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Sisters who lost parents in cruise ship tragedy say company is blocking them from getting answers

LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. -- It’s been 15 months since the parents of Jill Malott and Kelly Lankford died on a riverboat cruise in the Amazon after a fire broke out in their cabin.

"It had to be beyond terrifying. I mean my mom was crouched in the corner of the room still alive,” Malott said. “I texted Kelly at 3 a.m., last week and told her I just can`t take the nightmares. I can`t take the nightmares of being in the cabin with them and trying to get them out. And no amount of therapy , no amount of us talking together makes that go away.”

Since their parents' death, these sisters have been fighting for answers from International Expeditions, the American company that operated the luxury River Boat.

“They have systematically tried to road block us trying to find out answers,” said Lankford, who lives in Lee’s Summit.

She and her sister, who lives in Menlo Park, Calif., have contacted members of Congress from Nebraska where their parents -- Christy and Larry Hammer -- lived. They also hired attorneys in Peru where the boat was docked and paid for Peruvian and U.S. fire investigators to inspect the charred remains of their parents’ cabin as well as the rest of the ship. The two want answers as to what went wrong that caused their active and healthy parents to become trapped in their cabin and die.

“There`s been no explanation,” Malott said. “We`ve been desperate for answers.”

Some answers came in a report by the Peruvian Navy. The report states that basic safety regulations that could have saved their parents' lives were systematically ignored. The report blames the fire on a short circuit in a power strip provided to the Hammers by the river boat so that the Hammers could use their breathing machines.

Surveillance video from the boat shows the cabin filled with so much smoke that it spilled into the hallway.

“They were asleep at the time, but we do know they woke up and tried to get out of the room,” Lankford said.

Why couldn’t the Hammers escape? The report provides no answers, but another customer on that same cruise told FOX 4 that the cabin doors locked from the inside and required a key to open – and even with a key were difficult to unlock.

“The room was so hot that the air conditioner became unglued and had fallen to the floor,” Malott said.

It took 20 minutes before anyone tried to save the Hammers.

“You see crew members walking up and down the hall, talking to one another, opening their door and slamming it shut three times before they decide they are going to go in and save anybody,” Lankford said.

By that time Larry Hammer was dead. Another six minutes passed before a now-unconscious Christy Hammer was rescued. She died en route to a hospital, smoke inhalation killed both. The Peruvian Naval report cites a lack of emergency training by crew members, a cabin that wasn’t outfitted with fire-resistant materials and fire alarms that never sounded.

Not the image of the ship, the sisters said, that was presented by International Expeditions, an Alabama company.

“They said very clearly in all their marketing materials that they met international safety standards and exceeded Peruvian safety standards,” Malott said. “This company made blatantly false representations to our parents and other passengers and it cost them their lives.”

FOX 4 requested an interview with International Expeditions to answers the concerns raised by Malott and Lankford. The company sent this statement:

“All of us here at IE continue to be deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life of two of our guests following a cabin fire last year aboard the La Estrella Amazonica, a vessel that we charter. Given the pending legal proceedings in Peru we cannot provide specifics, but our highest priority remains the safety of our guests aboard our chartered vessels."

A year later, Lankford and Malott remain frustrated with what they say is a lack of accountability for their parents death. Peru fined the river boat $19,000, but the company is contesting the fine.

The family is also pressing for criminal charges in Peru, but that could take years.

“There has to be accountability,” Lankford said. “I'm not going to let my parents die in vain.”

Cruise industry critics say that ships that leave from US ports are too lightly regulated, but those that dock in another country can face even fewer rules. Bills have been introduced in both chambers of Congress to provide both cruise passengers and their families with greater rights and protections. It’s called the Cruise Passenger Protection Act and it has attracted sponsors from both parties.