As Costa Concordia lies submerged off the Tuscan island of Giglio, big questions are being asked about how a cruise around the Med could end in one of the worst cruise tragedies in living memory.
On Friday 13th January, the liner hit a stretch of rock which Concordia’s captain, Francesco Schettino, claims “was not marked on the navigation charts” which gashed the ship’s hull after it lost electrical power on Friday night while passengers on board were dining. However, the cruise ship’s owners Costa Crociere SpA say Captain Schettino, who is being held by police, made “errors of judgement” sailing too close to the shore. Passengers claim he abandoned ship.
The loss of power affected emergency evacuation procedures – one of the problems reported was that the lifeboats wouldn’t launch and passengers began to panic.
Reports of passengers jumping into sea to abandon ship, swimming to shore to escape from the sinking ship bring back chilling memories of the Titanic. So far six people have died (the bodies of two elderly men were found yesterday) and around 4,000 people rescued but some are still missing. Thirty people have been injured, two seriously, according to reports, and news came in yesterday that another crew member has been found alive. Conditions are cold, and the rescuers are in a race against time. All British nationals on board, including crew, are safe and well.
Among those on board were Italian, German, French, US and British nationals. One couple, from South Korea, were rescued yesterday as divers searching for unaccounted for passengers found them when they heard voices coming from their cabin. They had spent 40 hours onboard while the ship was half-submerged.
Yesterday, the ship’s purser, Manrico Giampedroni, 57, said: “I never lost hope of being saved. It was a 36-hour nightmare.” He was eventually airlifted to safety with a suspected broken leg.
The 114,500-tonne luxury ship was launched in September 2, 2005 but the champagne bottle didn’t break – something considered unlucky in maritime circles. She cost over £372 million (450 million euros) to build, has 58 suites, five restaurants, 13 bars, five jacuzzis and four swimming pools.
Costa Concordia has been dubbed the doomed liner. Her first accident happened on November 22, 2008, when she was trapped in a storm and got damaged while docking on the Port of Palermo, Sicily and when the bottle of bubbly didn’t crack open at her launch, some took that to be a bad omen.
"It was born bad and ended up worse," Reuters has quoted an Italian newspaper Il Giornale as saying in its Sunday headline. And strangely, the latest tragedy occurred to Costa Concordia on “Friday the 13th”.
Costa Concordia is part of the fleet owned by Costa Crociera SpA, which in turn is owned by US-based Carnival Corporation. Cruise ship accidents usually happen in stormy weather, or because of a fire onboard, so this tragedy is unusual in that it happened in calm waters. The ship’s black box has been taken ashore so more details are expected.
The rescue operation is particularly hazardous for the divers as the ship is still moving, even though over half of the vessel is now underwater and there are fears that divers might be trapped if the ship shifts.
3,200 passengers were on board, with 1,000 crew members. One of the most dramatic accounts of the night came from 22-year-old Rose Metcalf, a dancer onboard the Concordia, from Devon. She phoned her family to say she was alive after being one of the very last people to be rescued.
She was one of eight British dancers working on the cruise ship and she had been hanging on to a water hose which a friend had tied to the ship’s handrail when it began to list.
After being airlifted by a helicopter, she left a message for her father saying: ‘I don’t know how many are dead. I am alive …just. I think I was the last one off.’ All 37 Britons on board have been confirmed as safe according to press reports over the weekend, but two French passengers and one cruise employee, a Peruvian national, has died.
Costa Concordia was on a week-long cruise around the Mediterranean. She had set sail from the Italian city of Civitavecchia near Rome, and was scheduled to call at Savona, Cagliari and Palermo in southern Italy, then sail across to southern France (Marseilles) and on to Barcelona and then Palma, Mallorca.
Various theories are circulating about what exactly happened. One is that an electrical fault had wiped out the ship’s navigational power and steering control. Captain Schettino told investigators: ‘The area was safe, the water was deep enough. We struck a stretch of rock that was not marked on the charts. As far as I am concerned, we were in perfectly navigable waters.’
