The Doomed Costa Concordia: A Maritime Disaster that Was Waiting to Happen
The Costa Concordia disaster, which has claimed at least 13 lives, has shocked the world. But maritime experts say such a catastrophe was just a matter of time. In recent years, the cruise industry has been building ever-bigger ships in pursuit of profit -- and disregarding the dangers the giant vessels pose. By SPIEGEL Staff
On the Tuscan island of Giglio, the night sky is clear and the stars are out. Three men are sitting among the cacti and lemon trees near the cliffs behind the harbor. When the weather is nice, couples come here at sunset to make out.
The moon is shining as the men stare at the wreckage of the capsized cruise ship, not far from the harbor entrance. Two of the men are local Italians from the island, who have spent the last few days in a desperate struggle, and who have saved many lives in the process. They are comforting the third man, an Indian from Mumbai, who is still hoping for a miracle.
The Indian, Kevin Rebello, misses his brother Russell, 33. Russell was a steward on the Concordia and had been traveling the world's oceans for the last five years. Russell had assured his family that he earned good tips in his job, and told them they shouldn't worry about him -- this type of ship couldn't sink. The brother still believes that Russell survived in an air pocket somewhere in the belly of the ship.
The shipping company flew Kevin Rebello in, as it did other relatives of victims from places like Peru, Hungary and France. He has to be close to his brother now, he says, which is why he is waiting in this spot.
The two Italians talking to Rebello are Giovanni Rossi, 42 and Mario Pellegrini, 48. Both are sons of fishermen from Giglio. One owns a tobacco shop and the other is the deputy mayor. They too are trying to sort through their thoughts and clear their heads. They have been managing the rescue effort at the pier for the last week and have had little sleep.
Pellegrini, who is wearing metal-rimmed glasses and a blue winter coat, says he is optimistic, and points out that there have been other cases where such air bubbles have existed.
Rossi, in a baseball cap and sailor's sweater, looks out at the fire department boats circling the ship. He doesn't believe there are any survivors left, but of course he doesn't say this to Rebello.
A Sound Like Thunder
He recounts how it all began on that evening of Jan. 13. He was in his small house in the old part of the town when, at 9:45 p.m., he heard something that sounded like distant thunder: a crash followed by a rumbling noise, which lasted a few seconds. Rossi was startled and jumped up from his sofa, ran to the window and looked down at the harbor.
Then he saw the Concordia. It was closer than usual, but he didn't think anything of it. He sat back down on the sofa and hoped that the rumbling was the beginning of a thunderstorm. It hadn't rained in weeks, and Rossi owns two hectares (five acres) of land.
Pellegrini, Rossi's friend since kindergarten, called him a short time later. Something terrible had happened, Pellegrini shouted into the phone. The loud noise wasn't thunder but the sound of a ship running aground on one of the rocks. The ship had slammed into rocks near the harbor, which are difficult to recognize, and now it was stuck. "I'll be right there," Pellegrini said breathlessly. "We have to evacuate the passengers. There must be thousands."
The Costa Concordia, with more than 4,200 people on board, had rammed into a rocky ledge off the shore of Giglio, and it capsized soon afterwards. The death toll is now at 13 people, after a woman's body was pulled from the ship on Sunday. About 24 are still missing, including 12 Germans.
Many here believed that a disaster of such proportions was impossible. Cruise ship industry executives are constantly touting the safety of their ships. The Concordia is more than 290 meters (950 feet) long and more than 35 meters wide. It is a ship in the post-Panamax class, which means that it is too big to traverse the Panama Canal. And yet, despite its enormous size, the giant ship ran aground off Giglio, where it now stands at a grotesque angle, looking like a tipped-over toy boot. The rocks have torn open the hull as if the ship were a tin of sardines.
The Concordia was built at a cost of 450 million ($585 million). The fashion model Eva Herzigová christened the vessel in the summer of 2006, but the champagne bottle did not smash against the hull the first time around. A bad omen for suspicious mariners, it triggered gasps among guests at the ceremony. Now the salvage effort and claims for damages will consume hundreds of millions yet again. In the end, this will likely become one of the most expensive shipping disasters of all time. The total loss could amount to $1 billion, a London banker estimated last week.
