am a lawyer and businessman from New Orleans, Louisiana. But, today I appear before you as the father of a child who was killed while traveling on a study-abroad program. I also speak for the parents of three young women, Jenna Druck (University of Colorado in Boulder), Cherese Laulhere (University of California in Los Angeles), and Sara Schewe (Georgetown University), who were killed with my daughter.  We thank Chairman Hoekstra and the members of the Subcommittee for giving us the opportunity to address this paramount issue of safety in study-abroad programs.
In my testimony, I would like to cover the following:

The facts of our daughters’ tragic deaths

The response of our daughters’ study-abroad program sponsor since the accident

The importance and the complexity of the problem regarding safety in study-abroad programs

Suggestions for potential legislative action in the area of safety in study-abroad programs

II. Virginia’s Death

In the fall of 1995, my twenty-year-old daughter, Virginia, a junior at the University of Texas in Austin, began her research on study-abroad programs. On her own initiative, she obtained literature about several programs for the spring, 1996, semester from the study-abroad office at the University of Texas. One of these programs was the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea. Virginia, my wife and I studied the promotional material and since our daughter was most interested in the Semester at Sea (SAS) program, we questioned several former SAS participants and their parents regarding their experiences with the program. We then decided upon the University of Pittsburgh program, which has been in existence for more than thirty years and draws students from universities throughout the United States as well as a few foreign institutions. While on board a Panamanian-flagged vessel entitled the S.S. Universe Explorer, the participants sail around the world. They attend regular university classes, as well as studying in depth each of the nine countries that the ship visits. Each semester, Semester at Sea sponsors approximately 270 Field Programs that supply 20% of the academic credit for each course and are priced separately.

Before our daughters left for the Semester at Sea, they were sent itineraries for the Semester at Sea Field Programs offered in the first four countries. The itineraries covering the last five countries, beginning with India, were given to our daughters well into the voyage and, while on the high seas, the students selected and paid for the additional Field Programs. Because communication with our daughters both from the ship and from the countries visited was difficult to say the least, we as parents had no opportunity to provide any input at all into the selection of Field Programs for these final five countries. However, we had encouraged our daughters to spend all their time within the foreign countries on school-sponsored programs, as we believed that participating in an enrichment program organized by the sponsor’s experienced professionals was a means of assuring their safety while abroad.

For their stay in India, our daughters chose a Field Program that has been a staple offering in prior SAS visits to India. This Field Program was described as involving guided tours throughout the visit, an air flight from Madras to Delhi, an overnight stay at a hotel in Delhi, an air flight to Varanasi, an overnight stay at a hotel in Varanasi, an air flight to Agra, an overnight stay at a hotel in Agra, and a "return trip to Delhi" involving "a six hour drive covering a hundred and twenty miles" during the daylight hours with a return flight from Delhi to Madras. This Field Program cost $745.00 which was paid in addition to the basic program tuition. Varanasi is the Holy City of the Hindus and the oldest inhabited city in the world. Agra is the site of the Taj Mahal. At some point after the boat arrived in Madras, our daughters were given a revised itinerary which substituted the Varanasi-Agra plane trip with a plane ride from Varanasi to Delhi and then six-hour bus rides both to Agra and back to Delhi, the first bus trip to take place at night. We have been told that, in the limited time available, the students tried to arrange alternate methods of transportation to avoid two six-hour bus trips, but their efforts to secure airline or train reservations of course proved futile. Completely unbeknownst to their parents, our daughters, who had been sold a plane ride from Varanasi to Agra, were instead put on a bus at night on what we have learned is one of, if not the, most treacherous roads in the world, that being between Delhi and Agra. Late on the night of March 27, 1996, the bus swerved off of that road and flipped over into a ditch. Seven people were killed, three students were critically injured and countless friends and family members were mentally and emotionally scarred.

III. Semester at Sea Response

Nearlyfrom the day after the accident, we parents have been attempting first to learn the facts that resulted in our daughters’ deaths and secondly to work toward preventing such accidents from occurring in the future. We have endured a frustrating struggle in both regards.

