• Latest

  • Latest Issue :

    October 2020

    What went wrong: Investigation into the Costa Concordia disaster

    The Costa Concordia disaster could have been easily avoided
    Date:1 June 2012 Tags:, ,

    The sinking of a behemoth pleasure vessel off the Coast of italy turns a vacation into a nightmare for thousands. By Barbara S Peterson

    Antonello Tievoli, head waiter on the Costa Concordia, stepped on to the bridge of the cruise ship at 9:15 pm on Friday, January 13 of this year. From the wide windows, Tievoli could see the glittering lights of his home, Giglio Island, drawing closer. Captain Francesco Schettino knew that Tievoli’s sister lived on Giglio, and invited him to the bridge as they cruised past. With its 13 brightly lit decks, the ship was more brilliant than anything on the island. The 4 200 people on board outnumbered the island’s residents four to one.

    The captain was no longer following his charted course – he had ordered the 290-metre-long ship to cruise at least 6 kilometres closer to the island. Insiders say that it was a special tradition for Costa liners to salute a beloved former captain, Mario Palombo, as they passed by his home on Giglio. The ship, which had earlier slowed down while Schettino lingered over a meal, accelerated to 16 knots, a brisk speed for a large vessel less than 2 kilometres from a coastline.

    The ship’s printed itinerary mentioned the island’s proximity, but few of the 3 200 passengers were looking outside. The Concordia left Civitavecchia, the port city of Rome, about 2 hours earlier, and the passengers were just settling into their vacation routines. Minnesota resident Ronda Rosenthal, who had stopped at her cabin before heading to a 9:30 pm performance by Martin the Magician, looked out her porthole and saw white froth. “The waves were cresting really high, and we could see lights in the distance,” Rosenthal says. “And I thought, we are either going very fast or we are very close to shore.” Schettino spoke to Palombo, only to find out that his friend and mentor was at his winter residence on the mainland. But there was no turning back; the ship was on a direct course for the rocky coast.

    9:40 pm

    Modern cruise ships have electronic charts that show their GPS positions on screens. Any deviation from the plan entered into this system usually triggers an alarm. “It is possible that he (Schettino) disabled this for the manoeuvre,” says Ted Thompson, a retired US Coast Guard captain and the senior VP of technical and regulatory affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association. “In changing the track line he would have disabled the alarm as well. He may have just turned it off and was going manually and visually.”

    Other equipment on the bridge could have alerted the crew to trouble – if they were paying attention. “Ships are equipped with fathometers that let you know how much water is under the hull,” George Borlase, a naval architect and maritime expert, says. “But at the end of the day, there is always the human factor that overlays technology.”

    Schettino said he believed that he was more than a kilometre from shore, still too close by the book but not dangerously so. GPS data later revealed he was less than 300 metres from land. At 9:45 pm, everyone onboard knew that something bad had happened: the vessel shuddered, and the passengers heard a loud grinding sound. Some later compared the feeling to an earthquake.

    Rosenthal was watching the magic show when she felt the ship “lurching, like the ship was being put in reverse”. She thought it was a special effect of the performance until she saw an empty stage: “I looked for the magician, but he was gone.” The ship had hit a large rock in the Le Scole reef off Giglio.

    Seconds later the lights flickered and went dark. Rosenthal and her sister, an army officer on leave from Afghanistan, headed to their cabin to get some sleep. An announcement over the intercom cited a “technical problem” with the generators and stated that power would be restored.

    The impact tore a 50-metre gash in the port side. Seawater began pouring in through a hole as long as an Olympic-sized swimming pool, flood- ing three or more of the ship’s seven watertight compartments. The generators shut down. The Concordia was in trouble.

    Ships built after 2010 might not have foundered the way Concordia did with three compartments flooded. In 2008, the International Maritime Organisation (an affiliate of the United Nations) developed new standards mandating that ships remain stable with more than two compartments flooded. Concordia, completed in 2005, was required to meet only 50-year-old standards that the international community had deemed out of date.

    Minutes after the crash, the emergency lights flickered on. The ship was drifting away from the island, already listing to the port side. “Every-thing is fine,” crew members told passengers.

    9:49 pm

    More than a decade ago, the cargo and cruise industries overhauled rules in an attempt to prepare ship crews for calamity. The key to disaster management is preplanning the response so it will be fast and organised. These plans rely on an established chain of command that divides up responsibilities during a crisis.

    That idea fell apart in the darkness on the night of 13 January. The captain, according to reports and video taken on the bridge just after the impact, did not seem to be directing the action or behaving as if he was in charge.

    “What doomed the ship was the complete and utter lack of leadership at every point along the way,” says Captain Harry Bolton, director of marine programmes and leadership development at the California Maritime Academy.

    One hundred and fifty kilometres north, officers on night duty at an Italian Coast Guard station in Livorno got their first alert from the police (who received panicked calls from families of Italians onboard) that a ship in nearby waters was in trouble. Italian Coast Guard Captain Gregorio de Falco called the Concordia’s bridge, where officers told him, “It’s okay, it’s just a technical problem.” No mention was made of the gaping hole in the ship’s side.

