The Doomed Costa Concordia: A Maritime Disaster that Was Waiting to Happen
Part 2: 'We'll Sound the Siren for You'
It was shortly after 9:30 p.m. when the drama began. The Concordia was bearing down on Giglio at 15 knots, which was much too fast. Schettino, the first officer, the second officer and a female officer were standing on the bridge. The captain changed course by a few degrees, passing very close by the island.
Schettino would later tell investigators that he had intended to salute a great old man: Mario Palombo, a retired captain. Palombo was at sea for 43 years, including 23 years with Costa. Schettino served as a first officer under Palombo. And Palombo has a house on Giglio.
While the ship was bearing on the island, Schettino called Palombo on his mobile phone. He allegedly told him to look outside and that they would shortly be sailing past his island. "We'll sound the siren for you," he said.
Italian mariners refer to this greeting from a passing ship as a "bow." This would be the last bow from on board the Concordia. Palombo had apparently just called back to say that he wasn't on Giglio at the moment, but on the mainland, when the ship ran aground and the connection was lost. It was 9:45 p.m., and at that moment, about 50 meters below the bridge, a rock was tearing a massive hole into the left side of the Concordia. The hole was about 70 meters long, and hundreds of tons of water began pouring into the ship.
'Up to My Neck'
Palombo immediately called a friend on Giglio to find out what had happened. The friend told him that he could see a ship off the shore, but that it was much too close. Palombo tried to reach Schettino again, and then he allegedly called the shipping company.
Immediately after the crash, as Officer Giovanni Iaccarino would later testify, Schettino ordered him to climb down into the engine room. When he got there, the room was full of water. "The water was up to my neck," Iaccarino said. He saw that the engines had stopped running and the pumps were not working, although at least the backup generator was on. The officer called the bridge and, shouting over the noise in the background, told the captain what he could see. At that point, Schettino should have given the order to bring the passengers to safety.
But when a Costa executive called Schettino at 10:05 p.m., and again two minutes later, Schettino allegedly told him that there were a few problems. This hasn't been proven beyond a doubt. Witnesses sometimes don't remember things correctly, especially when it comes to the question of culpability and when the alarm should have been sounded, and by whom.
Given all the things the witnesses said in the days after the disaster, it would seem to be a case of negligent homicide. In the end, only the Italian courts will be able to decide who exactly gave which orders, and when. Italian prosecutors are trying to determine whether Schettino did in fact react incorrectly, or whether the shipping company had hoped to postpone what would likely be a very costly evacuation for as long as possible.
But one thing is clear: Schettino did not say that he had just wrecked his 450-million ship, and that people were about to lose their lives. He didn't send a mayday signal either, at least not until 10:58 p.m.
Problems with the Data
In the days after the disaster, Schettino admitted that he had wanted to send a greeting to his friend on the island, and that something had gone wrong during the maneuver. But his statements on the course of events were contradictory. On one occasion, he said that he had been "navigating by sight," but before that he had said that the rock did not appear on maps.
This could very well be true. Although the rock is clearly visible on traditional paper nautical maps, modern ship bridges are equipped with monitors that use the so-called ECDIS system. It combines electronic nautical charts with data from the satellite navigation receiver and the radar equipment. It also uses the ship's sonar and the relatively new AIS anti-collision system.
But the high-tech system is not perfect. "ECDIS representations are only as good as the data you enter. And there are serious problems with the user interface and the ergonomics," says Andrew Linington, a spokesman for Nautilus International, the union for maritime professionals. Sometimes the digital charts made by the various manufacturers are not 100 percent correct. For example, some errors only appear at certain magnification levels. The investigators will have to clarify this.
The equipment can also be set to issue alarm signals to warn against shallows, a ship deviating from its course, other ships or danger zones -- producing a cacophony of noise that encourages some captains to simply ignore the signals.
