The capsizing of the Costa Concordia will pressure the cruise industry to address a safety question that has lingered since the Titanic disaster almost 100 years ago - how to get thousands of people off a giant cruise ship into lifeboats quickly.
Firefighters approach from the side of the Costa Concordia cruise ship which ran aground off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island January 19, 2012. , Photo: Reuters
Carnival Corp, owner of the Concordia, conceded on Thursday that the accident, which has led to the deaths of at least 11 people with another 24 unaccounted for out of its 4,200 passengers and crew, "has called into question our company's safety and emergency response procedures." A Carnival spokesman could not immediately comment on whether the company's safety review would include the lifeboats.
Veteran mariners say the Concordia wreck - particularly the problems the passengers encountered in launching lifeboats as the ship listed to one side - proves there are problems the industry, try though it might, still has not solved.
"The regulations rely on untrained and frightened passengers being able to deal with life rafts in the absence of trained crew members - including having to board them from the water," said John Dalby, a former oil tanker captain who now runs maritime security firm Marine Risk Management.
"The whole point of the Titanic regulations was to avoid what happened with her, and it has now happened again with Costa - that is, the difficulty, if not impossibility, of launching lifeboats from the 'high side,'" Dalby said, referring to the side of the boat tipped into the air.
In the wake of the Titanic disaster, maritime regulations make it mandatory for all ships to have a minimum of 125 percent lifeboat and life raft capacity, comprising 50 percent on each side of the ship plus an additional 25 percent available. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, they are designed to be ready for use within 5 minutes and to be filled as quickly as needed.
But all of that is for naught if the lifeboats cannot get into the water, or if the ship finds itself in distress in adverse conditions - late at night, in a storm or far from land, for example.
That was the lesson the Titanic first taught in 1912, when - besides not having enough lifeboats on board - some lifeboats did not launch properly in the ship's final, harried minutes.
"The frightening thing is how quickly the ship went on its side. If it had been out to sea there would have been a massive loss of life," said one marine underwriter at the Lloyd's of London insurance market.
"It's very similar to the Titanic disaster. The Titanic hit an iceberg and opened up like a can of sardines."
One veteran mariner said in a dire situation, there are certain judgment calls the ship's captain has to make.
"The requirement for lifeboats is that they should be capable of being launched from a ship with a list of up to 20 degrees," said Tom Allan, a naval architect and expert on maritime safety who has held senior positions in several regulatory bodies including the International Maritime Organisation.
"If it gets to more than 20 degrees, I would suggest that a lot of lifeboats could still be launched, but then it gets to a stage where the master has to make a decision as to whether it's safe to launch them."
Yet the question of the lifeboats aside, Allan and others in the industry generally believe that not only are large cruise liners safe, in some ways they offer more safety than older, smaller ships.
"Ships grew in average size over the past 10 years, but of course safety measures were adjusted accordingly," said a spokesman for Meyer Werft, the German shipyard that has been building cruise liners for more than 30 years.
Considered one of the industry's "big three," the German yard has built ships for nine different lines, including Carnival units Holland America and P&O.
"Aviation and shipping are very different from, for instance, the automotive sector. There is a lot more redundancy in safety systems," the spokesman said. "We don't see any major impact (from Costa Concordia) on the industry because we do not have a fundamental crisis on our hands."
One European regulator acknowledged that in extreme cases of distress, there are still questions for which the cruising industry has no answers.
"If a great number of people fall into the water, it is challenging to pick them up," said Tuomas Routa, maritime safety director for the Finnish Transport Safety Agency. "I'm sure the next new ships will be different in some way, more safe."
That could require new training in addition to design changes. One legal and maritime expert said the passenger ship industry lacked the precise training the military has, as well as the will to institute that training.
"The cruise industry is slightly unto itself," said David Loh, a maritime lawyer with Cozen O'Connor in New York and former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy.
"Their training and certification is different than other vessels."
Loh and others have said there may be gaps in the way training is administered and enforced worldwide. But training aside, expert sailors say in many ways the problems still come back to inexorable issues of design.
"The immediate aftermath of the Titanic was to increase lifeboat capacity to enable all people to be disembarked into boats ... and to look again at the heights of watertight bulkheads. This has been a difficult area as designs and tonnage rules have changed over the years," said Mike Smith, a retired master mariner with 45 ship commands under his belt.
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