Understanding the Costa Concordia Disaster

| Saturday, 14 Jan. 2012
An article for people with questions about Costa Cruise Lines' operations and the disaster.

Understanding the Costa Concordia Disaster
It is historically very rare for a passenger liner to sink. In fact, this could be considered the first incident of a ship that belonged to one of the major, New York Stock Exchange-traded U.S.-based cruise lines sinking. Costa Cruises is owned by the Carnival Corporation based in Miami.

There are reports that a certain amount of chaos ensued onboard the ship before the sinking. To understand why this could happen, I would like to provide some basic information about cruise ships and Costa in particular. It has been reported that there was trouble getting the lifeboats down because of the angle of the ship. To be more specific, the lifeboat systems on modern cruise ships are gravity controlled, meaning they will drop without the need for electrical power.

The problem in this situation was the angle of the ship which immediately started listing at 20 degrees. At that angle only the lifeboats with a free and clear drop to the sea were able to be used. The lifeboats on the other side of the ship were fully functional but their path to the sea was blocked somehow, probably by the Promenade deck directly below. These lifeboats are motorized, weatherproof and fully stocked with provisions such as lifejackets and water, which means they would be significantly heavy, too heavy to push over the side.

A life raft sits on the hull of the Concordia (courtesy Fox News).

Modern cruise ships like Concordia also carry several inflatable life rafts in metal pods lined up along the Promenade deck. In fact there are pictures of the Concordia with several of these life rafts deployed. There are articles stating that some crewmembers had to climb down rope ladders to be rescued and most likely they were going down to these life rafts.

Language Barriers and Panic Onboard

This cruise commenced on January 9, leaving out up Savona Italy near Genoa. It was on its fifth night. In fact there are messages from people who were joining this cruise on CruiseMates - looking for fellow CruiseMates to share shore excursions. Lifeboat drill was held on the second day of the cruise at five o'clock in the afternoon.

However - this cruise had an unusual itinerary. It also picked up passengers in Civitavecchia on Friday night and was scheduled to pickup more in Savona on Saturday. The scheduled muster (lifeboat) drill was for Saturday afternoon so all new passengers could attend, but those newly boarded in Civitavecchia that day had not had a life boat drill yet.

There are reports that panic broke out during the emergency evacuation. Why would this happen? Let's look at the operation of Costa cruise ships.

Costa specializes in offering cruises to multiple nationalities; Italian, French, German, Spanish and British. In addition it has also been reported that there were several Russians and South Americans onboard (possibly speaking Portugese). The common language for the crew is English, but this crew is recruited from throughout the world and it is typical for a Costa cruise ship to have as many as 50 different nationalities in its crew contingent.

Some reports have stated that much of the panic surrounding the evacuation had to do with crewmembers who could not speak all of the European languages of most of the passengers. One passenger noted that many crewmembers were Asian. While English is the common language for Costa cruises and for the European Union, Costa cruises typically sell to people who cannot speak English who take Costa because the line offers the cruise experience in their native language.

Onboard the Costa ships, for example, all announcements are made in five languages; Italian, German, French, Spanish and English, in that order. The line specializes in providing materials for people in their native languages, but in such an emergency situation this would be very difficult to manage. There must have been a lot of frustration in having to listen all of those languages in an emergency situation before they got to each passenger's native tongue.

The problem with this evacuation mostly surrounds the fact that half of the lifeboats were inoperable and the language barriers prevented the crewmembers from redirecting passengers to working lifeboats. Fortunately this did not cause a disaster but it did slow down the evacuation process that the passengers had practiced on the second day of the cruise and cause a certain amount of panic.

During a typical lifeboat drill, all passengers would be instructed to report to a specific lifeboat, half of them on the left (port) and half of them on the right (starboard) side of the ship. With the lifeboats on one side of the ship inoperable, half of the passenger contingent did not know where to go. Plus you had new arrivals who had not had a lifeboat drill, and when you add the language barrier to this situation you get reports, such as we have read, that there was panic among the passengers including people stealing life jackets from one another and the crew being very disorganized.

Some reports say the passengers were confused and slowed down with the concern about retrieving their lifejackets from their cabins. In fact every lifeboat has enough lifejackets for its capacity and if you cannot retrieve your life jacket you are supposed to go directly to your lifeboat.

Modern cruise ships are constructed with several fully watertight compartments, and it is necessary for several of these compartments to take on water before the ship will lose its buoyancy. This ship most likely struck a rocky shoal (a sandbar would not do that level of damage), but that was not enough to stop the ship. It continued forward for about two few hundred yards towards the shore of Giglio (pictures show the ship close to a lighthouse).

As the ship approached the shore at an angle the keel made contact with underwater terrain first, pushing the top of the ship towards the island. But the gash on the other side of the ship was still low enough to be taking on water. As more water entered it gathered on the side of the ship already listing downwards, so the ship listed even more. People saw the water line getting close and closer, and soon many of them decided to jump, fearing the ship could fill with water and sink.

Obviously, the damage was caused by an outcropping of submerged sharp rocks. The ship had a long gash that breached several water-tight compartments (similar to Titanic). It seems apparent that the ship would have sunk except that it continued to coast until it landed atop a sandbar. Now the ship is resting on top of a sand bar and it will likely remain there unless tidal conditions lift the ship or the company decides to move it.

Reports also say that several people, the number has not been verified, chose to jump off of ship and swim to shore. There are even reports of people describing jumping off the ship and swimming to shore, specifically a guitar player in one of the ship's bands. The only reason a person would jump from the ship and try to swim as far away as possible is if they thought the ship was going to sink and drop a long way down. There is a belief that when a ship sinks it causes a suction effect that pulls people in the water down with it, however this did not happen when the Titanic sank and at the rate Costa Concordia was taking on water it is unlikely that would have created a suction if it did fully sink (which it did not).

There are also reports of people falling into the water during evacuation. These reports have not been verified yet, however.

In hindsight the most logical and safest thing to do would have been to stay on the ship until everyone had a chance to be rescued. However, fear is highly motivating and with the language barriers, the loss of power on board the ship and the fact that the incident happened just before sundown causing the rescue efforts to be undertaken in darkness added to the fear.

Right now there are reports of three people dying. It is possible that some crewmembers were underwater in an area that was immediately flooded with water when the ship struck the sharp underwater objects however this has not been confirmed. There are still reports of 30 to 60 unaccounted missing people. It is possible that they are still on the Giglio island where some people were taken to private homes and churches from the rescue boats leaving the ship. It is also possible that they have just not reported in. It is also possible that the reports are just wrong and no one is missing - time will tell. Officials do have lists of all names of passengers and crew members and the number of missing people should be clarified soon.

Needless to say, this is a tragedy for the cruise industry and a truly historic event as the first modern cruise ship sinking from a U.S. based cruise line. If you would like to comment on this incident please go to our Costa message boards.

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