The images of the disaster went around the world like a shock wave last week. A dream vessel had turned into a nightmare. It was almost as if a bomb had exploded in Disneyland.
It is a story of serious recklessness and swagger, of a man's grotesque mistake and of irresponsible maneuvers. This, at any rate, is the way executives in the cruise business want to portray it. In fact, however, the case of the Costa Concordia is a warning sign for the entire global industry.
It is also a story of competitive pressure in the business, of billions in profits and of a booming market in which only those who keep building bigger and bigger ships can keep up. The largest ships can already carry 8,000 people, and soon the capacity will be 10,000 -- despite the fact that maritime experts continually point out the perils of these floating cities.
According to the German website of the Italian Costa shipping company, the Concordia was an "impressive and magnificent" cruise ship. It describes the ship as a "temple of pleasure" that "will take your breath away," with 1,500 cabins, 13 bars and four swimming pools. The guest, the site reads, could expect to experience "a one-of-a-kind vacation with an endless number of experiences."
'Moments when Something Unpredictable Happens'
The ship was commanded by Captain Francesco Schettino, 52, a handsome man with the look of an aging gigolo. He grew up on Italy's Amalfi coast. "He loves the sea," says his sister Giulia. "He has always worked as an officer."
Schettino joined Costa Cruises in 2002, first as a second officer. Four years later he was promoted to captain, and put in command of the brand-new Concordia.
Some of his colleagues see him as a daredevil. Last year, Schettino told a Czech journalist: "I enjoy moments when something unpredictable happens, when you can diverge a bit from standard procedures."
Almost exactly four weeks before the disaster, he demonstrated his approach to his crew. The Concordia was at anchor in the port of Marseille, while a storm with wind speeds of 50 to 60 knots raged out in the open water. "We expected that we would not sail that day," recalled officer Martino Pellegrino.
But Schettino assembled the entire crew on the bridge and ordered them to set sail. His words were met with icy silence among the officers. "We looked at each other," said Pellegrino, "but we didn't have the energy to disagree." Schettino then drove the Concordia through the choppy waters at full throttle. The 56,000-horsepower engines drove the 50,000-ton ship through the breakers, a show that few other men could pull off. Everything went well, and it seemed that Schettino was in control of his ship and knew what he was doing out in the open water.
The problem was that he didn't have enough fear of the sea.
Escaping on Crutches
The retiree Karlheinz Knapp, 64, and his wife Angelika, 62, live in a small house in the Oberrad neighborhood of Frankfurt. The Knapps have seen their fair share of cruise ships, and have visited more than 100 countries over the years. They were on another cruise in December, a week in the western Mediterranean on board the Serena, another Costa ship. They are members of the "Costa Club," the company's bonus program.
For their voyage on board the Concordia, a seven-night cruise, the Knapps paid 449 per person. They stayed in interior cabin 2353, with two beds and a table, but no window.
Karlheinz Knapp, who had an operation on his left knee last September, still walks on crutches. It almost cost him his life. "I often have to think about the passengers in wheelchairs," Knapp says today. "What happened to them? You don't want to think about it."
For the Knapps, the last part of their voyage began with dinner. On that night, the Concordia was supposed to sail from Civitavecchia near Rome to Savona. The couple decided not to attend the magician's show, as they usually did. Instead, they went to their cabin to pack. The suitcases had to be placed in front of the cabins, ready for pickup, by 1 a.m. The Knapps were to disembark in Savona at 6 a.m.
The Concordia sailed throughout the night, traveling on a north-northwesterly course, in a light wind and on a soft groundswell. The captain wanted to pass to the east of the small island of Giglio, near the town of Giglio Porto. But Schettino himself was apparently not on the bridge.
The woman was Domnica Cemortan, 25, a native of Moldova, one of the many Costa employees from very poor countries. Apparently the captain took her with him to the bridge soon afterwards, perhaps hoping to impress her. She would later say that she did not leave the bridge again until shortly before midnight. And she would also defend Schettino, saying that he had performed exceptionally well and had saved lives.
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