Costa Cruises, at any rate, is blaming Schettino. The fact that he diverged from the planned course was the result of "a maneuver that was not approved, not authorized nor communicated to Costa," the company's chairman said. He insisted that his ships would never come closer than 500 meters from Giglio.
The Boring Ocean
But that is not the whole story. Part of the reality is that many cruise-ship companies are faced with bitter competition and gamble with the lives of their passengers as a result.
The Concordia had already passed the island at very close range once before, last August. In fact, it was even closer that time, only 230 meters from the shore, which is highly dangerous for a ship that is 290 meters long. But that time the Concordia was coming from a slightly different angle.
Specialists with the insurance company Lloyd's of London keep the position data of ships on file, which allows them to reconstruct every voyage. On that day last August, the officers in charge of the Concordia took a great risk, because there was a big festival in the island's tiny harbor that evening and they wanted the ship to be part of it.
Cruise lines want to offer their passengers something special, because the open ocean is in fact pretty boring to look at. That was why, for example, Schettino also sailed the Concordia close past the island of Procida near Naples in August 2010.
In the wake of the Concordia disaster, the Italian government is now drafting a ban on reckless maneuvers in overly tight spaces. This could be disastrous for the booming industry, which is raking in billions.
In the last five years, European shipyards have delivered almost 50 new ships to shipping companies, each one more enormous and powerful than the next.
The worldwide market leader is Carnival Cruises, with 25 subsidiaries and more than 100 cruise ships. Carnival owns both the ill-fated Costa and Aida, a company based in the northern German port city of Rostock.
The owner of this cruise-ship empire is Micky Arison, one of the most colorful figures in the industry. Arison, who also owns the Miami Heat basketball team, has an estimated net worth of more than $4 billion. His father Ted was one of the founders of Carnival.
The younger Arison started his career selling bingo cards on his father's ships. "When I took over operations in 1979, we had $44 million in sales and $12 million in profits," he says. Not bad, but merely a drop in the proverbial ocean compared to today's sales of about $16 billion, with a company that employs 85,000 people.
Close to 19 million people a year go on cruises worldwide. Germany is the third-largest market, after the United States and Great Britain, with more than 1.3 million customers in 2011 -- 48 percent more than it was three years ago.
When the Concordia ran aground off Giglio, the Knapps had just closed their suitcases. Suddenly the water bottles on the small table in their cabin started to move slightly. "There was a huge bang a moment later," says Angelika Knapp. "The lights flickered for a moment, and everything was flying around."
"For some reason I thought to myself it sounded like we had been hit by a torpedo," says Karlheinz Knapp. He is familiar with the stories of the sinking of the Bismarck and other maritime disasters. "It reminded me of those scenes immediately, even though, at that moment, it would never have occurred to me that this ship could sink."
The Knapps stayed calm. Angelika put on some trousers. "The lights were still on at that time. We opened the door. All the people were looking out of their cabins. We could see the lights on the coast through the window of an outside cabin. Well, that's comforting, I thought to myself," says her husband. A steward walked past the cabin. Then the first announcement was made in several different languages, including German.
"They reassured us and said that no one had to worry, that it was just a technical problem that would be fixed soon," says Angelika Knapp. Minutes later, the lights went out and the cabin was plunged into darkness. The emergency lights came on in the hallway.
'We Have a Blackout'
At 10:12 p.m., an official with the harbor master's office apparently called the bridge for the first time. "Are you experiencing problems on board?" he asked.
A member of the Costa Concordia's crew -- it is unclear whether it was the captain -- answered: "We've had a blackout, we are checking the conditions on board."
The official went on to ask the nature of the problem. "The police of Prato have received a phone call from the relatives of a sailor who said that during the dinner everything was falling on his head."
Crew member: "We have a blackout and we are checking the conditions on board."
Coastguard official: "The passengers say they have been told to put on the life vests. Is this correct?"
Crew member: "I repeat, we are checking the conditions of the blackout, we are checking the blackout."
