Disaster with tragic echoes of the past

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2012, 12:00am


The Costa Concordia accident has brought back ghosts of the Titanic. The centenary of the steamship disaster is months away and images of its demise are fresh from the 1997 film of the same name. Astonishingly, the pictures and survivor accounts of Friday's tragedy off the Tuscan island of Giglio were strikingly similar to those in the film, with the huge cruise ship listing precariously to one side in smooth, black water, a giant gash in its hull. Safety should have improved dramatically since the 1912 tragedy, so survivor accounts of chaos, confusion, a mad scramble for lifeboats and people jumping overboard and swimming for their lives are startling.

The 115,000 tonne ship, which carries more than 4,000 passengers and crew, was, after all, just five years old and owned by Carnival Corporation, a leader in the cruise line industry in terms of building vessels that meet the highest safety standards. In the 100 years since 1,514 lives were lost when the Titanic hit an iceberg, there have been numerous innovations to make voyages safer. Water-tight compartments, double hulls, satellite guidance systems, sonar and structural fire protection are now standard features. Passenger ships must carry lifeboats able to hold all those aboard, 24-hour radio watches have to be kept on vessels carrying 50 or more people and separate frequencies maintained for distress messages.

But they do not take into account two factors that can cause disaster: technical problems and human error. Investigators have recovered the Costa Concordia's black box, which recorded events, but it will be some time before conclusions are drawn. The captain has been accused of manslaughter and abandoning the ship while passengers were still aboard, charges he denies.

The inquiry may answer questions and also provide valuable lessons. Cruise ships may be carrying too many passengers to allow for safe evacuations, or safety systems may need further improvement. To restore confidence, the cruise industry has to take the findings to heart.