While Francesco Schettino, captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, is quite possibly guilty of desertion of his post when his vessel ran aground on the island of Giglio off the Tuscan coast, there is much to suggest he is being set adrift by his own company which has failed to admit its own corporate responsibility in the crisis. Clearly we shouldn’t rush to judge the boat’s skipper when many of the failures may well have been the result of a lax corporate culture that meant an accident like this was waiting to happen. Was the Costa Concordia a Titanic looking for an iceberg?
No doubt Captain Schettino has much to answer for. To begin with: why was his cruise ship sailing as close as (reportedly) 150 metres to the shore in breach of navigation regulations? Why did he take a full 45 minutes before making the decision to abandon ship? Why were passengers told after the ship had run aground and was taking on water that there was just an electrical problem, and then told to return to their cabins? Was that an order given by Schettino or one of the other officers on deck?
And most surprisingly, why was Schettino amongst the first of the survivors to get on a life boat, failing in his primary responsibility to account for all members of his crew and passengers? By now, most of us are aware of the frantic conversation between Schettino and an Italian Coast Guard captain who ordered Schettino back onto his crippled vessel to account for all those on it before removing himself to safety – and Schettino’s failure to comply with that instruction that has seen a charge of cowardice leveled against him.
A judge at a preliminary hearing said Schettino showed “incredible carelessness” and a “total inability to manage the successive phases of the emergency.” It seems Schettino is almost certainly being singled out as responsible for the disaster.
But he shouldn’t be made a scapegoat.
With the death toll at 15 (at the time of writing) and at least a further 17 missing and presumed dead, the public has a right to know about the roles of Costa Cruises and Carnival Corporation, the owners of the ill-fated ship, in the disaster. Captain Schettino cannot be blamed for all the irregularities apparent in this appalling tragedy.
For example, more than one week after the disaster it remains uncertain how many people may in fact still be missing because the vessel was carrying an unknown number of unregistered passengers. While the ship’s owners claim there were no stowaways onboard, enough suspicion remains to warrant a full investigation of the company’s passenger registration procedures.
Schettino has said he was sailing close to the island of Giglio to “salute” it, which he described as a “common maneuver”. He has also said that sailing close to shore was encouraged by the cruise line in order to boost its publicity. Satellite tracking imagery by Lloyd’s List Intelligence has shown previous close encounters between the Costa Concordia and the island of Giglio. This evidence would suggest the company was lax in enforcing regulations, if not actually complicit in their being ignored by the vessel’s captain.
Evidence suggests that a mandatory life boat drill for all passengers had not yet been conducted on the vessel. Such drills are required within 24 hours of leaving port, raising questions of whether drills should be conducted before cruise ships set sail, much like airplanes conduct safety instructions before take-off.
The failure to conduct such a drill could explain why so many passengers were confused about procedures during the evacuation; it does not, however, explain why so many of the ship’s crew members were also confused about procedures. Indeed, it appears that many crew members had not been adequately trained in emergency procedures at sea. It is very likely that investigators will look closely at the overall training of the ship’s crew and how regularly crew members experience full-scale crisis drill training.
Finally there are questions about the placement of the lifeboats as many could not be launched after the vessel started to list. That might be a question for the future design of cruise ships. Indeed, it is a requirement of international maritime law that cruise ships be able to evacuate everyone on board within 30 minutes of an abandon ship order – in the case of the Costa Concordia it took 14 hours to get all survivors off the vessel. That would suggest that a total overhaul of cruise vessel emergency procedures is necessary.
Within days of the Costa Concordia disaster, other ships in the Costa Cruises and Carnival Corp lines have set sail in various parts of the world with full or near-full passenger complements. Most people probably boarded their cruise vessels thinking a similar tragedy wouldn’t befall them, probably blaming the human error of the captain. However, experience teaches that accidents only become crises when system and procedural failure are added on top of the initial accident, as happened in the case of the Costa Concordia. If that is the case, be leery of taking a cruise before a full investigation of the recent accident is concluded.
Although the scale is miniscule by comparison, parallels to the Titanic might still run deep. J. Bruce Ismay, the Managing Director of the White Star Line, the company that built and owned the Titanic, never lived down the fact that he was one of the first to climb into a life boat as his famed ship went down. Interestingly he had personally vetoed a plan to add 48 more lifeboats to that unsinkable ship in order to save on costs. Francesco Schettino may well become the Ismay of our day, but that shouldn’t absolve the company behind the Costa Concordia for its part in the disaster. Hopefully a full investigation will see improvements to maritime emergency management procedures that will enable safer sailing in future. Additionally, the victims and their families need to see all culpable parties brought to justice.
Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.