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The unbelievable crash

Phillip Knightley (One Manís View) / 23 January 2012

The sinking of the giant cruise liner Costa Concordia off the Italian island of Giglio is the most significant event in modern maritime history. This is not because of the controversy over whether the Italian captain and his crew adhered to the tradition expected of them, put the rescue of the passengers first, and stayed on board themselves until everyone was clear of the sinking ship.

But because every single safety procedure designed to make sea travel safe failed miserably. Those survivors who described their ordeal as “like another “Titanic” were closer to the truth than they realised.

Modern ship-building methods meant to ensure a hull strong enough to withstand a collision failed as underwater rocks ripped open the side of the ship as if it was made of cardboard, not steel. Watertight compartments meant to keep the ship afloat and stable did not work. She took on water, listed heavily and sank.

There were enough lifeboats for everyone but many could not be launched because of the angle of the hull made it impossible for them to reach the water. Passengers did not know what to do because they had embarked only that afternoon and the first lifeboat drill was not scheduled to take place until next morning. One passenger commented on this to her partner. “I said to him, ‘What if something happens tonight!’

Radar, sonar, automated navigational aids, modern charts, computer-assisted controls, state of the art engineering and communications all made no difference. The ship still ran on to the rocks. In fact, the high-tech equipment the Concordia was fitted with may have made the shipwreck more not less likely.

The enquiry into the sinking will not report for months, if not years, but there are accounts circulating that say that the trouble began with the failure of a generator, not a serious event, but that deprived of power the generator’s power some of the computer-controlled equipment would not work.

As the ship began to list, some passengers began to panic. Officers broadcast reassuring statements but, at the same time, sent coded messages to crew warning them to prepare to abandon ship.

When you consider that there were 4,200 passengers, many of them elderly or infirm, that many of crew had limited English, and that passengers did not know their assembly points because the first drill was not due until next day, it is remarkable that there were not more deaths.

What was the liner doing so close to the island in the first place? Accounts differ. Some say that the captain made an unauthorised deviation from his approved route so as to “make a salute” to the island of Giglio. Others that the captain wanted to show the ship to the people of the island and the island to his passengers. There is also controversy over whether the captain, Francesco Schettino, left his command while there were still passengers on board. Italian newspapers have carried what they say is a transcript of a telephone conversation between Schettino and a Coast Guard commander in which the commander orders Schettino, who is apparently on board a lifeboat, to return to the ship immediately.

The British tabloid press has had a field day with the fact that the captain is Italian and finds an excuse to use the word “coward” in its stories as often as possible. But a retired British admiral points out that none of us should rush to vilify and still less to criminalise a seaman whose punishment already includes several deaths on his conscience and the despair of seeing his pride and joy on her beam ends.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist and commentator

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