Costa Concordia in Context

| Friday, 20 Jan. 2012
The Costa Concordia Wreck from Space


[Correction: Crystal Cruises account revised according to input from Art Sbarsky, formerly of the cruise line.]

To a certain extent, a media saturation point has been reached in reporting on the Costa Concordia disaster, one in which several pertinent questions are not even being asked (see Paul Motter's article here).

Disturbing images of a capsized vessel, firsthand accounts from the passengers, recordings of a cavalier and cowardly captain, and the current death toll of eleven souls and 21 missing have been front and center of the coverage. This combined with the lack of any black box evidence or conclusive court hearings as of yet is likely to lead to further speculation and stereotyping in regards to the cruise industry. So let's take a momentary step back and evaluate the history of cruise emergencies to provide a bit more context and perspective.

Titanic and SOLAS

Surely the first association to be made in viewing the Concordia disaster is with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The devastating event with its staggering loss of life is known to us all through numerous depictions – not the least of which is James Cameron's Oscar-winning film – and marks a historical turning point in the attitude towards the safety of passengers on the high seas. 1,517 lost their lives on the Titanic due to a shortage of lifeboat capacity. In response, the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) Convention was established and has been recognized internationally as a regulatory mandate ever since.

SOLAS regulations require the construction of watertight integrity into vessels as well as the installation of key ship systems such that they will remain operable under emergency conditions. As fire is one of the most common and crippling emergencies on ships, fire containment and suppression systems are also necessary onboard. Sufficient life-saving devices such as lifeboats and life vests are cited as requirements per the specific International Life-Saving Appliance (LSA) Code. And it also lists the need for safety appropriate radiocommunication, navigation, and security systems.

In considering the currently known actions of the Concordia's captain, one clause interestingly reads, "This Chapter also includes a general obligation for masters to proceed to the assistance of those in distress." While Costa Concordia was a SOLAS compliant ship, the captain – who prematurely abandoned his post – clearly did not abide by the regulations to help those remaining onboard.

Even with such preventative measures and systems to deal with emergencies in place, shipboard accidents have still occurred, and many but not all are the result of human error – also the presumed cause of the Concordia disaster.

An Abridged History of Shipboard Human Error

Carnival Ecstasy

In 1998, the Carnival Ecstasy had just left from Miami when unauthorized welding by some of the crew started a fire in the ship's main laundry facility that soon spread to the ship's stern, setting aflame the vessel's mooring ropes. The resulting billow of black smoke was caught on tape by the Port of Miami and the television news media as well as seen by the U.S. Coast Guard, prompting the Guard to contact the cruise ship. The captain replied that the onboard fire brigade had the situation under control and refused assistance.

Nonetheless as the smoke got worse, the Coast Guard dispatched fire-fighting vessels to assist the ship, which did eventually radio for help upon losing propulsion and steering. The accident resulted in 60 injured passengers and crew. The captain later said that he was not trying to deny Coast Guard jurisdiction but was rather focused on positioning the ship downwind to further avoid smoke coming into the ship. But the question then becomes why wouldn't he accept immediate assistance when it was readily available.

Crown Princess

In 2006, about an hour after the Crown Princess was leaving Port Canaveral, its automatic steering system began turning to port (to the left) when the senior watch officer on the bridge perceived the preplanned maneuver as a severe turn. The officer decided to disengage the autopilot system and instead manually override the maneuver by turning to port himself and then from port to starboard (to the right) a number of times.

This manual override resulted in the ship listing – also known as heeling or rolling – to the starboard side of the ship at a maximum angle of 24 degrees, causing passengers and crew to be knocked about with 14 serious and 284 minor injuries. Ships are designed to be able to recover from a roll of up to 49.5 degrees, and as a result the ship sustained no damage beyond that of loose articles onboard.

