The hundreds of people waiting on the dock in St. Thomas on Friday night had just survived a hit from Hurricane Irma that had crippled the airport and devastated pretty much every building not made of concrete.
Supplies of food and water were dwindling. Electricity was spotty. And Hurricane Jose had not turned north yet. The people on the island feared that the second storm could boom in, bringing more misery to St. Thomas.
But a large ship with enough room to transport all the tourists was approaching the dock. Just in time, help had come.
Just not for everyone.
The ship had been chartered by the Marriott hotel chain for guests who had to stay behind because the airport had closed.
And officials — there are disagreements about who exactly — said the only people who would be allowed on to the rescue ship were the registered guests of the chain’s hotels and lavish resorts on St. Thomas.
Shortly after the ship arrived, about three dozen people — tourists not staying at Marriott hotels who had also ridden out the hurricane — watched as the vessel pulled away with hundreds of empty seats.
“We just felt hopelessness,” said Cody Howard, a professional storm chaser who had been contracted to shoot weather footage on the island. His exit strategy evaporated when the island’s airport closed.
“We’re grown men. We could take care of ourselves,” he said of himself and his chase partner. Howard had endured similar conditions filming footage of Hurricane Harvey. “We didn’t need a whole lot. But it was really hard to see people with kids and elderly people who don’t have anywhere to stay get turned away by this boat … For some people, that was the only [glimmer] of hope. After the boat left, they just felt hopeless and helpless.”
Officials on the ship said they had contacted people higher up in the company about the evacuation, Howard and other stranded passengers said. The company officials said they “didn’t want the liability,” according to Howard.
In her anger, Naomi Ayala, a Dallas resident who had been vacationing on the island but was now watching her chance at rescue edge toward the horizon, pulled out her phone and posted a video on Facebook.
“They had 600 and something seats,” she said, citing a number that she later revised upward. “They filled it with 300 Marriott guests and there are 35 people over here waiting and we can’t get on this large boat that will hold at least 2 to 300 more people.”
Then she named names:
“And it was Marriott’s decision. Marriott did not let us on this boat to get to San Juan so we can get on flights back home. Instead, we have to ride out Hurricane Jose on St. Thomas when we just went through Hurricane Irma.”
Tim Sheldon, president of the Caribbean and Latin America region for Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International, told The Washington Post that the St. Thomas port manager instructed the crew that anyone not listed on the manifest could not get on the ship.
The company had already worked with authorities to get the boat into the port on short notice in an emergency — and to construct a manifest with all the appropriate passenger information. But Sheldon said the company didn’t control access to the port.
And with Jose approaching, there was no time to negotiate passage for the people who were ultimately left stranded.
“We were told by the port manager … that if they weren’t on the manifest that we weren’t able to bring them on to the boat,” he said. “We were told we had to have our boat out of that port by nightfall. We knew that it was in our best interests and in the best interests of our guests to get that ship out of there that night.”
In a statement to The Post, the company alluded to bureaucratic red tape:
On Friday, Marriott was able to secure a ferry to transport about 600 of our guests from St. Thomas to Puerto Rico. These were guests who had to stay behind after the airport closed in advance of Hurricane Irma.
The ferry departed St. Thomas Friday, September 8, with the Marriott guests onboard. There were a number of additional people gathered at the dock who were not our guests who also expressed a desire to leave St. Thomas. We very much wanted to assist these other travelers to Puerto Rico, however, the Marriott team on-the-ground was told they had no authorization to board additional passengers who were not on the approved manifest. This was enforced by dock security.
With Hurricane Jose on a path to St. Thomas, the ferry had a tight window to pick up passengers and safely depart.
As a company, Marriott places a priority on the safety and security of our guests, but we also have a long tradition of looking out for the greater community. In this case, we weren’t able to help and as grateful as we are that we were able to transport our guests, we are saddened that we were not able to do the same for more people. We continue to work with local authorities in St. Thomas to help support the relief efforts there.
But Howard and others saw it as a case of corporate callousness during a life-threatening situation. He told The Post that local officials were pushing for the tourists to get on the boat — they were using limited resources that could be used by islanders who couldn’t sail away from the aftermath.
Hurricane Jose did ultimately turn north and had minimal effect on the battered island.
But as the people watched the Marriott-chartered vessel pull away, no one knew that — or how long St. Thomas would be cut off from supplies of food and water. People had also received scattered reports of lawlessness at other increasingly desperate Caribbean islands.
But still, Howard said, the people on the ship said no.
“The whole sense that I got out of it was: We didn’t pay enough money to stay at a Marriott place, therefore, we weren’t good enough to get on that boat,” he said.