As cruise chaos abates, troubling questions rise

Experts are asking why the Costa Concordia listed so badly after the collision

UNENDING QUERIES: More than 72 hours after the accident that killed at least six people, confusion still reigned over how many were  missing. AFPAs the world was transfixed by the Titanic-like imagery of the partly submerged Costa Concordia and the frantic efforts to save the fuel-laden vessel in rough seas off the Tuscany coast, questions swirled Monday about the enormous cruise line industry, which operates without much regulation.

The ship’s detained captain, Francesco Schettino, was accused by his bosses of deviating from a fixed, computerised course to show off his beautiful $450 million boat, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew members, to the people of Giglio Island on a still Friday night, crashing it on a reef.

But as shares in the parent company of the Italian ship, Carnival Corp of Miami, the world’s biggest cruise line operator, slid by nearly a fifth and the owners and insurers tried to total the cost of the disaster, there were more troubling issues raised about how the cruise industry is supervised and controlled.

Those issues included how much safety information and training is required for crew and passengers, and how much discretion a captain has to alter routes, especially in an age when electronic radar, charts, GPS and other guidance systems are supposed to keep these large sleek ships on course.

“There are legitimate questions as these vessels have substantially evolved in recent years,” said Helen Kearns, a spokeswoman for Siim Kallas, the European Union transportation commissioner. “The boats have gotten a lot bigger, as it’s economically advantageous to have more passengers,” she said. “But the way these vessels have grown in size does mean finding the right balance to make sure regulations are stringent enough to ensure there are procedures like safe evacuations.”

More than 72 hours after the accident that killed at least six people, confusion still reigned over how many were missing. Italy’s coast guard abruptly raised the total to 29 late Monday after having said 16 remained unaccounted for, including two Americans. Worries also grew that the ship’s half-billion gallons of fuel could leak into a protected marine wildlife sanctuary.

While airline pilots are directed and guided by air controllers on the ground, sea captains are considered to be in complete control of their ships.

“It’s not like the aircraft industry, where you file a flight plan,” said Peter Wild, a cruise industry consultant at G P Wild (International) Limited, a consultancy outside London.
Rather, at most cruise lines, company directors determine the routes, which are then transmitted to the captain and a navigating officer, who scrutinise the charted course but are meant to follow it.

Schettino’s boss, Pier Luigi Foschi, insisted that a safe route had been programmed into the navigating computers and that alarms would have sounded for any deviation.

“This route was put in correctly,” said Foschi, who is chairman of Costa Crociere SpA. “The fact that it left from this course is due solely to a maneuver by the commander that was unapproved, unauthorised and unknown to Costa,” he said at an emotional press conference in Genoa.

Change the course

“He wanted to show the ship, to go nearby this island of Giglio, so he decided to change the course of the ship,” Foschi said, admitting that the ship had done a similar but approved maneuver last summer for a festival.

The captain, who may face criminal charges of manslaughter, failure to offer assistance and abandonment of the ship, had said that he struck an uncharted rock.

But an Italian prosecutor, Francesco Verusio, was harsh on Monday. “We are struck by the unscrupulousness of the reckless maneuver that the commander of the Costa Concordia made near the island of Giglio,” he told reporters. “It was inexcusable.”

For many years, the global cruise line industry has operated under a loosely defined system that tends to escape scrutiny by courts and regulators. Cruise-line instances of crime, pollution, safety and health violations have often gone unpoliced because no single authority is in charge.

A United Nations agency, the International Maritime Organisation, oversees maritime safety through international conventions, including one for the Safety of Life at Sea, known as SOLAS, adopted in 1914, that grew out of the global anger that stemmed from the loss of the Titanic in 1912. But the agency has no policing powers.

Ships themselves are certified and inspected by independent classification societies, like Lloyd’s Register Group and the Italian RINA SpA, Wild said, that do annual checks of ship safety conditions, life boats and the like. They approve vital components like fire protection, navigation, radio communication equipment, deck gear, cables and anchors.

While electronic systems are standard on such ships as the Costa Concordia, all ships are also required to carry paper charts, said Angus Menzies, a retired British Navy commodore who is now chief executive of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners in London, a professional association for qualified sea captains. “But I’d suspect that on a modern cruise liner like that he’d be using electronic charts, Menzies said.

To hit an uncharted rock “nowadays that’s unlikely, but it’s possible,” he said. “The other possibility is that they were just a shower of turkeys – incompetent – on the bridge.”

But the captain is king on his ship, Menzies said. “The man on the bridge decides everything.”

Michael Bruno, dean of the engineering school at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and chairman of the Marine Board of the National Research Council, said that if there were obstacles on the charts, electronic or paper, the crew should have seen them.

Questions also loomed about why the Costa Concordia listed so badly after the collision, as the captain attempted to bring it closer to the island. Modern ships are supposed to be built to sink levelly, Menzies said, by the use of bulkhead doors and pumps that are supposed to be able to be operated remotely. “The worst-case scenario is trying to get non-seafarers off a ship that is capsizing.”

That was certainly the case on board the Costa Concordia on Friday night. Passengers described delays and confusion, with unclear instructions and inexperienced crew members. Emily Lau, 27, and her husband, Benji Smith, 34, an American honeymoon couple on board, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “it was every man for himself,” Lau said. “The main thing is no one knew how to help because they were never trained. That is the cruise ship’s fault.”

Cruise passengers are supposed to attend a safety briefing within 24 hours of boarding. “We have never had any drills,” Lau said. “We were asked to go for a safety meeting, and it was nothing but a sales pitch for excursions.”

The accident and the constantly televised images of the elegant ship lying grotesquely will hurt the cruise industry at a key period, when global economic uncertainty is rampant and summer bookings are at a peak, analysts said. Carnival and other companies had already dropped prices in the face of weaker demand, especially in Europe, which provides 40 per cent of its business. About one-third of all cruise bookings are made in the wintery first quarter of the year.

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