Ronnie Polaneczky: Shipload of help for Belle's castaway clients

and fiance Sean Plankey were scheduled to be wed aboard the Belle in November.
and fiance Sean Plankey were scheduled to be wed aboard the Belle in November. (Maddy Crippen)
Posted: August 03, 2011

AT THEIR wedding next month, Brett Condon and Rob Zahorchak should dance to "What a Difference a Day Made." Because 24 little hours was all it took for their nuptial plans to go from a smooth cruise to a shipwreck. And one day is all it took for the boat to sail again.

Readers will recall my column last week about Brett and Rob, who were to wed Sept. 24 aboard the Philadelphia Belle, the Penn's Landing paddle-wheeler that abruptly ceased operations on July 21.

They were told not to expect a refund of the $18,998 they'd paid for their wedding, and they had no time or money to plan a new one. But after my call to Belle management, their luck turned.

"I am so relieved!" said Brett, after an executive at Camden's Adventure Aquarium offered to host the couple's wedding there. The aquarium reached out at the request of the Belle's operator, CI Travel Inc., whom I hounded.

"Everything we were supposed to get at the Belle, we're getting at the aquarium, at no extra cost," said Brett. "We're back on track."

As an apology, CI Travel handed Brett and Rob two free round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in the United States.

Classy move!

But what about three other Belle clients whose lives have been upended by the ship's sudden shutdown?

First up: Philly Register of Wills Ron Donatucci. He paid the Belle $10,000 toward the $18,000 cost of the political fundraiser he was supposed to host last night.

"I am also a screw-ee, and no one will call me back," he told me last week, after reading about Brett and Rob's wedding snafu. "The Belle cashed one of my checks two days before they went under. They should be investigated for fraud!"

Rodney Oglesby's calls to Belle management were also ignored. He heads the Mu Omega chapter of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, which paid the Belle $17,060 to host its Aug. 13 party to fund college scholarships for African-American males.

"This is our major fundraising event," said Oglesby, whose fraternity's 100th anniversary was recognized in June by City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown. "They cashed our last checks, then closed down the ship. Something is shady."

Finally, there's Maddy Crippen and her fiance, Coast Guard Lt. Sean Plankey, who were to wed on the Belle in November.

If Maddy's name is familiar, it's because she's a former U.S. Olympic swimmer and the sister of swimming phenom Fran Crippen, who drowned last fall during a World Cup race off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. When Fran died, his parents received a $10,000 death benefit from USA Swimming, which insures competitive events.

They used the check as a down payment on Maddy's wedding.

"Maddy and Fran were more than brother and sister - they were best friends," says Pat Crippen, their mother. "He would've wanted us to use the money for Maddy."

CI Travel - can you guess? - ignored the Crippens' calls for an explanation.

When all three parties asked for my help last Tuesday, I contacted CI Travel's CEO Kevin McElroy; its chief financial officer, Reed Atkins, and board president John Trinder. None of the men acknowledged my inquiries about what, if anything, they planned to do to make the Belle's clients whole.

But that doesn't mean things stayed stalled.

"You did it!" said Ron Donatucci, who was hand-delivered a $9,000 check on Friday. "If it weren't for the Daily News, I'd never have gotten this money back. Now let's see if they pay me my final grand."

And on Monday, Rodney Oglesby got $13,000 from CI Travel.

"I won't be satisfied until the check clears and we're reimbursed the rest of what we're owed," said Oglesby. "We still need to reschedule the fundraiser, so this is quite a hassle."

As for Maddy Crippen and Sean Plankey, there hadn't been any movement at all until Maddy's father, Peter Crippen, finally got a message through to CI Travel's Reed Atkins.

"He told them, 'Either you pay us back or we're going to go public in a big way,' " Pat Crippen told me. "They asked if we could give them another day. So that's what we're doing."

And yesterday CI Travel came through.

"They will send us a check for $10,000 next week . . . allegedly!" Pat Crippen texted to me. "We take that as good news.

"The message of this wedding is that life goes on" after a tragedy, she says wistfully, thinking of the year her family has been through. "Love prevails."


Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

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