    As it took on more water, the Concordia continued to list perilously. Dishes and silverware tumbled off tables; serving carts and other furniture slid down decks.

    People emerged from their staterooms wearing pajamas and life vests. Crowds formed and confusion reigned; few knew the location of their lifeboat stations. That information would have been part of their muster drill, required by law to be performed within 24 hours of boarding. But the ship was in the first hours of its cruise, so the 696 passengers who boarded that day had no idea where to go. The crew, lacking guidance and information, told passengers to stay put. “At this point,the crew was just as much in the dark as the passengers,” says John Konrad, master mariner and founder of gCaptain, a maritime website.

    Officers trained in the United States must take additional instruction, but virtually all cruise ships go to sea under a foreign flag and employ officers who were trained abroad.

    10:15 pm

    Schettino, for all his other mistakes, seems to have done what he could to deliver his crippled ship to safety. “I like to say when I teach cadets, for everything that goes wrong you have to do one thing right to fixit,” Bolton says.

    Ship groundings are rare but not unheard of, and they are rarely fatal. Just a week before the Concordia crash another large luxury ship, the Poesia, hit a reef off Grand Bahama Island, where it languished for more than 12 hours until high tide enabled tugs to set it free.

    There is anecdotal evidence – which will come to light when investigators release details from the ship’s blackbox – that Schettino tried to stop the ship and waited for a similar tow to shore. If so, the anchor failed to catch.

    Without its main engines, the Concordia drifted for an hour. GPS tracking data show the ship’s speed dropped to near zero. It’s not possible to steer a ship with no propulsion, Bolton says. Schettino still had options, though. “There’s limited backup power from the auxiliary engines, which are usually located on a higher deck to minimise the risk of flooding, ” Bolton says.

    About 30 minutes after the impact, Schettino appears to have used auxiliary power to engage the ship’s bow thrusters. This is a standard method of docking, but Schettino may have used these to push the vessel toward land. The manoeuvre probably saved lives but had unintended consequences. “He was trying to get the ship to the shallow area where he thought it would remain upright, ” Bolton says. “He assumed wrong.”

    Nancy and Mario Lofaro from New Rochelle, New York state, alarmed by the sharply pitched deck, ran to their cabin for coats and emergency gear. On the way, the ship lurched again. “There was a loud noise – everything went crashing to the floor, ” Nancy says. The Concordia had struck shore, where it was bound to capsize.

    10:58 pm

    The captain gave the official order to abandon ship. By law, all 26 lifeboats have to be launched within 30 minutes of an evacuation order. But the crew’s delay made an orderly escape impossible. By then the Concordia was tilting more than 20 degrees, rendering some of the port side boats useless. “The crew was too late and lost the window of opportunity, ” Bolton says.

    Rosenthal and her sister were in one of the first lifeboats to drop from the ship. They arrived on the Giglio pier at 11:14pm; on arrival a volunteer rushed up and asked for their life jackets. They were told an estimated 500 passengers were trapped where they couldn’t retrieve life jackets from their rooms.

    At around 11:30 pm, Schettino boarded a lifeboat (or, as he claims, fell into one) and headed to land, abandoning the ship and hundreds of passengers.

    Other officers onboard the Concordia reportedly followed suit, while some ferried passengers to land in the lifeboats.

    Nancy Lofaro recalls the agonising wait inside the lifeboat as crew members fumbled to lower it. The ship’s pitch made it nearly impossible to lower the boat into the water. “We kept banging against the ship,” she says. “People were screaming.” The craft settled safely into the water; it took less than half an hour to reach shore.

    Schettino beached the Concordia in about 15 metres of water. When the ship finally keeled over, dozens jumped or fell off the ship, some in their evening clothes. The water was 14 degrees – a temperature at which limbs become immobile in minutes and hypothermia can manifest within an hour.

    12:42 am

    By then the Italian Coast Guard helicopters had pinpointed the wreck by its last transmitted GPS data and were spotting survivors with infrared cameras. Coast Guard helicopter pilots dropped harnesses to hoist more than 100 people clinging to the decks that were above water.

    Coast Guard officer De Falco tracked down Schettino on his cellphone. The Coast Guard officer demanded that Schettino return, but was rebuffed. “Perhaps you saved yourself from the sea, but I’ll make you pay,” De Falco shouted.

    The Concordia death toll reached 25 – some victims were still in their cabins – with seven missing. Schettino faces charges of manslaughter, and his first mate and several crew and Costa executives are also under investigation.

    It’s hard to tease solutions to recurring problems from the actions of the Concordia’s officers. One lesson has already become industry practice: lifeboat drills are held before a ship departs, instead of within the first 24 hours of a cruise.

    The Titanic’s sinking, despite the human errors that caused it, became a metaphor for unearned faith in technology. The wreck of the Costa Concordia may spawn a different moral: beware the hubris of those in charge who may be taking your safety for granted.

    Watch an animation showing how the ship will be salvaged over here: “Costa Concordia to be refloated in salvage operation