FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The recent grounding of Carnival Corp.’s Costa Concordia ship off Italy’s coast left cruise fans wondering: Could this happen on a cruise departing from the U.S., particularly the cruise hub of South Florida?
Experts say chances are remote, but the possibility can’t be ruled out.
“People are likening this to the Titanic, and that was 100 years ago” before modern ship safety standards were adopted, said Rod McLeod, a Coral Gables, Fla.-based cruise industry specialist. “This is a very unique event and surprising.”
Even if a ship had trouble near South Florida, the outcome might be different.
When the MSC Poesia ran aground in the Bahamas after leaving Port Everglades earlier this month, it was supported by the area’s shallow, sandy seabed, rather than punctured by rocks. Tugboats pried the ship loose, and no damage or injuries were reported, MSC Cruises said.
Here are some red flags from passenger accounts and experts on what may have gone wrong and what might prevent it from happening again:
EMERGENCY DRILLS: More than 600 of the roughly 3,200 passengers aboard the Costa Cruises ship had not yet gone through an emergency response drill when the accident occurred Friday. The safety briefing was scheduled for the following morning, within 24 hours of departure as required by international maritime law, according to Costa officials.
“This wasn’t a drill problem. They were following regulations,” said Stewart Chiron, a Miami-based cruise industry expert known as ‘The Cruise Guy.’
Ships departing U.S. ports generally choose to conduct drills before or soon after departure, but that is not law. They also don’t pick up passengers at ports along the way, as Costa does in Italy, requiring multiple drills, Chiron said.
Hollywood, Fla., attorney David W. Singer suggests cruise lines give drills sooner rather than later. “It doesn’t mean you’re off the hook because you observed the letter of the law,’” Singer said. “It’s a little inconvenience to the run the test (drill) versus the great harm that can arise” by waiting.
Cruisers also bear responsibility to pay attention at drills and learn safety procedures.
“Passengers need to recognize there are risks. … Things can go wrong,” said Ross Klein, a sociologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, who runs Cruisejunkie.com. He suggests cruisers make a plan to find family or friends in case of an emergency.
CREW CONFUSION, DELAYED COMMUNICATION: Some Concordia guests reported confusion and delays in communicating the seriousness of the accident and how to evacuate. Announcements in Italian and German stumped English-only speakers.
Ships departing South Florida would use English for announcements, although the ships’ TV channels would typically have safety information in other languages for foreign guests, experts say.
Cruise lines have international standards for training, but some specialists question how well the Costa staff may have been groomed and drilled in case of accidents.
Crew members typically hail from many countries, and all have responsibilities in an emergency, some small such as checking cabins, others larger such as operating the lifeboats.
“A well-trained crew will respond in a time of emergency and respond well,” asked McLeod of Coral Gables. “Was the crew well enough trained?”
In a sudden emergency like Concordia’s, passengers could have benefited from direct instructions immediately, said Howard Fine of Fort Lauderdale, a former chief executive officer of Costa Cruises and Norwegian American Cruises.
LISTING OF SHIP, LIFEBOAT ACCESS: Some Concordia passengers said the ship turned fast on its side, which interfered with deploying some lifeboats. Water entered quickly. Most passenger ships are not double-hulled, as oil tankers are required to be.
“There needs to be some investigation into why it listed so quickly. What happened to the watertight doors, the compartmentalization?” said McLeod, concerned about possible flaws in the ship design.
Some ships that sail from South Florida were built by the same Italian company as Concordia and to the same set of international maritime safety standards. Veteran ship maker Fincantieri — one of Europe’s largest — also has built Carnival Freedom and Holland America Line’s ms Maasdam, among other ships, according to its website.
The Carnival Splendor, disabled by a fire in November 2010, was built to the same structural design as Concordia, Carnival confirmed.
CAPTAIN’S ROLE: Costa officials attribute the accident to human error by the captain — Francesco Schettino — now under arrest by Italian authorities. Authorities have accused Schettino of abandoning ship with passengers aboard.
The captain strayed from the programmed course to steer closer to shore to show off the boat to island residents, the cruise line said. Captains have leeway to change a ship’s course because of bad weather or other perils, but this action was apparently personal.
“If he had followed procedure, and not done the alleged showboating, this would not have occurred,” said Chiron, The Cruise Guy.
McLeod said the captain’s action raises questions of governance and crew oversight by companies: “We need to look into the training of captains, the discipline of captains and their evaluations.”
Costa said Schettino had experience with cruise ships before joining the line as a safety officer in 2002. He was promoted to captain in 2006 and had no prior navigational incidents during his tenure with Costa.
On ships that sail from U.S. ports, the U.S. Coast Guard enforces crew competency regulations through annual inspections. It can suspend or revoke the licenses maritime officers are required to maintain for acts of incompetence or misconduct.
©2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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