Footnote to a Disappearance

I happened to be in Quebec last week as I was reading about the cruise ship industry in general and the incidence of “mysterious disappearances” in particular.

One case really caught my eye because the woman in question—a 70-year-old from Baton Rouge, Louisiana named Sarah Tessier Powell—was last seen on the Holland America Line’s Veendam on 30 September 2012 as it left Quebec City on its way to Charlottetown, Sydney and Halifax. Powell was described as a white woman, five-feet six inches tall, with a thin build and brown shoulder-length hair. Police said she spoke with a strong southern accent and that she required medication and could “become agitated without it.”

Sarah Tessier Powell

Sarah Tessier Powell

The story, as covered by CTV, CBC, frank magazine, The Cape Breton Post and other outlets, was that Powell’s absence was noted by crew on October 4, as they arrived in Halifax.

“There were some items on board the ship in her cabin, but there were some items missing, leaving us to believe she left on her own accord with no intention of coming back to the ship,” Halifax Regional Police Constable Pierre Bourdages told CTV.

“We do not believe she would have fallen off the ship or met with foul play on the ship.”

Erik Elvejord, a spokesman for Holland America, told the CBC a ship-wide search had been conducted for Powell.

“Per marine regulation and protocol, Transport Canada/Canadian Coast Guard (TC/CGG), United States Coast Guard, FBI, RCMP and local law enforcement authorities were contacted with all known information,” he said in an emailed statement.

“An investigation is ongoing.”



Jim Walker, a Miami-based Maritime lawyer who writes the Cruise Law News blog, was skeptical at the time that Powell had left the ship unnoticed:

How on earth is that possible? Passenger gangways are supposed to be heavily monitored by security with each passenger’s sea pass card scanned and the gangways always covered by closed circuit television cameras.

Cruise ships can easily trace the passenger’s onboard purchases and use of their cabins by ‘lock-link’ reports which document the opening of cabin doors. When did the passenger last use her card to either charge a purchase or open her cabin door? The shipboard security should easily be able to know when there was any documented activity by Ms. Powell on the ship.

And why do the police think she left the ship? If she did, then there should be CCTV film documenting her exit even if the gangway security guards were asleep at the wheel.

CTV spoke to Powell’s neighbors in Baton Rouge who told the network it wasn’t the first time Powell had gone missing, but the story offers no more details on her previous “disappearances.”


Sûreté du Québec

I couldn’t find any update about the story online, so I contacted the Halifax Regional Police to ask about the case. They informed me it had been taken over by the Sûreté du Québec

Did I mention I happened to be in Quebec? I emailed the SQ asking for an update. I said my deadline was Wednesday morning.

Their initial response was: Why did you not give us a phone number where you could be reached? Why do you need this information? Why do you need it so urgently?

I answered that I preferred email because I was an anglo, that I wanted the information for a story I was writing and that Wednesday just happened to be my deadline. Then I gave them my phone number.

Sûreté du Québec spokesperson Mélanie Dumaresq phoned me almost immediately and said, “The lady has not been found. The case is still open. We cannot comment on a case that is still under investigation.”