The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) cites the cause of the accident to be the result of the senior watch officer's "incorrect wheel commands, executed first to counter an unanticipated high rate of turn and then to counter the vessel's heeling. Contributing to the cause of the accident were the captain's and staff captain's inappropriate inputs to the vessel's integrated navigation system while the vessel was traveling at high speed in relatively shallow water, their failure to stabilize the vessel's heading fluctuations before leaving the bridge, and the inadequate training of crewmembers in the use of integrated navigation systems."

Star Princess

Also in 2006, the Star Princess received extensive damage to its port (left) side in a blaze that took the life of one passenger and injured 11 others. It's believed that a cigarette butt – which was not properly disposed of – was the cause of the fire which consumed about 150 cabins and melted away many balcony structures due to the combustible nature of the veranda materials.

Princess has since repaired the vessel and retrofitted it with new non-combustible materials and fire sprinkler systems in each of the balconies – now requirements on newbuilds. Such a cigarette-caused fire has elicited questions regarding shipboard smoking policies, and Princess itself has revised its policy as of January 15th of this year to no longer allow smoking in any passenger rooms or balconies.

Holland America Ryndam

One of the more ridiculous cruise ship accidents occurred in 2011 when drunken 44-year-old Rick Ehlert somehow made his way into a restricted area of the Ryndam and then proceeded to spend 12 minutes controlling the release of the ship's anchor – having experience with a similar system on his own 50-foot long boat.

Lucky for him and the passengers and crew onboard, the anchor did not reach the ocean floor. Had it done so, the ship could have easily caught hold of the underwater terrain and been whipped dangerously around with severe hull damage as well as injuries or even worse, deaths to the people onboard. Thankfully no injuries nor damage resulted from his actions. Ehlert was arrested on felony charges.

Conclusions

Even with such accidents being the result of human error, can the cruise industry be considered infallible? By no means. Should the cruise lines be held responsible for the consequences of these accidents? Absolutely. The lines and, more specifically, the captains of their ships are in charge of the safety of all passengers and crew onboard.

But should the cruise industry be negatively stereotyped for a handful of accidents, however unfortunate, caused by a few individuals? No. The truth remains – even when adding the Costa Concordia disaster into the discussion – that cruising is statistically one of the safest forms of travel, and surely the vast majority of cruise ship officers are quite capable of safely performing their duties.

To be sure, this accident does recall memories of the 2007 sinking of Louis Cruises' Sea Diamond immediately off the coast of Santorini that resulted in two deaths, itself a tragedy. How it differs is that it is the first time a ship sinking of this magnitude has struck one of the major cruise lines – Costa is owned by Carnival Corporation, the largest cruise conglomerate in the world – posing a greater challenge to overcome the negative stigma surrounding these current events.

How the Concordia disaster can be alleviated is by Costa stepping up to the plate and doing what is right by the victims, and by the cruise industry as a whole learning from the events and taking steps to ensure future safety so that accidents such as this will not happen again. When the dust has settled, problematic situations are evaluated according to how the challenges were handled. Cruise lines have been tested before, and the industry has recovered.

My dad recounts a cruise we took years ago on Crystal Cruises where we met a couple that were passengers onboard the Crystal Harmony in 1990, when a fire crippled the ship for 19 hours with no power and three days total adrift with minimal power. While the situation was troubling, the couple was impressed with how well the cruise line handled the emergency onboard and even more so by how well the line took care of their needs afterwards.

Once the ship was able to make it to Panama, Art Rodney, the president of Crystal at the time, along with several other executives were there to personally greet and apologize to the passengers, climbing a rope ladder onto the ship to do so. Now, that's true customer service in the face of adversity. And this gesture was made beyond providing a full refund of their cruise plus offering a free fare in the future which this couple happened to redeem on the very sailing we met them on. Crystal – working as a morally-guided team of executives, officers, staff and crew – saved face and then some.

It is important with the Costa Concordia along with previous cruise accidents to realize that things could have been much worse. That's not to diminish the devastation that is ever the loss of life but merely to put things in perspective. It was by no means a disaster on the scale of the Titanic, and cruising does remain a very safe form of travel. What is left to be seen now is how Costa and the cruise industry will choose to positively address this tragedy and move forward as time goes on.

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