Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Costa Concordia Tragedy

The news and social media have been bursting with coverage of the tragic Costa Concordia accident on Friday night, when the 114,500-ton vessel hit rocks off the coast of Italy and listed catastrophically, leading to three deaths and another 40 still being classed as 'missing' at the time of writing.

There has been a massive amount of information and mis-reporting in the course of the following 24 hours, with wild speculation and, frankly, some out-and-out ignorant news reports from the supposed mainstream media. The rush to judgement (and sensationalism) is all too familiar.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of the incident and the thousands of survivors who are still trying to deal with the aftermath. Several dozen were injured in the chaos and a handful are severely so. They should also be foremost in the authorites' minds right now.

But, brushing aside the torrent of witless coverage, what can we learn and, more importantly, what does the cruise industry need to learn about the events off the island of Giglio on Friday night? At face value it is inconceivable a modern, large passenger ship should have got into this kind of difficulty. Contemporary thinking says that the fact they are so large is their chief safety feature. Yet, if that is not the case, what conclusions should we draw?

First of all, let's decide what the incident wasn't before we assess what it was. This wasn't the Titanic tragedy and it wasn't an indictment of the cruise industry. It wasn't a systemic failure of any kind and, while the loss of life is sad beyond words, it wasn't the kind that merits bringing out the list of great maritime disasters.

Reports of "women and children first" at the lifeboats just don't ring true but obviously need investigating. It is just one of many, many facets of how the crew handled the emergency that need to be put under the spotlight. And they will.

But let's not bury the cruise industry as somehow completely careless of passenger safety. Thousands of people survived this incident and some comments of "it's lucky the ship was so close to land" completely miss the point. It was because the ship was so close to land that caused the problem in the first place. If it had ben further out to sea, nothing would have happened.

So, what was it, and what questions need to be answered?

First off, the authorities need a full and frank account from Captain Francesco Schettino, one of the two senior officers arrested on Saturday night. This was a regular, weekly route for the ship but many maritime observers are concerned the course took the ship between Giglio and the mainland. Was this regular practice or was the Captain cutting corners in order to save fuel?

That is question No 1 for the inquiry. No 2 is why no distress call was issued after hitting the reef. The evcuation was already under way before coastal authorities were notified and even the crew on board seemed to down-play the severity of things in the first hour or so. Again, the captain comes under scrutiny as this would have been his call.

The lack of coherent and consistent announcements also seems to have been another problem on board and this IS a worry for ships with multi-national passenger lists. Was most of the announcing done in Italian - as has been reported - and why were the British, American, German and other nationalities so badly informed about events?

Some reports also indicate a few of the lifeboats malfunctioned or the crew in charge did not handle the equipment well, and this is another key area the inquiry must probe.

However, the big issues remain, and they are twofold - first, did the sheer number of passengers involved cause a problem. If that is the case, every major cruise line will have to re-evaluate their safety drills and procedures. Have any of them actually performed an evacuation at sea with 3,000-plus passengers and, if not, why not?

You can be sure the U.S. Coastguard in particular will be paying close attention and all American-ported cuise ships will be asked this question in the days ahead.

Secondly, and perhaps the biggest issue of all, as the ship began to list, there were clearly major problems with continuing to load and use the lifeboats. The starboard side, which ended up completely under water, is a particular concern. The key question here is, is this an over-looked logistical problem or was the Concordia lifeboat drill just badly botched?

In theory, a ship should never sink or list so quickly as to make lowering lifeboats impossible, so the maritime safety folks will be looking at this in great detail. It is therefore vital the Italian authorities quiz every one of the crew on lifeboat duty and get the truth of what happened on Friday night.

But, the bottom line remains this:

The cruise industry has a safety record which is the envy of all other modes of transportation; for the millions who cruise every year, it is not even likely to be an issue; and there is no reason to suggest this sounds the 'death knell' for the cruise industry (as several media outlets have speculated to a head-scratching degree).

If anything, this will actually make the industry safer and more conscious of the issues involved. So let's not rush to say the Costa Concordia is something which it isn't. And, for once, let's have a responsible approach from the media and a reporting of the facts - not the fiction.

Simon Veness