Wreck of the Costa Concordia

The world has been transfixed by the awful tragedy of the Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia, torn open by a rocky outcropping when, according to a Reuters report, Captain Francesco Schettino veered too close to shore because he wanted to render “a bravura salute to residents of a Tuscan island off Italy’s Mediterranean coast.”  In fact, some reports say the Costa Concordia was taking a “bow” specifically to the house of the ship’s chief steward, the lone member of the crew to hail from the island of Giglio.

Eleven people have been killed so far, with up to 29 passengers and four crewmembers still unaccounted for.  The mighty cruise ship, which once carried 3,200 passengers and a thousand crew, lies on her side in the occasionally rough Tuscan waters, with over 2,000 tons of fuel threatening to burst into the sea. 

The owners, Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines, say they could lose over $100 million by the time all is said and done.  The crippled cruise liner, which may well be unsalvageable, was only six years old.  The entire cruise industry has been rattled by the disaster, in the middle of what CNN notes is their peak sales period.

The man Fox News dubbed “Captain Coward” is under house arrest for causing the accident, and then abandoning the ship and his duties.  When the you-know-what hit the fan, Captain Schettino hit the water:

The captain of a capsized cruise ship made repeated excuses as an Italian coast guard official repeatedly ordered him to get back on the vessel potentially still packed with thousands of frightened passengers and crew, a recording released Tuesday reveals.

Capt. Francesco Schettino can be heard on the recorded telephone conversation with Italian Coast Guard Capt. Gregorio De Falco telling the official that he does not want to return to the ship despite ongoing evacuations after it struck a rock late Friday and capsized.

“Tell me if there are children, women and what kind of help they need,” De Falco said. “And you tell me the number of each of these categories. Is that clear? Look, Schettino, perhaps you have saved yourself from the sea, but I will make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this.”

“Captain, please,” Schettino replied.

“There is no please about it,” De Falco said. “Go back on board. Assure me you are going back on board!”

Schettino replied: “I am in the life boat, under the ship, I haven’t gone anywhere, I’m here.”

The Italian Corriere Della Sera says the crew of the Cost Concordia “mutinied on behalf of the passengers”:

Crew members were getting passengers out of their cabins and readying the lifeboats to leave the Concordia 13 minutes before the order to abandon ship arrived from the coastguard. Mutiny is one of the most humiliating events a captain can experience and Schettino had two in one night. The second time, he was the mutineer when he disobeyed the harbour office’s order to return to the ship and take care of the passengers.

It was like the movies. Financial police officers arrived at 10.35 pm but not just to provide assistance for they filmed what was going on. It was only at 11.15 pm that the Costa Concordia began to tilt over. If Captain Schettino had listened to the officers that were begging him to give the order to abandon ship, he would have had at least an hour and a half for the evacuation. There might have been fewer deaths.

Schettino’s attorney nevertheless insists he “saved hundreds if not thousands of lives” by bringing the ship closer to shore after her hull was torn open. 

Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper notes (and my own experiences confirm) that while most U.S. cruise liners hold safety drills shortly after putting out to sea, the international maritime standard calls for a perhaps unwise 24-hour window, and there has been testimony that passengers who boarded three days before the shipwreck had not yet undergone a safety drill.

It’s a tragic reflection of our times that even a vast high-tech cruise ship, equipped with incredible navigational technology, can still sink because the captain manages to slam her into a rock while showboating.  Even the most marvelously advanced systems are still subject to human error.  Nothing is “foolproof,” because fools are so ingenious.