The response of the University of Pittsburgh to the parents has been uniformly lacking. From early on in this process, the university effectively went into a litigation defense mode. Totally frustrated in our efforts to ascertain the facts, six weeks after our daughters’ deaths we agreed to compose a statement (attached: "How Dare You…") for an upcoming conference for university administrators of study-abroad programs. We hoped that our statement would promote the issue of safety in study-abroad programs, an issue that of course was of paramount concern to us and, we assumed, to the programs’ administrators. We sent a copy of our statement to the Chancellor and to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Pittsburgh. In the statement we enumerated our many unanswered questions regarding the accident and the events leading up to it as well as questions regarding the program’s overall handling of the safety issue within its system. In the cover letter to the Chancellor (attached, Nordenberg and Connolly Ltrs.), we asked him to provide us copies of any reports that he received on this accident.

We never received a response from either the Chancellor or the Chairman of the Board. We did, however, hear from their lawyers. We also received a letter from Dr. John Tymitz, the Executive Director of the Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE) at the university. His letter (attached: Tymitz Ltr-Institute for Shipboard Education) purported simply to "update" us on the most recent information concerning the bus accident although it did in fact directly refer to some of the issues raised in our statement. It in no way addressed the overall issues of safety in the University of Pittsburgh program that we had raised.

Furthermore, Dr. Tymitz’s "responses" to our questions specifically regarding the accident are false or inaccurate. We asked why our children were sold a plane ticket and then, at the zero hour, placed on a bus for a six-hour nighttime trip on an extremely dangerous road. Dr. Tymitz told us that "the decision to change the itinerary to include the bus trip was made by the tour agent." In fact, the tour agent only recommended the change. Dr. Jill Wright, their Director of Academic Development and Field Programs, authorized the substitution of the night bus trip two weeks prior to the ship’s arrival in India.

Dr. Tymitz told us that the tour agent "in India . . . learned that the airline had over-booked the flight that was to have taken the students from Varanasi to Agra." In fact, the flight was not overbooked; it was already full from the outset of the efforts to make the reservations, and the university’s agents had been advised of this fact at least as early as December 22, 1995, long before our daughters had been sold the trip. The sixty students had been waitlisted with little or no chance of getting onto the flight. In his deposition, the tour agent, Unni Menon of Spectrum Tours, states that he believed the waitlist situation would clear closer to the date of travel. Nathaniel Waring, the Manager and President of Cox & Kings, a 240-year-old British tour operator specializing in arranging travel within India for foreign travelers, writes: "I find this supposition to be unbelievable from my experience as an organizer of group travel in India. In my opinion a waitlisted group of 60 seats on a flight scheduled to be operated on a B-737 [carrying only 119 passengers] on a sector which has only one scheduled flight is unlikely to clear closer to the time of travel. It was Menon’s statement that he believed that Indian Airlines may operate a second flight for that sector. This is unbelievable as well as Indian Airlines has an admitted shortage of aircraft. I have never seen [Indian Airlines] place an additional flight on this sector." (attached: Nathaniel Waring, Cox & Kings Report)

Dr. Tymitz also told us that the program sponsor "has worked successfully and safely with this tour agent for many years." In fact, while Semester at Sea previously worked with Unni Menon, it had never before worked with Spectrum Tours, nor with the Indian travel agency, Uday Tours, that had been subcontracted by Spectrum. SAS had worked with Mr. Menon only when he was the U.S. contact agent for Trade-Wings, a large Indian travel agency with a strong reputation and extensive back-up system that provided services to the program for years. In October, 1995, a few months prior to our daughters’ voyage, Unni Menon left Trade-Wings to establish Spectrum, a two-person office in Connecticut. Inexplicably, the program chose to leave Trade-Wings and follow Mr. Menon. Fathom the logistical issues involved in moving 600 young people on approximately forty different programs, fifteen including overnight trips, throughout the Indian nation in four days and then getting them in a safe and timely manner back to the ship for sailing. Instead of assigning this mammoth task to one of the recognized, experienced, large tour agencies operating in India or remaining with Trade-Wings, the program gave its business to the newly created and uninsured Spectrum which had two employees (Mr. Menon and his wife) and relied upon a similarly uninsured subcontractor, Uday Tours, who in turn relied upon another subcontractor to issue tickets and yet another subcontractor in Agra to look after the SAS students. Mr. Waring comments upon this arrangement, "In reading the testimony it is clear that Dr. Wright did not ask any questions of Spectrum pertaining to Spectrum’s infrastructure within India . . . . What is apparent from the testimony of both Dr. Wright and Mr. Menon is that this process had no system of checks and that the end user [SAS] was relying on a supplier who was himself distanced from his subcontractors."

