In light of the capsizing of Costa Concordia over the weekend – a disastrous event in which 12 people died, more than a dozen are still missing and its captain is under house arrest on manslaughter charges — it’s not an unfair question to ask: Is cruising safe?
It certainly wasn’t for passengers and crew onboard the ill-fated ship. On Friday night Concordia was sailing well off-course off Italy’s Tuscan coast when it hit a rock that tore a hole through the left side of its hull. In circumstances we’re not likely to understand for some time, the captain was unable to save the ship as it first lost power, was swamped by seawater, then began to list and capsized. Emergency evacuation efforts were haphazard at best, report those who were on the ship, and communication was next to nil. And the captain may have violated every rule in the book – officially and morally – when he allegedly hurried off the doomed vessel before passengers and crew were safely rescued.
Does any of this scare you? It sure does frighten me, a longtime cruiser and the editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. It’s not so much the running aground that initially was of concern (after all, a week ago an MSC ship ran aground in the Bahamas; it was inconvenient but by no means a tragedy). Emergencies happen on cruise ships just as they do on airplanes and in hotels. What matters is that cruise ship officers, staff and crew are properly trained to react to those emergencies that occur.
Until this weekend, it never occurred to me that a cruise ship captain wasn’t up to the task. After all, over the past few years we’ve heard about some pretty scary emergencies happening onboard cruise ships that turned out okay. Have you forgotten about Princess Cruises’ Star Princess fire in 2006? The fire broke out at night as the ship sailed the Caribbean Sea, a long way from anywhere; a passenger’s flicked cigarette off a balcony set the vessel ablaze. In November 2010, Carnival Splendor, cruising off Mexico’s Pacific coast, underwent a bona-fide crisis when its engine room caught fire. The trained crew members put out the flames, and crew and staff directed passengers to safety. Though the ship lost navigational ability and electricity and drifted a few days at sea before being towed to San Diego, all aboard were safe.
So how could so much go wrong so fast with Costa Concordia?
Costa put out a statement this weekend saying that “while the investigation is ongoing, preliminary indications are that there may have been significant human error on the part of the ship’s master, Captain Francesco Schettino, which resulted in these grave consequences.” Well, sure. When a ship runs aground there’s definitely some kind of error involved. What’s more shocking is what happened afterward — or rather what didn’t. Passengers reportedly were left to fend for themselves. Hysteria and chaos reigned. Communication was minimal at best.
And when the captain allegedly announced he was abandoning ship, I can’t imagine that anyone took him literally. “In handling the emergency,” the statement adds, “the captain appears not to have followed standard Costa procedures.”
But this tragedy goes well beyond the captain. For Costa, this was a systemic failure that should rock the cruise line to its core. The buck stops where? Who’s really taking responsibility for this perfect storm of failures in an emergency that never, ever needed to happen?
At least for now, veteran cruise travelers weighing in on our forum and Facebook page are defiant. Writes Rick Lapage, “I booked yesterday.” Betty Miles tells us “it was a freak accident and to us cruising is safe.” Larry Stevens has a classic lemonade-from-lemons philosophy: “I am looking for Costa to offer cheap deals to get people back on. The chances of this happening again are nil.”
Is cruising safe? Will what happened on Costa undermine the entire cruise industry? I’ve covered cruising, and loved almost all of it, for 15 years. I’ve never felt unsafe before, even after some of the emergencies I’ve chronicled along the way, including the aforementioned events on Star Princess and Carnival Splendor that could have been tragedies – but weren’t. In fact, they earned my respect, double-fold, as a result of the way that all involved responded.
Let’s hope Larry Stevens is right. This is a wake-up call for Costa, most particularly, but also for any line that has slacked off on the nautical rulebook (not to mention those passengers – and we all know one – who brag about evading the muster drill). It’s a wake-up call as well for maritime certification organizations, who deem ships and staff procedures in order. And it’s our own alert, too. All cruisers shoulder some responsibility for cruising safely.
I’ll see you at the muster drill. I’ll be the person paying very, very close attention, even after 200-plus cruises, to the captain’s instructions.