The plaintive moan of steel plates giving way as the MS Costa Concordia listed to port was bad enough. But it was another sound, the eerie announcement made over the ship’s public address system as all mayhem broke loose, that signaled to many passengers during the January tragedy that their lives could be in danger.
“The situation is under control,” a detached voice from the bridge announced — despite the fact that seawater was pouring into the vessel, and passengers were scrambling for their lives.
The Concordia disaster occurred as the maritime industry braced for April 15 — the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. A 1912 promotional flyer for the White Star line’s flagship vessel boasted: “As far as it is possible to do [Titanic] was designed to be unsinkable.” Over 1,500 souls perished when it went down.
The obvious question in the aftermath of the Concordia: Could disaster on the scale of the Titanic happen again? Cruise industry leaders, of course, continue to defend their business as perhaps the safest conveyance known to man.
“There’s been a continuous evolution in the safety of cruise ships,” says Bud Darr, spokesman for the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). “Quite honestly, if you look at what the Titanic was in its totality, it’s difficult for me to foresee that today.”
Other experts aren’t so sure. True, it is difficult to imagine a major passenger liner being struck by an iceberg, given today’s sophisticated satellite and radar tracking systems. But even modern technology was no match for the apparent human error that caused the Concordia to slam into rocks after sailing too close to the coast of Italy.
“Nobody thought the Titanic would go down,” cruise industry critic Ross Klein tells Newsmax. “And today you have ships like the Oasis of the Sea and the Allure of the Seas. They carry [about] 6,300 passengers and about 2,000 crew. That’s just mind-boggling.”
Klein, a Canadian sociology professor, founded a website called CruiseJunkie.com, which collects accounts of accidents, incidents, and environmental issues involving luxury liners. It’s one of the few publicly available databases on cruise line problems.
Maritime attorney James Walker says the number one danger facing ships today is fire. According to CLIA, the average cruise ship has five firefighting teams with advanced firefighting training, 4,000 smoke detectors, 500 fire extinguishers, 16 miles of sprinkler piping, 5,000 sprinkler heads, and six miles of fire hose.
Yet Klein has documented more than 50 instances between 2005 and 2010 of fires disabling cruise ships or causing serious structure problems.
Many of the reports state that the fires occurred because of mechanical failures in the ships’ engine rooms. But one Carnival cruise liner caught fire due to a buildup of laundry lint. A passenger died in 2006 after highly flammable polycarbonate balcony partitions caught fire on the Star Princess.
While all cruise lines have elaborate safety procedures and regulations in place — computers typically monitor the precise temperature and atmosphere in every individual cabin and alert the bridge to even a minor variation caused, for example, by too much steam coming from a passenger’s hot shower — both Walker and Klein warn that lax regulation is allowing the industry to overlook chronic issues.
The Concordia disaster is sure to expose the industry to a whole new level of scrutiny. Among the dangers today’s ships face:
Engine failure: You might think a balky engine would just give you an excuse to return a few days late from your vacation. But breakdowns also affect vessels’ stability. Klein has documented at least seven instances of cruise lines suffering propulsion issues, and at least 11 examples of engine and electrical failure in 2010 alone. “You’re dealing with 50-foot seas in gale force 10 winds, and the ship is just being bounced around,” he says. “I mean, imagine a little rubber boat in a bathtub being shaken around.”
Terrorism: Ships carrying thousands may have a security staff of perhaps a dozen members, who are typically unarmed. “Cruise ships would make for very attractive targets because they carry a lot of passengers, there’s a lot of potential death and destruction,” said retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mark Gaouette, author of Cruising for Trouble: Cruise Ships as Soft Targets for Pirates, Terrorists, and Common Criminals, a book that documents the threats he witnessed during his stint as director of security for Princess Cruises. Although some cruise ships are equipped with sophisticated sonic and other devices for repelling would-be boarders, Gaouette describes security in the cruise industry as woefully inadequate.
Running aground: With today’s satellite-based GPS systems, you might think getting lost or striking a reef would be well-nigh impossible. But that assumes systems are properly maintained and updated, and that ship captains and their crews avoid human error. According to Klein, there have been about 70 such incidents since 2000. Usually this just results in inconvenience for the passengers — serious injuries to passengers are very rare occurrences.
Rogue waves: Ships are occasionally struck by sudden storms and rogue waves that are difficult to forecast. The one advantage of the megaships is that they are less vulnerable to a 50-foot wave that seems to come out of nowhere. That assumes, of course, that the vessel is fully maneuverable and is able to respond effectively.
Disease: Polls show passengers love cruises. But one of the cruise lines’ dirty little secrets is that ships can be ideal breeding grounds for contagion. After all, whenever you crowd 6,000 people into a specific (albeit expansive and luxurious) space for seven straight days, disease outbreaks can and will occur — no matter how diligently the decks are swabbed. The cruise industry is aware of this, and takes elaborate measures to avoid any outbreaks. The CDC reported 11 of them in 2011, mostly stomach ailments that cause vomiting, fever, and diarrhea. The cruise critics say many illnesses go unreported, however, and maintain regulatory oversight is inadequate.
But industry advocates credit the international Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regime, which has set standards for the industry ever since the Titanic disaster, with ushering in vast and ongoing improvements to ships’ systems, procedures, and training.
According to the cruise industry, over 100 million passengers have boarded their respective “love boats” since 2005. There have been only 16 deaths during that time, Darr says. By comparison, bus accidents claimed the lives of 26 passengers in 2009 alone.
By any measure, today’s megaship technology is impressive: GPS navigation systems, diesel-turbine engines, even joysticks replacing the captain’s wheel. Their sophistication is such that any comparison to the Titanic is meaningless. In fact the Titanic, at about 50,000 displaced tons, would actually be too small to compete with many contemporary cruise vessels, which can displace over 225,000 tons.
But as the Concordia tragically illustrates, today’s cruise ships, unlike some financial institutions, are not too big to fail. Accidents with fatal consequences can still occur. For as the world learned 100 years ago, even the most luxurious and state-of-the-art ship is indeed sinkable.
A way to prevent disasters, it seems, is admitting that they can happen.
Cruise Ships: Is Bigger Really Better?
One of the challenges authorities face when disaster strikes at sea is how to rescue the thousands of passengers who crowd onto today’s megaships.
The Titanic carried 2,201 passengers, 1,514 of whom perished. The backlash that followed led to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which continues to this day, to establish safety regulations.
Today’s megaships carry nearly three times the passengers aboard the ill-fated Titanic. Today’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, can carry 6,000 passengers. Could that many people actually be rescued? Both the U.S. Coast Guard and the cruise line association say yes.
“You have various life-saving systems,” said Lt. Cmdr. Dan Brehm with the Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise. “First you have evacuation routes as well as life-saving appliances that include lifeboats and life rafts.” According to Brehm, SOLAS requires that every ship must have lifeboat capacity to accommodate at least 75 percent of the ships’ passengers. Additionally, they must have life rafts for an additional 50 percent of the ship’s capacity.
That means today’s ships must have enough emergency vessels to take care of 125 percent of their maximum passenger capacity. That way, if some lifeboats are lowered before they are filled, as happened with the Titanic, adequate berths still will be available on the remaining lifeboats and rafts.
Ships have 30 minutes to evacuate after the captain gives the order. It’s not much time. That’s one reason the cruise lines conduct lifeboat drills at the beginning of each cruise, so passengers can familiarize themselves with the location of their lifeboat station and know how to don their life vests.
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