Regarding the danger of the road that these children were placed upon, Dr. Tymitz told us that the sponsor "had no prior information to indicate that the road on which the accident happened was not appropriate for bus travel as was arranged." The only way this can be true is if Dr. Tymitz and the entire Pitt organization had had their heads stuck in the sand. Either this is a lie or a clear admission of incompetence.

We ask you to contrast this statement with Anthony Weller’s expert report (attached: Anthony Weller Report, "Driving Conditions of the Grand Trunk Road, India") describing the conditions of this road. The Grand Trunk Road (GT) between Delhi and Agra, a two-lane road that "resembles what an American might call a broken country back road," has "potholes literally everywhere. It narrows and widens constantly without warning . . . . The GT is carrying the dense traffic of the most important road in the subcontinent. This means predominantly a stampede of six-wheeler, two-axle trucks . . . . There are (with only a few brief exceptions)no dividing barrierson the GT. The result is that a road barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic most of the time – one in each direction – has instead a chaos of trucks sometimes three or four abreast, all vying for position, trying to overtake, hurtling straight at each other, and most dangerously crossing from lane to lane regardless of what direction it or they are going in. There are no lane markers either . . . . Speed limits are utterly ignored and entirely self-imposed . . . . The road is unlit . . . . There are no street or highway lights of any sort on the GT . . . . There is a strong Indian road tradition of not using headlamps at night . . . . Headlamps may be switched on and off rapidly at the last moment – often to blinding effect . . . . The road’s dangers were multiplied exponentially in darkness . . . .The road is like a deadlyvideo game in which obstacles and other vehicles come at you constantly(emphasis added)."

After providing a long list of readily available guidebooks on India all pointing out the dangers inherent in Indian road travel, Mr. Weller explains, "It is, in fact, difficult to find an Indian guidebook which doesnotwarn about hazardous road conditions there . . . ." Mr. Weller concludes that "there was indeed a wealth of such information readily at hand . . . . It is incomprehensible to this reporter that anyone who had spent ten minutes on an Indian road could have imagined that a six-hour bus trip on the busiest highway in India, by night, was a viable way to transport students . . . . On Indian roads, the risks are always monumental. The events of March 27, 1996, were predictable, and bound to happen sooner or later. They were also avoidable."

Nathanial Waring of Cox & Kings concurs with Mr. Weller. "I also find it difficult to believe the testimony of both Dr. Wright and Mr. Menon regarding their perception of the safety on road travel within India and most specifically of travel by bus on the Delhi to Agra road after sunset . . . . C&K has a clear policy to not use major trunk roads after nightfall in any planned itinerary . . . . It is also the policy of C&K not to use the Delhi-Agra road during the day as well." Our daughters were on the road at night and were intended to travel it by day.

The U.S. State Department has recognized the dangers of travel on Indian roads as well. For example, an internal publication directed to those posted at the U.S. Embassy in India advises:

"If you MUST drive out of Delhi, drive in the daylight ONLY!

Most national highways are extremely dangerous and remain the

biggest threat to you and your family’s health while posted here!"

The U.S. State Department in 1996 issued a release that stated:

"Travel by road in India is dangerous. Outside major cities, main roads

and highways are poorly maintained and always congested. Even main

roads often have only two lanes, with poor visibility and inadequate

warning markers. Heavy traffic, including overloaded trucks and buses,

scooters, pedestrians and livestock, is the norm. Travel at night is

particularly hazardous."

