Editor's Note: This story was initially posted on June 1, 2012 at 3:55 p.m. and has been updated.
More than 240 fifth graders faced major disappointment today when they had no choice but to leave Ellis Island before even getting on the boat.
Liz Maythenyi, a mother of two students who were on the failed field trip reached out to Patch today after a chaperone contacted her via text message. Maythenyi said that multiple chaperones told her that at 12:30 p.m. the group had yet to board a boat for the ten-minute ride across the river – a trip Terrill Middle School scheduled, and paid for, months ago.
Maythenyi stated that while Terrill Middle students were patiently waiting to board the boats for their 10 a.m. tour, another large school group waiting behind the students was picked out by a Statue Cruises employee who ushered the chosen group in front of the Terrill students.
“The boats run every half hour and every boat that came after that other group was selected to go first, was filled up by the students in that group. Our kids were left waiting until it was too late. By the time 12:30 rolled around, they couldn’t go to the island because the busses were on the way to bring them back to Scotch Plains.”
Maythenyi stated that the chaperones on hand confronted the employees on site, who indicated that their boss, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Statue Cruises Michael Burke, had directed the employees to lead the other group in front.
“The poor guys who were in charge of letting people on the boat felt terrible so they were frank with us,” Maythenyi said. “They said, 'My boss was telling me to let this other group on because they’re from his friend’s school. It came from upstairs. Please don’t be mad at us.'”
Terrill Middle School Principal Kevin Holloway also remarked on the day’s events.
“Today, the trip to Ellis Island had to be cancelled because of unforeseen circumstances. The ferry that would carry the students to Ellis Island was overbooked by the owner. As a result of this oversight on behalf of Statue Cruises, our trip is being rescheduled for Wednesday, June 6. Statue Cruises is providing compensation. The plans for the trip will remain the same as previously communicated.”
Many parents are crying foul on the Statue Cruises Facebook page. At first, Statue Cruise – the only boat line available for tourists trying to reach the island – tried to quell the bad buzz by deleting the posts, but, after hours of criticism, the organization posted this apology:
“We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience which our guests have experienced. I can assure you that what you have witnessed today prior to boarding our vessel is not our normal protocol. Our guests are very important to us and we will ensure it does not occur in the future. We are reaching out to all guests that were affected to extend our apologies as well as reimburse for tickets purchased today.”
Terrill Middle School mom, and trip chaperone Sandy Jameson Davis posted the following in response to the Facebook apology.
“Shame on your CEO mike Burke who REFUSED to speak with the teachers from Terrill middle school after you decided to ruin the 5th grade field trip for 240+ students from Scotch Plains NJ. As a parent who witnessed this, you should be ashamed that you instructed your employees to allow special treatment for your friend’s kids and their classmates and pass us by as our kids were waiting an hour in line. Btw those kids you decided to let on the ferry gave our students the finger and the loser sign as they sailed away. I guess knowing the CEO doesn't mean you have manners. At least our students were polite and respectful even after being told their trip was cancelled. Man up and respond!”
Although Statue Cruises has agreed to refund the ticket costs, Maytheni expressed that the gesture does not make up for the disappointment her twins Juliet and Nicholas are experiencing today.
“This was supposed to be a celebratory end of the year event,” Maytheni said. “We all prepared them for the wonders of Ellis Island – their moms and dads missed a day of work to experience it with them. A refund can’t make up for that. Statue Cruises needs to do right by us and pay for another trip and the cost of traveling expenses.”
Update - 6 p.m.: Patch Speaks to Statue Cruises
Patch spoke with Tegan Firth, a public relations manager for Statue Cruises’ parent company, Hornblower. Firth had a very different take on today’s events. Firth stated that the decision to allow the larger group to go in front of Terrill students was made by line supervisors.
“The larger group of about 400 students had a 2-1/2-hour drive home so the line supervisors made the decision to let that group go first,” Firth said.
Firth also stated that the line supervisor’s decision to let the larger group go first had nothing to do with Statue Cruises COO and VP Michael Burke, who, according to Firth, has no ties to the larger group’s school.
In a lengthy statement released on the organization’s blog, Terrill Middle School parents are implicated as the ones who “dropped the name” and the story that Burke was at fault. That’s also the story Firth told to Patch at the beginning of the interview this evening.
Less than five minutes into the interview, Firth stated something different.
“We don’t dispute anything the Terrill Middle School Parents are saying,” Firth said. “The Line Supervisor was not skilled in handling confrontation and was saying whatever he could to diffuse the situation. He didn’t use his words right. He said ,‘I had to do this, it came from up above’ and he used Michael Burke’s name when, in reality, Michael Burke had no connection to the incident.”
Firth stated that she collected this information from Michael Burke, who had spoken to the Director of Sales, who had heard the firsthand account of the Line Supervisor involved.
Adding to the confusion, Firth contradicted the accounts of Liz Maythenyi and many other parents, stating that Terrill students would only have had to wait 25 additional minutes to board the next ferry.
“The larger group boarded at 10:30 a.m. so Terrill should have been able to board at 10:55 a.m." Firth sayd. "It is unfortunate that Terrill Middle School was unable to wait for the next ferry, which departed 25 minutes later, but that was the choice the chaperones and teachers made. They were not turned away or asked to leave.”
In an effort to make amends, Firth stated that Terrill Middle School has been refunded for the cost of tickets and bussing, and given complimentary tickets for next Wednesday when they will be greeted with a pizza party and foam crowns.
“We learned a few important lessons today, and one of those is giving our line supervisors more training in explaining decisions to people who are upset,” Firth said. “We’ll work on communication skills with our whole team and we hope we are never in this situation again. We thank the Terrill Middle School community for understanding and we look forward to seeing you soon!”