When Carl Dukes learned that Maleka Jackson had been killed in a freak boating accident in the Bahamas, a shiver ran through his body.
Dukes had never met Jackson, although they lived near each other in Woodstock. But what really got him was how and where Jackson died.
Jackson and her husband, Tiran, were celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary when their tour boat exploded. Eight days earlier, Dukes and his wife were on that same boat, enjoying an amazing 11-hour tour that took them to distant Bahamian islands where they soaked in the sun and swam with pigs.
“We don’t know how our number gets called,” Dukes told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “What happened to her was unfortunate and my heart goes out. It hit us hard, because they lived a few miles from us. This was home. ”
Maleka Jackson’s death has travelers questioning what steps they should take to protect themselves, especially when dealing with local companies far from home.
“A lot of times people are not really aware of what the risks are in travel and with excursions,” said Dayvee Sutton, a national travel correspondent and television host, who specializes in adventure travel. “But when you sign that disclaimer, those are real life circumstances and part of the responsibility is up to you. There is always a chance that you could get injured.”
Nobody is prepared
A week after Jackson’s death, a newlywed was killed in Honduras in a zip-lining accident. The husband crashed into his wife whose line was stalled midway through the ride.
Even closer to home, similar tragedies can strike, turning a simple vacation into a complicated life-and-death situation.
In 2012, University of West Georgia student Aimee Copeland gashed her left leg when she fell from a zipline running over the Little Tallapoosa River. The wound left her susceptible to necrotizing fasciitis, which threatened her life and led to amputations of both hands, her left leg and her right foot.
On Thursday in Branson, Mo., a furious squall hit Table Rock Lake capsizing a "duck boat" and killing 17 people, on what they thought was a casual cruise.
“I stress to my clients to do as much research as possible,” said Caloria Osborne, a 38-year-old travel agent who runs her own boutique Atlanta travel agency. “Unfortunately, most people just think about vacation, they don’t think about safety.”
Still, she added, “nothing would have prepared anybody for a boat exploding.”
According to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, there have been 5,082 reported unnatural American deaths on foreign soil since 2012, with vehicle accidents accounting for 28 percent of them.
Many of the incidents involve vacation travel, but the data also looks at Americans studying, working and visiting abroad. Mexico led the pack. Over the past five years, nearly 1,500 Americans died there. It was followed by Thailand, 187; Costa Rica, 160; the Philippines, 134; China, 128; the Dominican Republic, 107; Germany, 106; Canada, 97; Haiti, 95; and Jamaica, 94.
The Bahamas ranked 11th for the most American deaths, but had the highest percentage of air accidents (17 percent) and drownings (47 percent). Since 2012, the popular tourist destination has seen 15 air accidents, 47 drownings, 11 homicides, one maritime accident, five suicides, five vehicle accidents and five other accidents involving Americans.
What happened to Maleka Jackson?
Authorities in the Bahamas are still sifting through the wreckage to determine what caused the June 30 explosion that killed Jackson moments before a planned to tour of the Exuma Cays to visit the swimming pigs.
The 38-foot gas powered aluminum vessel was holding two gasoline tanks with a capacity of 120 gallons each when it exploded about 9 a.m. off the coast of Exuma, 130 miles south of Nassau.
Tiran Jackson was badly burned in the explosion and had a leg amputated.
The government has issued a cease and desist order against the touring company, Four C’s Adventures, as part of an ongoing investigation.
“What makes this especially difficult is that there may not have been any warning signs,” said Garrett Townsend, the director of public affairs for the AAA Auto Club Group Georgia. It can be easy to let your guard down while on vacation, but some careful planning and research goes a long way in making sure you’re prepared to respond to the unexpected.”
For his part, Dukes said he did extensive research on the company before booking his tour, adding that “they did an amazing job,” and he saw no obvious red flags.
“Sadly, many people skip extensive research because it’s time consuming, but this can lead to disastrous experiences,” said Danielle Washington, an independent travel agent.
“Traveling solo, I too have gone on tours with locals that I haven’t fully vetted. But I have a tendency to ask a lot of questions in these situations before agreeing to give someone my money and time,” she said. “My advice if someone is thinking about going off on an excursion without research, remember if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Daphne Jordan, who travels often with her husband, said they communicate with the American Embassy and use what they consider reputable companies for services. But there have been a few close calls.
The couple came close to exploring Istanbul on a recent eight-hour layover. They balked at the $65-day visa, only to learn later that the area outside of the airport had been bombed.
On another trip to Capetown, South Africa, they were on their way to Johannesburg when the American Embassy cautioned against it. They later learned that another African-American man had been robbed and shot dead.
“We have been fortunate, but we have been very cautious,” said Jordan, who is planning a trip to Iceland. “My husband is a bit riskier. Me? I am cautious of the fact that we are African-Americans and Americans.”
The insurance question
Osborne, who travels abroad about a dozen times a year, said insurance is a must.
On a recent eight-day trip to Greece Osborne spent $32 on an insurance policy that would have paid out $100,000 to get her back home for a medical emergency and another $20,000 to transport her body home had she died on vacation.
Townsend of AAA said that through the end of June, the Georgia group has booked about 7,300 travelers and about 43 percent of them purchased insurance — which can include medical coverage, trip cancellation and lost luggage — through Allianz Travel.
Townsend said that figure doesn’t include travelers who get their own insurance, which he says could up the percentage of travelers who actually get insurance to about 70 percent.
Count Osborne in that number.
“Fortunately, I have never had to go to the hospital or had a medical emergency,” Osborne said. “But I want to be prepared.”
AJC Data specialist Jacquelyn Elias contributed to this report.