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A Tragic Teaching Opportunity: Safety and Precautions We’ve Learned from the Costa Concordia Disaster


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1/18/2017
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In 2012, the demand for cruise vacations went adrift as the massive cruise ship Costa Concordia propelled a flood of tragic media headlines. All around the world, people watched in horror and spoke about the Concordia as if it were the Titanic. Years later, the last voyage of this luxury cruise-liner not only continues to raise questions, but it’s starting to reveal answers on how cruise ships can better protect their passengers.

The Fatal Voyage

On the evening of January 13, 2012, at 7:18 p.m. (19:18) local time, the Costa Concordia departed from the Italian port of Civitavecchia. The ship was carrying 4,252 passengers and crew as it began its week-long cruise around the Mediterranean.

Just hours later, tragedy struck. At approximately 9:30 p.m. (21:30), Captain Francesco Schettino ordered a course correction for the ship to veer closer to the Tuscan island of Giglio. The reason for this unauthorized change in route is questionable; the captain claims it was a “salute” to the islanders, while crew members believe it was a vain attempt to show off. Suggestions have arisen that the captain wanted the islanders to get a better view of the ship or that the captain’s girlfriend, who was on deck, could get a better view of the island.

The course correction turned disastrous. At 9:45 p.m. (21:45)—fifteen minutes after the order—the ship veered into a shallow rock outcropping, tearing a hole into the hull. The timeline of what happened next played out as follows:

  • 9:47 p.m. (21:45) – The ship’s power goes out as water pours into the ship’s engine room.
  • 9:52 (21:52) – The chief engineer and electrical officer attempt to start the emergency generator, but fail. The captain orders crew members to inform the passengers that everything was under control and the ship was merely experiencing a “blackout.”
  • 10:12 (22:12) – The ship begins to tilt, first to the left (port) and then to the right (starboard) as the boat drifts closer to the island. During the commotion, passengers report concerns to local island police and coast guard. The captain continues to stick with the “blackout” story.
  • 10:22 (22:22) – The captain finally reports the problem to the coast guard and requests tugboat assistance.
  • 10:33 (22:33) – Captain orders a general emergency alarm—48 minutes after the incident—and instructs passengers to gather in the emergency stations and wait for further instructions.
  • 10:48 (22:48) – The ship tilts 30 degrees and settles on the seabed, approximately 20 meters deep.
  • 10:54 (22:54) – The captain gives the order to abandon ship, as half of the cruise liner is now underwater.
  • 11:19 (23:19) – As passengers frantically try to get to safety by climbing into lifeboats or jumping into the sea to swim to shore, the captain abandons his post to secure his own safety. Less than fifteen minutes later, the second master does the same.
  • 12:42 a.m. (00:42, January 14) – The coast guard commander orders the captain to return to his post. Schettino ignores the direct order and makes it ashore, while hundreds of passengers and crew members cling to the side of the listing vessel.
  • 12:43 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (00:43–12:00) – Evacuation and search of surviving passengers continues. By noon on January 14, 4,220 souls had been rescued from the capsized ship, while 32 were declared dead or missing.

Who’s to Blame?

Once the horror of the event was calmed and the survivors were safely on shore, all eyes turned on Captain Francesco Schettino.

  • Was he to blame for the incident?
  • Did his actions or inaction cause the deaths of 32 innocent passengers?
  • Where was he during the chaotic ship evacuation?
  • Could he have done something to prevent this tragedy?

Although he desperately tried to separate himself from blame, authorities weren’t satisfied with the captain’s explanations. Instead, they accused him of negligence, manslaughter, willfully abandoning the ship, and placing his passengers and crew in danger.

Schettino’s attorneys stated that he was used as a scapegoat for the maritime disaster, and that the tragedy was actually a collective failure of the ship’s crew. During his trial in February 2015, the captain pleaded with the court and sobbed while saying he had been in a “media meat grinder” for the past three years. Meanwhile, prosecutors called Schettino a “reckless idiot.”

In the end, the 56-year-old captain was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years behind bars: 10 years for multiple manslaughter, five years for causing the accident, and one for abandoning the ship. Five other crew members have been jailed for manslaughter as well.

What We’ve Learned to Avoid a Second Costa Concordia Disaster

Despite the insurmountable loss that this disaster caused, both emotionally and financially, the incident has brought attention to dangerous shortcomings within the cruise line industry—shortcomings that can now be addressed. As a result of the tragedy that befell the passengers on that January night, cruise liners now know that to avoid such accidents in the future, their ships need the following:

  • Improved captain screening and command reliance. Captain Schettino’s rogue actions directly led to the puncture of the hull and the ultimate sinking of the ship. Furthermore, his delayed response to the obvious emergency cost more than two and half dozen lives. Cruise ship captains are responsible for thousands of passengers and crew members and must be able to take that responsibility seriously, without any temptation to waiver.
  • Improved evacuation plans. Part of the evacuation chaos aboard the Costa Concordia was due to panic and desperation as passengers and crew alike were confused about what to do and where to go. Before the beginning of a voyage, passengers and crew members must be informed of an evacuation plan in the event of an emergency to avoid dangerous hysteria.
  • Improved communication and emergency protocols. Although Captain Schettino had his own reasons for delaying the alarm, emergency protocols must be in place for captains, second masters, and crew members to contact authorities and rescue teams in the event of an emergency, without the need for approval from a rogue captain.
  • Improved route tracking. Real-time satellite tracking can help prevent unauthorized route changes and allow captains to receive a second opinion on navigation from the cruise line’s operation headquarters. This type of tracking can also monitor speed, position, and course to verify ship safety.

What We’ve Learned…And Must Never Forget

Although we’ve learned a lot about safety going forward, it doesn’t help those who were left behind. After five years, the families of those who died continue to deal with the loss of their loved ones, while others struggle to cope with the memories and fear of that fateful night.

For more information on cruise line risks and legal remedies after an injury, contact a well-versed offshore attorney. Don’t allow your future to capsize as a result of a captain’s mistake or crew member’s negligence—stay afloat by seeking the legal advice of attorney Steve Lee. Your financial security could depend on it.



Category: Maritime and Offshore Cases

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