Deaths of Students in Cancun Spur Families to Push for International Travelers Bill of Rights
“Shame, Shame, Shame. I don’t want to go to Mexico no more, more, more,” sang Inez Franklin, as she video-chatted with her son, Davon Green-Franklin, via Skype. Davon, 22, who was vacationing in Cancun, Mexico, during Howard University’s spring break a year ago, lit up when he saw his mother’s face through his computer screen.
The two chatted briefly, and after exchanging a flood of “I-love-yous,” Franklin kissed him goodbye through the screen and closed her laptop. The next morning, the traumatic irony of that playful, yet meaningless jingle would haunt her for the rest of her life and transform her into an advocate for the International Travelers Bill of Rights Act, now making its way through Congress.
Franklin remembered the morning of March 14, 2010, as an unusually quiet and serene one. She and her husband, Chavez, had done their usual Sunday routine: attended church and then went out for a late breakfast. And just as they had discussed with their son, Davon, a few days earlier, they went to the movie theater to watch “Alice and Wonderland.”
Later that evening, the two sat down at home to arrange Davon’s graduation trip to Las Vegas. Just then, the phone rang.
It was Davon’s girlfriend, Jasmine, who was in medical school in Antigua. Inez’s deepest fears suddenly grew stronger from the moment she noticed something terribly peculiar in Jasmine’s tone. Stricken with anxiety, Franklin immediately asked, “Is my son alive?”
Overcome with grief, Franklin handed the phone to her husband. Her only child was dead. Without any information as to his exact whereabouts or what happened, she felt out of control as her world crumbled around her.
Davon’s classmates frantically explained to his parents over the phone that he had drowned after experiencing a cramp while swimming in the ocean.
Being that he was a trained swimmer and athlete, Davon’s friends knew something was wrong when they noticed him thrashing in the waves, screaming for help.
While several friends quickly swam out to his rescue, another sprinted through the sand towards the resort property to find a lifeguard.
“I am going to die!” cried Davon, as he gasped for air and struggled to keep his head above water. Two of his friends finally reached him just as he was succumbing to exhaustion, desperately trying to keep him afloat.
Minutes later, Davon’s friend located a lifeguard and rushed back to the beach. When Davon was pulled to shore, he appeared to be no longer breathing. An American nurse and doctor who heard the dire cries of Davon’s friends came over and attempted to resuscitate his lifeless body. Once the lifeguard and paramedics arrived, Davon was transported to Amerimed Hospital in Cancun where he was pronounced dead.
Suspicious Calls About Suspicious Bills
Within 30 minutes after learning of their tragic loss, a man named Jesus called the Franklins. He said he worked at the resort where Davon and his friends were staying, and he called to request their credit card information so that he could begin sending them the ambulatory and medical bills. Franklin questioned why someone employed by the hotel would be responsible for handling the medical billing from the hospital.
“He explained to me that the hospital and the hotel sometimes work together,” Franklin said. “But then after I refused to give him our credit card information, I got a second call from a man claiming he worked at the hospital where Davon was taken.”
While the man claiming to work at Amerimed insisted on obtaining their credit card information, Franklin noticed something strange in his voice. The second individual sounded exactly like the Jesus she talked to minutes before, who claimed he worked at the hotel.
“It was then that we believed these people were trying to take advantage of us,” Franklin said “Not once did we feel like any of these people calling us showed compassion, nor did they even apologize for our loss. They were only concerned about money, but we hadn’t even been presented with a statement listing the charges. My husband and I refused to pay, and they never called back so we knew something was not right.”
In the days that followed, the Franklins began learning more of the horrific details surrounding their son’s death. Davon’s friends stated that the Mexican authorities refused to transport him to the hospital until the students came up with $600 to cover the ambulatory ride.
“His friends pleaded with the officials to just send him to the hospital and reassured them that they would get the money,” Franklin said. “One of the girls told me that the officials showed no immediacy, and that she and the rest of Davon’s friends had no choice but to run back to the resort and round up the money before the paramedics agreed to take him to the hospital.”
Examining the medical receipts from the hospital, she noticed charges that claimed Davon was put on life support in addition to being relocated to a special treatment unit of the hospital. Another one of Davon’s friends, who was by his side the entire time, said he received no such treatment and his body was never moved.
Franklin then had a U.S. attorney probe the bills and interrogate the medical authorities at the hospital in Cancun. Suddenly, the shady charges were dropped.
