What the Media is Missing in Concordia

| Thursday, 19 Jan. 2012
Is this enough to sink a ship?

What the Media is Missing in Concordia The Concordia incident is the worst tragedy in modern cruise industry history. But most of the focus has been on the actions of the captain abandoning a sinking ship, as well as a chaotic situation due to an uninformed crew. What has been completely overlooked is the sequence of events before the grounding of the ship.

Everyone on that ship should have been saved, with all of their possessions. The biggest mistakes (yes, plural) the captain made happened long before he ran away.

Costa Concordia is structurally identical to the Carnival Splendor - the ship that went dead in the water off the coast of Mexico two years ago. But in that case the captain sent up a Mayday immediately and Carnival rightly chose to keep everyone onboard and tow the ship to safe harbor. Those people were inconvenienced, but they didn't suffer, and they survived in whole. I now fully understand the SOLAS "ship as a lifeboat" concept.

Had this captain called Costa when he first hit the rocks this entire event would have gone entirely differently.

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The first obvious mistake Schettino made was not checking the charts for the route he took near Giglio. We know the ship made a similar sail-by last August. Reports say he was given the coordinates by a colleague, but he reportedly went off that course, and did not check the local charts.

Next mistake: there are usually several people on the bridge; a navigator, a watchman and the person steering the ship - not always the captain. All of them had to have known when they hit the rocks. At that point the ship should have been stopped to check the hull integrity.

We know the ship was sound for at least 40 more minutes. Was the ship going to sink from the damage that was done? It is unlikely because of the fully watertight sections. If the ship had been stopped slowly it could have been towed upright to safe harbor and everyone evacuated. This is the "ship as the lifeboat" SOLAS protocol adopted in July 2010.

But the ship continued on at full speed for 40 minutes before Schettino took action. It is said he stopped the ship, dropped the anchors to stabilize her, turned her around and then headed to shore. With an already damaged hull these are aggravating measures. Once again, he should have stopped the ship and raised a Mayday.

The captain turned the ship to the left to return to Giglio, but unlike cars which lean in on turns, ships lean out. The meant the ship was listing to the right, towards the shore. As it came in closer the current pushed the keel out and the ship tipped into the rocks. Had he turned the ship the other way the outcome might have been different.

But the ship appears to have been further damaged when it keeled over - making it take on water even faster, and once the water breached the open decks it filled very quickly until it stabilized. It is actually surprising, but a testament to the bouyancy of the ship, that it has not already sunk to the great deep.

This already indentifies three points were it is likely Schettino made bad decisions and violated statutory procedure. And while the media is focused on Schettino abandoning ship, in fact his most egregious acts - leading to loss of life - happened long before left the ship.

Was the Crew Uninformed? No, they were abandoned. I am a former crewmember who knows that every crewmember is assigned a duty for boat drill and given instructions for that duty only; solely to make sure passenger lifejackets are fastened correctly and lined up in neat rows to board the lifeboats.

Crews are trained by a staff of safety officers whose sole job is to handle emergencies. A ship this size should have between six and 12 safety officers. Training is predicated on the presence of these officers to run the lifeboats. It also assumes the ship will be upright, according to SOLAS standards, so all lifeboats are available.

  • Where were the safety officers at this point?
  • Why wasn't the ship left in an upright position for evacuation?
  • Why is no one asking these questions?

    Strangely enough the lead safety officer was discovered on Sunday with a broken leg. What is his story? The other officers were likely on the bridge - checking the ship's stability and waiting for the captain or lead safety officer to take action. Do you think the captain told the other officers he was going down to get on a lifeboat and escape the ship? Or did he say "Wait here, I am going to investigate the situation,"? How could he get away if they had not been left on the bridge?

    Next - the media is not reporting Costa is a multilingual cruise line. All ship operations (including safety drills) are conducted in Italian, German, French, Spanish and English in that order. In addition there were natives of Brazil, Korea, India and more.

    Plus, this ship picked up passengers in four ports on this itinerary (this does not happen on U.S.-based cruises) and with a 24 hour window to hold a boat drill, the ship had decided to delay the drill for 696 people just boarded in Civitavecchia until after even more people were scheduled to board in Savona.

    Is Costa to Blame? No. Any ship's captain has full discretion over routing decisions. They are the ruling class in the open sea. This captain chose to sail by Giglio without telling Costa. He chose to continue at full steam for 40 minutes. He then chose to turn the hobbled ship and head back to Giglio without sending a mayday. Reports say he didn't call the "home office" until the ship was already crashed on the shore. The captain also failed to give the abandon ship signal. There are a lot more details to be revealed here - and what amazes me the most is what the media is not asking about the events leading up to the grounding, like "Was this a sinking ship?"

    Are Cruise Prices Going Lower? I read a report this morning that a certain web site owner says "Cruise Prices Headed Way Down." While I don't disagree this will happen short term, experience has shown that experienced cruisers are fully aware of the industry's safety record, which is far better than flying or driving. People do not stop flying after air or car accidents. Therefore, any discount in prices will be short-lived and mostly confined to Costa. Operations at other cruise lines remain as safe as ever.

    So, if there are bargains to be had - grab them while you have the opportunity.

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