Since the accident, four and a half years ago, every person we contacted or who contacted us who knows this road was horrified to learn that anyone, much less a university conducting a study-abroad program, could be so unconscionable as to put these children on this road at night. And yet the travel-abroad "experts" at the University of Pittsburgh did exactly that. The university did not have in place a system insuring that all critical life safety issues were addressed by real safety experts; such a system would have precluded both the selection of Spectrum and the bus trip on that road when the train is the standard form of transportation between Delhi and Agra. In fact, in her deposition one year after the accident, Dr. Wright, the university's Director of Academic Development and Field Programs, who two weeks prior to the accident had issued authorization for the ill-fated bus trip that cost our daughters their lives, stated that she would certainly put students in a bus on that road again.

Dr. Tymitz also told us that the request for "’$3000 in the middle of the night’ from parents of the deceased to cover expenses to repatriate the bodies of the deceased" was made by the State Department "unbeknownst to ISE." In fact a senior representative of the State Department in India had contacted program administrators on the S.S. Universe Explorer regarding this matter and they refused to take responsibility of any kind.

We assumed that on learning of our tragic event the Chancellor and Board of Trustees would order an outside expert to investigate how this terrible event could have happened. Thus, we requested that copies of any reports on this accident furnished to the Chancellor or Board of Trustees of Pittsburgh be made available to us. That has never occurred. The only report made available to us by the university was regarding the court appearance in April of 1996 by the bus driver in India. At that time the university thoughtfully provided us with a list of attorneys in India who "should be competent to bring an action in an appropriate forum against the bus company." Six weeks after our daughters’ deaths, the university also thoughtlessly invited us to greet the ship and welcome our daughters home from their journey of a lifetime.

We were naïve when we sent our statement and letters to the university. We fully expected the Chancellor and Chairman of the Board at the university to be as concerned as we were that the facts be brought to light so that whatever went wrong could be corrected before further tragedies occurred. Instead, we learned that the university’s primary concern was litigation defense, first through attempting to divert the blame to the bus company in India and secondly, by presenting the facts as if the university had done everything correctly, hoping that the traumatized parents would go away as does usually occur. We did not go away. We persisted searching for answers as to how this could have happened and how it could have been prevented. We persisted trying to penetrate the wall (ISE, a shell corporation with almost no insurance) that the university and the Tung interests of Hong Kong (who controlled the ship) had established in an effort to insulate themselves from liability. We hired Kroll Associates to investigate; we sent a representative to India; we hired agents in India to investigate the road, to see the accident site, to conduct interviews and to gather information. Ultimately we determined that we had no other recourse than to file a lawsuit against the University of Pittsburgh and its partners in this program. Our hope was to establish a precedent that will force the boards of trustees and the heads of universities to recognize the awesome responsibility they have for life-safety in the study-abroad programs that they sponsor. We have endured four years of litigation in the state of Pennsylvania. Only last month, we finally received several boxes from the university with information that we requested nearly four years ago. Our lawyer tells us the information provided by the university is still far from complete.

IV. Problems of Safety in Study-Abroad Programs

Study-abroad programs are extremely popular in the United States. The 2000

Edition ofPeterson’s Study Abroaddescribes more than 1,700 programs in 97 countries, only half of the programs actually operated by U.S. colleges and universities. The number of Americans studying abroad has more than doubled since 1985, with about 114,000 students studying abroad in 1998 according toThe Detroit News. (1998 is the last year for which statistics are available.) The growth in these programs has been to underdeveloped countries which provide the greatest risks. The value of study-abroad is indisputable and the allure of these programs, to university and student alike, is great. For universities, study-abroad programs provide extraordinary prestige, financial reward and intriguing sabbaticals and arenas of study for their professors. For students, study-abroad offers fantastic educational opportunities and global exposure, and at the same time promises excitement, adventure, fun. Indeed after viewing the brochures and videos provided by Semester at Sea, Virginia’s friends and family were jealous of her. We all wanted to go on what was repeatedly described to us as "the opportunity of a lifetime."

