U.S. Virgin Islands officials on Thursday confirmed dock security in hurricane-ravaged St. Thomas prevented more than two dozen stranded people from boarding a ferry last week set to carry 600 Marriott customers to Puerto Rico.
"What occurred with the non-Marriott guests was a necessity, that is normal, legal protocol," said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism. "Marriott acted quickly to secure their ferry because they already had a list of names from the hotels for their manifest. So they were able to move a lot quicker. We had visitor centers opened to register guests and have them evacuated."
"We know people were anxious to leave but we still had to follow protocol," she said.
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Social media erupted with outrage over the incident and some stranded visitors said Marriott had left them behind despite having room for hundreds of people. Marriott International said they did not the authority to allow non-Marriott guests onto their chartered ferry.
One of the stranded visitors documented the ferry leaving behind victims of Hurricane Irma in a Facebook video, saying she was being denied access by the Marriott crew.
Another stranded visitor wrote in a Facebook post that the company denied "humanitarian aid to women, elderly people and children."
Nicholson-Doty with the U.S. Virgin Islands said other cruise ships were set up to have as many people as possible evacuated before another storm hit. Stranded visitors were required to go to a 24-hour visitor center and register for evacuation.
A second storm, Hurricane Jose, was unpredictable and Marriott had a short window of time to get visitors on their way, Tim Sheldon, president of Caribbean and Latin America for Marriott International, earlier said in a detailed interview with Forbes. The company also was prevented from taking others by dock security, he said.
Marriot International released a statement giving details of the incident:
"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 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."
According to FEMA, since Sept. 11, nearly 443,000 meals and 146,000 liters of water have been transferred to St. Thomas and St. John.
"We recognize the damage. We are working on relief and recovery. We have a journey ahead of us," Nicholson-Doty said.