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Human Interest

Nebraska Sisters Finally Have Answers in the Mysterious Deaths of Their Parents Aboard Luxury Amazon Cruise: They ‘Were Careful People’

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From left: Larry Hammer, Kelly Hammer Lankford, Jill Malott and Christy Hammer
Courtesy of Jill Malott and Kelly Hammer Lankford

More than a year after their parents died in their beds after a fire broke out in their cabin during a luxury Amazon cruise, two sisters finally have confirmation of what they suspected all along.

A recently released Peruvian Navy report obtained by PEOPLE found that Larry and Christy Hammer of Gretna, Nebraska, might still be alive if the cruise company, International Expeditions, had equipped its 31-passenger ship with advertised safety features and had properly trained the crew to respond during an emergency.

“Our parents died of no fault of their own, simply because they got on that boat,” Kelly Hammer Lankford, 42, tells PEOPLE.

Lankford, of Overland Park, Kansas, and her sister, Jill Malott, of Menlo Park, California, have spent the better part of the past year seeking answers about the tragedy, which happened on April 10, 2016 — their parents’ first night of a 10-day, 600-mile dream Amazon cruise aboard the La Estrella Amazonica.

Courtesy of Jill Malott and Kelly Hammer Lankford

Numerous violations are cited in the Peruvian report, including that fire-resistant materials weren’t used in the ship’s cabins as claimed in promotional materials and that fire alarms didn’t sound; the crew wasn’t trained in basic safety procedures; a faulty electrical power strip was used in the Hammers’ cabin, causing the fire; and the captain slept through the emergency.

International Expeditions is appealing the Peruvian ruling and company officials will not comment on whether they have updated safety standards on the La Estrella Amazonica, which is still sailing. The cruise company issued the following statement when asked by PEOPLE for comment:

“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. Peruvian authorities continue to investigate the accident, and Expediciones Amazonicas, the Peruvian company that owns operates and manages (the ship) continues to assist authorities with their investigations. 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. We continue to review our operations to ensure we have the right protocols in place.”

The sisters, who initially shared their story with PEOPLE last year, hope that by speaking out they can motivate cruise companies to adhere to strict safety standards and educate travelers to do some research before forking over thousands of dollars for adventure vacations.

Courtesy of Jill Malott and Kelly Hammer Lankford

“It’s been such a brutal experience for us that our goal now is to prevent another family from going through the same grief,” Malott, 46, tells PEOPLE. “Our parents were careful people and expert travelers who read the small print. They thought they were going on an American-owned boat with a company that followed international safety standards. And all of that turned out not to be true.”

It took 21 minutes before crew members entered the Hammers’ burning cabin and found Larry Hammer, 74, already dead. Christy Hammer, 72, was alive, but died five minutes after she was taken to a hospital.

“An opportune reaction and participation by the whole of the crew would have enabled at least Mrs. Christy Hammer to be saved,” the report concluded. “Prompt action was not taken to aid and rescue the passengers.” 

Courtesy of Jill Malott and Kelly Hammer Lankford

Because the ship was marketed to Americans as the largest and most modern vessel on the Amazon, the Hammers, who were retired educators, “thought they were in good hands when they spent $10,000 to take the cruise,” says Lankford.

“Our parents were adventurous people who had visited every continent except Antarctica,” she says. “They loved family and travel and enjoyed telling their grandchildren about their experiences. Every single day, they are missed. Mornings are difficult because that’s when I always used to talk to them. Now I wake up every morning and the first thing I think about is that they are gone.”

Adds Malott, who is now waiting with her sister to hear the results of a criminal investigation by a Peruvian prosecutor, “Our parents helped out whenever they could, so that’s what Kelly and I are now doing in their memory.”

“Before you sign a cruise contract, do some serious homework,” she says. “Because what they are advertising may not be what you end up getting at all.”