According to Richard Westcott, the BBC’s transport correspondent:
"Investigators will now look into every aspect of this accident, but one of the key elements they will examine will be the electrical systems. Modern ships tend to use electrical generators to drive the engines, so a power cut can leave the captain unable to steer away from danger.
“Human error could also be a factor, and there will also be concern at the speed which the ship listed on to its side. Not only would that have been frightening, it seems to have affected the crew’s ability to launch some of the lifeboats.
“All ships have to meet safety standards set out by the International Maritime Organisation. Crews are trained to deal with emergencies, and cruise companies stress this kind of accident is rare.”
Malcolm Latarche, editor of the global shipping magazine IHS Fairplay Solutions, says the 950-ft Costa Concordia, which was built in 2005, was designed to standards comparable with ocean liners:
“The Concordia was capable of travelling across the Atlantic, or anywhere in the world. It was considerably smaller than the Queen Mary II, but it was built to the same standards,’ he said.
“Modern cruise ships are built to be as sturdy and safe as possible. They have to be – they can be carrying thousands of passengers.’
Mr Latarche believes the Concordia disaster may have been triggered by an electrical fault, which caused a loss of power in the ship and led it to crash into rocks.
He said the captain was right to attempt to return the ship to the shore, but it seemed to have keeled over after hitting shallow water on the coast:
“An ocean cruise ship is not designed to float in 20ft of water. It needs much more than that to remain upright. Passenger ships – defined as any ship carrying more than 12 passengers – must comply with International Maritime Organisation regulations, which cover every aspect of the construction and operation.
According to Mr Latarche, the fact that the average tonnage of cruise ships has doubled in the last decade makes a full-scale evacuation at sea almost impossible.
Coast guard captain Cosimo Nicastro has told Italian TV that divers had carried out an extensive search of the waters near the vessel and found no further bodies.
A local school and private homes took in the passengers and crew when they reached shore and on Saturday, the survivors were taken by ferries to Porto Santo Stefano on the mainland, about 15 miles away.
The BBC’s Alan Johnson who at the scene, says many cruise passengers arrived on land wrapped in blankets, and some were clearly very shaken by what they had endured.
Many passengers have said that while on board they heard an alarming “groaning noise” which indicated that something was clearly very wrong.
Passenger Luciano Castro told Italian news agency ANSA: "We heard a loud noise while we were at dinner as if the keel of the ship hit something. The ship started taking in water through the hole and began tilting.”
With cruise ships becoming more high-tech and much larger, there are concerns about the cruise industry’s safety record in some circles. Some experts have voiced concerns about some passenger ships in Antarctica and whether they are equipped for such harsh conditions – it’s a hot topic on many cruise sites, and passenger-carrying ships have run into problems there.
Costa Concordia – a giant, but not one of the world’s largest cruise ships
Costa Concordia’s parent company Costa Crociera, SpA, is itself owned by giant US cruise line Carnival. Despite its size, the Costa Concordia is only the world’s 26th largest passenger ship.
The statistics may sound impressive, but in relation to the world’s major cruise fleets as a whole, Costa Concordia isn’t one of the largest. Her vital statistics are: 114,500 gross tonnage, 951ft length, 3,206 passengers, 1,023 crew.
She’s almost half the size of two of the largest two biggest ocean liners, Oasis of the Seas and its sister ship Allure of the Seas, both Royal Caribbean ships. They clock in at 225,282 tons each, 1,187ft long. Both can take up to 6,296 passengers and 2,165 crew members.
In order of size, the top ten cruise ships currently in service are:
1 & 2: Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, Royal Caribbean International (as above).
3: Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Cruise Line.
4 & 5: Freedom of the Seas/Liberty of the Seas, Royal Caribbean.
6: Independence of the Seas, Royal Caribbean.
7: Queen Mary 2, Cunard.
8 &9: Navigator of the Seas/Mariner of the Seas, Royal Caribbean.
10 & 11: MSC Fantasia/MSC Splendida, MSC Cruises.
Anyone concerned about British family, friends or colleagues on board can contact either the British Embassy in Rome on (+39) 06 4220 0001 or the Foreign Office in London on 0207 008 1500