The allure of these programs is so great that merely recording a list of tragedies will never be effective in solving the safety problems. Disclosure follows closely the waivers that students are required to sign. Furthermore, a respectable track record does not necessarily reflect an organization well run in terms of life-safety standards; it may simply mean that the organization has been lucky. Our four-and-a-half year ordeal with Semester at Sea has led us to believe that even this reputedly premier study-abroad program was running on pure luck. Our experience has led us to believe that study-abroad programs suffer a problem of systemic proportions within an industry where responsibility for life safety has been treated as a secondary rather than the most important, fundamental issue underlying the entire study-abroad system.

It is not acceptable to have college administrators and professors designing and running programs that are not overseen and audited by highly skilled professional life-safety experts. It is not acceptable to have college administrators and professors designing and running programs without properly researching the potential dangers involved. It is not acceptable to have college administrators and professors designing and running programs that use less than the most competent people in all aspects of the program’s execution. It is not acceptable to have college administrators and professors designing and running programs that fail to carry insurance of such a size that the insurers would insist on proper safety measures. Please permit me to repeat this. It is not acceptable to have college administrators and professors designing and running programs that fail to carry insurance of such a size thatthe insurers would insist on proper safety measures.It is not acceptable to have any university attempt to hide behind waivers and warnings or to hide behind uncapitalized and virtually uninsured shell corporations set up to limit liability. And, most importantly of all, it is not acceptable for the university heads or boards of trustees to permit their institutions to sponsor programs in such a manner.

Suggestions for Legislative Action Addressing Safety in Study-Abroad Programs

The analysis of the subject of safety in study-abroad programs cannot begin without an understanding of the actual relationship of the university sponsor with its students and, by extension, their parents. Each side has responsibilities. Certainly it is the duty of the student to follow the guidelines and to heed the warnings issued by the university sponsors. The duty of the university in study-abroad programs is far greater than that which is required on a domestic campus. The student is in a completely unfamiliar environment that presents risks for which he or she is ill equipped to handle. Students and parents do and must depend upon the university sponsor to have the expertise, experience and good sense to make responsible judgments concerning the safety of the students participating in the programs.

We believe in the value of study abroad. We do not wish to diminish the impact of such global learning. However, the first priority of study-abroad programs must be the safety of each and every student. Study-abroad programs have proven to be dangerous not because of some inherent risk in most foreign travel, but because too many people responsible for life or death decisions for the university sponsor are incompetent, arrogant and cavalier about what must be their first priority – life safety.

The answer is leadership – boards of trustees and university heads must insist that no program will be sponsored by their institution unless it is safe. The importance of life safety must be instilled into and permeated throughout study-abroad programs from the top down.

How can this be done? This mandate for life safety can evolve eventually after enough students die needlessly, or it can happen now if a court wakes up the industry with a large financial judgment against a sponsoring institution, or if a very large insurance policy is required and the insurers independently evaluate the programs’ systems for assuring life safety, or if legislation is passed to establish federal protections for our children.

We would like to recommend a federal remedy because in truth life safety in study-abroad programs is a federal issue since participants in these programs are drawn from universities all over the nation to travel all over the world. We strongly suggest the creation of a uniform law that establishes a federal standard of liability that can be enforceable in federal court so that the accountability so desperately needed in study-abroad programs can be assured. Federal standards are imposed to protect shareholders, seamen, railroad workers and others. Surely our children traveling abroad whose very lives are at stake deserve at least this much protection. Many of these laws demand an extra degree of accountability from the system that envelops and controls the protected person’s world. Surely students participating in study-abroad programs likewise become wards of that program’s sponsors who should be held to a similar degree of accountability.

We would completely support Congress in any effort to create affirmative regulations through licensing, the creation of a federal standard of liability enforceable in federal court, or any other methods that will insure universities and their study-abroad programs accept their responsibility for the life-safety of our children and put in place the necessary safeguards to ensure that other children will not suffer the same tragic consequences as our daughters.