A Family’s Ordeal: How a Jacksonville Man’s Dream Cruise Turned into a Nightmare


Key Takeaways

  • Donald Cohen’s cruise ended tragically in Angola, where he passed away, prompting his family’s struggle to repatriate his remains.
  • Visa issues and bureaucratic delays complicated the process of bringing Cohen home, intensifying the family’s distress.
  • Action News Jax Investigator Ben Becker and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Chekly’s intervention facilitated the return of Cohen’s remains.
  • After significant obstacles, Cohen’s body arrived in Jacksonville, allowing the family to bid him a dignified farewell

Donald Cohen, an 89-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, had always wanted to see the world. He booked a six-month global cruise with his wife, hoping to fulfill his lifelong dream. But fate had other plans. He collapsed on board the ship during a stop in Angola and never returned home.

According to a report published by Action News Jax, his family faced various challenges to repatriate his remains, from visa issues to bureaucratic delays. They were losing hope until Ben Becker, an Investigator at Action News Jax, intervened and helped them bring their father home.

Cruise of a Lifetime Ends in Misfortune

Cohen was a lively and spirited man who loved to travel. He had been looking forward to the cruise for months, planning every detail with his wife. They boarded the ship in January 2023, ready to embark on an adventure across five continents.

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But things went awry in March when the ship docked in Luanda, the capital of Angola. Cohen collapsed on board, presumably from a cardiac issue. He was rushed to a local clinic, where he received basic treatment. His wife stayed by his side while his daughters, Joanne Cohen, and Debbie Abram, anxiously waited for updates from Florida.

The report noted that the insurance company tried to arrange a medical escort to transfer Cohen to a more advanced hospital in South Africa, but it didn’t materialize. Cohen’s condition worsened, and he died alone in a foreign country on April 2.

Medical Complications and Visa Struggles

Cohen’s death was only the beginning of his family’s ordeal. His daughters could not immediately travel to Angola to claim his body, as U.S. citizens need a visa to enter the country. The report quoted travel expert Susan Pai, who said the process can take 4–6 weeks. She explained that delays are often due to overwhelming requests and staff shortages.

The report noted that Angola is not among the 40 countries participating in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, allowing travelers to visit without a visa for up to 90 days. The U.S. State Department reports that over 15,000 Americans have died abroad since 2002 for various reasons, including health issues and accidents.

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The family tried to expedite the process with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Angola, but they faced bureaucratic hurdles and red tape. They felt helpless and frustrated, as they could not give their father a proper burial or closure.

The Battle to Bring Cohen Home

The task of repatriating Cohen’s remains posed another challenge for the family. They needed a death certificate from the Angolan authorities, which proved difficult to obtain. They also had to deal with the logistics and costs of shipping the body across the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s when Becker stepped in, contacting a contact in Angola who could help. He had met Cohen and his wife during their cruise stop in Brazil, where he was working on another story. He was moved by their plight and decided to use his resources and connections to assist them.

The awaited breakthrough came from an unexpected call during an interview with Cohen’s daughters. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Chekly, the Director of the Chabad of Angola, had heard about their situation and offered his help. He facilitated the issuance of a death certificate and sent it to the U.S. Embassy. He also arranged for Cohen’s body to be placed in a casket and shipped back to his homeland.

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Per the report, the family finally received the news they had been waiting for on May 15: Cohen’s remains had arrived in Jacksonville. They could give their father a dignified funeral and embark on their journey to recovery.

As Becker reflected on the experience, he said in the report that he was honored to have played a role in bringing Cohen home. The family expressed their enduring gratitude for his assistance and compassion.

What We Think

The tragic circumstances faced by Donald Cohen’s family highlight the complexities and challenges involved in repatriating a loved one’s remains from a foreign country.

Bureaucratic hurdles and visa requirements can intensify the distress for grieving families. Ben Becker’s intervention and the compassionate aid from Rabbi Chekly showcased the power of empathy and resourcefulness in overcoming such obstacles.

This story underscores the importance of support networks and compassionate individuals in navigating distressing situations, offering hope and closure amidst overwhelming adversity.

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