Tourists who rode out Hurricane Irma on the island of St. Thomas were left stranded after a ship contracted by Marriott Hotels refused to allow non-hotel guests to board.
Naomi Michial Ayala shared a video on Facebook explaining that 30 people were abandoned on the dock when a boat left for San Juan, Puerto Rico. Although the boat had 1,300 open seats and was open to taking people who were not Marriott guests, the hotel chain refused to let them board.
Cody Howard, a professional storm chaser who was shooting footage on the island with a partner, said it was some tourists’ last hope.
“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,” he told The Washington Post. “For some people, that was the only [glimmer] of hope. After the boat left, they just felt hopeless and helpless.”
In a statement to PEOPLE, Marriott said the boat team did not have the authorization to take additional passengers.
“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,” they said. “With Hurricane Jose on a path to St. Thomas, the ferry had a tight window to pick up passengers and safely depart.”
They continued, “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.”
The abandoned tourists feared they would have no way to safety as a second storm, Hurricane Jose, approached the island, which was running low on supplies. (Jose did change course and largely avoided St. Thomas.)
Howard and Ayala both alleged that the CEO of Marriott “did not want to take the liability” of bringing non-hotel guests.
Ayala eventually found safe passage on a private evacuation boat to Puerto Rico, where she caught a flight to Texas, according to her social media posts.