Karlheinz Knapp urged his wife to hurry. The couple behaved completely by the book. He opened the safe, and they took out their passports, wallets and house keys. They put on shoes, slipped into their winter jackets, windbreakers with reflective strips. The Knapps didn't pay much attention to the ensuing announcements, which urged the passengers not to panic and informed them that there was "a problem with the generator." They made their way to the lifeboats.
From the emergency exercise that had been conducted on their first day on board, they remembered the "Assembly Station A" meeting point on the fourth deck. The passageways were still empty. But the ship was slowly tilting to the side, centimeter by centimeter. "It wasn't as if we were sliding around." They positioned themselves in front of the lifeboats, and Karlheinz Knapp looked around for an officer, "but there were none there. No one knew what to do."
The bridge was in chaos. Schettino reportedly performed a maneuver that could either be called courageous or crazy, depending on its outcome. He tried to turn the Concordia around in the bay near Giglio, as he would later state, until it ran aground very close to the shore, so that people could swim to land. But the ship listed during the maneuver, from left (port) to right (starboard) -- and kept listing. Rescuers question Schettino's heroic tale, saying that the controls were no longer sufficiently operational to perform such a maneuver.
In any event, the Concordia listed. Most modern cruise ships are not overly stable. They can become wobbly. "It is known in sea trials that these vessels are what we call 'tender' in stability terms," said Tony Minns of the Nautilus union. Most have too little draft, because passengers also want to put into small, idyllic ports, ideally on a ship bigger than the port itself.
At the same time, cruise ships are very tall, to accommodate all the nightclubs, swimming pools and water slides. Only 8 meters of the Concordia are submerged, while it protrudes 62 meters above the surface of the water. "The reason for the shallow draft and high superstructure is commercial," said Minns disapprovingly.
The ships are sufficiently stable for normal operations, but things can get tight very quickly if something goes wrong. For example, when a lot of water floods into the ship, it can slosh back and forth below deck and, because of the enormous weight of the water, push to the ship to the side.
"We had always cautioned that it was a case not of if, but when a major accident involving a huge passenger ship would take place," wrote Andrew Linington of Nautilus in an opinion piece for the Guardian. "For many of us working in the shipping industry, it is more of a surprise that it hasn't happened earlier." The Costa Concordia accident should serve as a "wake-up call for the industry," he concludes.
Once the giant ships, with their thousands of passengers, capsize they quickly turn into death traps, because it makes it very difficult for the sailors to lower the lifeboats. Cruise ships ought to be designed in such a way "so there's a reasonable chance of getting all the passengers and crew off the ship safely," says Minns. The danger lies in the sheer size of the vessels. The bigger the ship, the more people crowd through the corridors during a major fire, the more confusing the jumble of languages becomes and the more difficult it is for the officers to control the ship.
Nevertheless, these floating recreational palaces just keep getting bigger. In December 2009, the American cruise line Royal Caribbean placed the world's largest cruise ship into service. The 225,282-ton Oasis of the Seas has 16 decks and is 360 meters long and 64 meters wide, making it about twice as large as the Costa Concordia. It is much larger than the US aircraft carrier George Washington and more than twice as heavy.
The Oasis carries 6,296 passengers and 2,394 crew members. It has entire neighborhoods, and its pedestrian zone is a copy of South Beach in Miami. "The bigger the ship, the more profitably it can be operated," says Helge Grammerstorf, a former first officer on the MS Astor, which seems tiny in comparison.
Large ships have lower per-passenger costs, according to Grammerstorf, which is why even bigger ships are now on the drawing board. "Of course, the bigger a ship is, the more difficult it is to evacuate it," says Grammerstorf, whose company Seaconsult now advises the industry. In the event of a fire, for example, "there could quickly be thousands of deaths."
- Part 1: A Maritime Disaster that Was Waiting to Happen
- Part 2: 'We'll Sound the Siren for You'
- Part 3: 'People Were Screaming and Pushing'
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