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Concordia Disaster: Could It Happen Here?

Posted: 01/23/2012 5:00 pm

As two more bodies were pulled from the wreckage of the Costa Concordia on Monday, wary travelers may be changing their plans to book a cruise, wondering -- legitimately -- could that happen to me?

As a maritime physician, in laymen's terms a cruise ship doctor, I have watched the news we've seen from Italy with interest and regret. Reports tell us Capt. Francesco Schettino was one of the first people to abandon ship. Of course, we're all asking how a trained professional could do such a thing. But as someone who works in the industry, I can't help but also wonder:

• Where was the rest of the ship's command? There are always people who can take over leadership if the captain is not aboard or in some way incapacitated. Why haven't we heard from, or about, them?

• Why was there confusion regarding who was onboard? In my experience, ships can't come into or leave port without a manifest signed by the captain and me (the ship doctor), confirming exactly how many souls are present.

• Whenever a ship is moving, there are always several crewmembers using radar or sonar instruments to determine where the boat is headed. How did all the usual precautions fail?

As many have noted, without a captain's leadership, the crew and guests were left to their own ingenuity to escape. Watching the first reports, it was obvious to me that most of the lifeboats and rafts on the port side of the boat, that is the left side, had been deployed. One could assume this meant the same for the right, or starboard side. To launch that many boats, at least a couple of hundred deck engineers would have had to stayed on board and tended to their responsibilities. Why have we not heard from them?

The cruise industry is notoriously tight-lipped and it comes as no surprise to me that we've seen few interviews with the crew so far. But in the coming weeks, I expect many individual stories to come to light.

Still, I can't imagine how anything like the Concordia incident could have happened on any American-run boat -- certainly not the ones I've worked on. The captains are exceedingly careful and take no chances.

When a boat enters or leaves a port, or when it is in a situation of the slightest risk, like swinging close to shore, the boat is said to be in a "Red Zone." On the bridge this means all attention is on the boat and where it's going. There are no extraneous conversations, no phone calls, and only essential personnel are allowed on the bridge. Two officers walk back and forth on a walkway toward the front of the bridge and their only job is to look. To look for anything.

This did not seem to be the protocol aboard the Concordia, as it dangerously steered into a "Red Zone." According to new reports, "Prosecutors say Schettino steered the vessel, which carried more than 4,200 passengers and crew, within 150 metres of the Tuscan island of Giglio to perform a maneuvre known as a 'salute' - a greeting to the islanders."

The vessel struck a rock and tipped over. It is now precariously lying on its side on an undersea ledge, half-submerged and threatening to slide into deeper waters.

Costa Cruises have said they were not aware of the dangerous practice of bringing the ship so close to the shore and have suspended the captain, saying he was responsible for the disaster.
But in a sign of the growing confrontation between Schettino and the ship owners, the captain told investigating magistrates Costa had instructed him to do the salute, according to transcripts of his hearing published by Italian media.

"It was planned, we should have done it a week earlier but it was not possible because of bad weather," Schettino said. "They insisted. They said: 'We do tourist navigation, we have to be seen, get publicity and greet the island.'"

Aboard North American passenger ships, officers are constantly monitoring the sonar and radar.
The crew on the walkway are always there, watching. Even at night. Once we found a guest who had jumped overboard on a ship that was 30 minutes ahead of us, over the horizon. They're always looking out.

I can't see how an accident would happen under such circumstances unless possibly there were a computer malfunction. It has happened, as far as I know only once.

Confusion reigns during critical events like Concordia's, and the first priority is to establish communication and assess damage. Protocol for American boats would be to order all guests to their muster stations once it was determined the boat was in serious trouble, certainly if it was listing. Then the captain would sound Abandon Ship once he determined the boat was sinking.

Always more than half of our guests are repeat cruisers. It's a reasonable assumption that these repeaters could have coached the rest of the crew to the muster stations on deck four where the lifeboats and rafts are deployed. At the time of the accident the Concordia had not had a safety drill.