After Davon’s body arrived in Baltimore, Franklin discovered a long scar across the top of his head, an incision that the doctors never explained. In addition, once she received his death certificate, she saw that it, too, contained errors, listing Davon’s death as a homicide. The Franklins were convinced Davon’s death was treated with indecency and disrespect.
Two weeks later, Franklin sat at her computer, still numb. She spent hours online doing research, determined to find out as much as she could about the accident in Cancun.
Her search led her to a website called MexicoVacationAwareness.com. A woman named Maureen Webster created the site to bring awareness to the dangers of vacationing in Mexico. Her son, Nolan Webster, tragically died in Cancun back in 2007, just three weeks after graduating from the University of Massachusetts.
After Nolan’s death, Webster built the website not only to highlight the stories of others who died while in Mexico, but also to provide evidence of the alarming number of U.S. tourists who were turning up dead.
Longing for a resolution, Inez mustered up just enough strength to type out a single sentence to Webster: “My son died in Cancun, Mexico.”
Webster responded immediately, sharing the story of her son’s tragic death and encouraging Franklin to read more of the other victims’ stories on the website. According to Webster, the alleged hotel doctor denied Nolan CPR and left him to die. Franklin also learned that there were 32 recorded deaths of U.S. tourists in Mexico in March 2010.
Just like Franklin, many of the victims’ loved ones said that their cases were mishandled, that the Mexican authorities showed insensitivity to their losses and that too many questioned remained unanswered.
At Webster’s insistence, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced the International Travelers Bill of Rights in June 2009. Webster wanted the act, H.R. 3099, now H.R. 1120, to force travel services websites to provide their customers with health and safety-related information.
From Anguish to Advocacy
The Franklins decided to join forces with the Webster family. “We polled thousands of students at several universities, asking them if they were familiar with the state department’s travel website,” Franklin said. “Many of these students were unaware of the site, and the majority of them admitted that they rarely if ever look into the advisories or warnings related to their destination prior to traveling abroad.”
“In addition, we discovered that many of these students did not know that if you die outside of America, your U.S. life insurance is invalid. That is why many families are forced to have their loved one’s cremated and sent back to them.”
If the act is passed, it will require websites like Expedia.com and Travelocity.com to list State Department travel warnings and alerts for travelers:
- Whether the destination employs a physical or a nurse
- Whether the destination has an automatic external defibrillator and employs personnel trained in its use
- Whether the destination employs personnel trained in CPR
- Whether the destination employs a lifeguard in swimming area
Two month’s after hearing Davon’s story, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., signed on to push the bill. Cory Scott, one of Davon’s closest friends, said he felt compelled to get involved, and became chairman and director of the national working group for the International Travelers Bill of Rights.
This week, the Franklins and Scott made their way back to Capitol Hill with a refreshed strategy. “We are looking to have the bill run concurrently in the House and Senate so that our home state senators can shepherd the bill, ultimately gaining bipartisan support,” Scott said. “So far, Congress has received our proposal very well, and we are optimistic about the anticipated hearing to come in the next few months.”
Lessons of Loss
For Franklin, working to save the lives of others is her only reassurance that her son’s death was not in vain. On that tragic spring afternoon last March, her greatest joy in life was taken away without warning. She’ll never get to see Davon walk across the stage and accept his college diploma, stand at the altar and recite his vows, or bring her first grandchild into the world.
“Little did I know that the when I closed my computer screen that day, it would be the last time I saw my son alive,” she said. “Nothing can prepare you to lose someone that you not only love, but are in love with.”
“All of the families that working with the International Travelers Bill of Rights Act are no longer focusing on the pain,” said Franklin, as she gazed down at a picture of Davon. “We have transformed our pain into energy for a cause. We three families represent the thousands who have suffered.”
Together, the Webster and Franklin families will continue their relentless journey through the doors of Congress, until the legislation is passed. The families are encouraging others to get involved in the fight.
“You can help prevent more senseless tragedies by contacting you congressmen and asking them to cosponsor the International Travelers Bill of Rights Act H.R. 1120, and also by visiting itbor.org,” Franklin said.
In addition, Inez urges future travelers to visit MexicanVacationAwareness.com to read about the victims who lost their lives in what proved to be anything but paradise.http://www.MexicanVacationAwareness.com
Franklin will forever mourn her son’s loss, but she knows that he has touched so many lives.
With uncanny timing, one of the last tweets Davon sent out before he drowned read, “Life lessons from the ocean water: The waves will pull you out further before they take you back to shore.”
Nia Moore is a graduating senior at Howard University.