Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Some Thoughts On The Wreck Of The Costa Concordia

I am following this tragedy rather closely not just for its tabloid news qualities, but because I spent 10 years of my life at sea.  The entire event is so stunning that it beggars belief to anyone with any serious maritime background.  Here are a few quick observations...
  • This aint the Titanic part II.  People need to stop making that ignorant comparison.  The Titanic was a monumental catastrophe with a horrendous loss of life.  But more importantly on the Titanic almost without exception the officers and crew behaved with great professionalism and heroism in the face of disaster and their near certain imminent death.  Indeed the top three officers all went down with the ship.  The 4th most senior officer only survived by a fluke of luck.  Almost all of the engineering crew remained at their posts to the end.  Most are still there today.  Same with the stewards and the ship's band that famously played almost until the water closed over their heads.  And at least in the first and second class most of the passengers were calm and behaved well obeying the Birkenhead Drill (women and children first).
  • Accidents happen and most are the result of stupidity.  Such was the case here.  But the captain's behavior after the crash is inexcusable.  Rank cowardice is the only term that can possibly apply.  A captain must never abandon his ship before ensuring the safety of all of his passengers.  By his actions he has dishonored himself, his profession and all seafaring men everywhere.
  • Why was no lifeboat drill held before leaving port?  This is pretty much SOP for ships leaving US ports.
  • Given the radical list which incapacitated the port side lifeboats why was no effort made to prioritize seating in the starboard lifeboats?  It is terribly old fashioned but the rule is still women and children first to which one should also add the elderly and infirm.  Able bodied men should have been asked to stand back and wait for the second stage of the evacuation.
  • Panic thrives when there is a lapse in recognized authority.  Someone (ideally the captain) should have stepped up and calmly explained what was happening and how the evacuation was going to proceed.  The complete lack of direction caused uncertainty which lead to near panic on the part of passengers and crew.
  • Why was the crew so clueless in emergency procedures?  It seems they did not know how to launch lifeboats correctly or how to organize an emergency muster and evacuation.
  • It is time for the people who draft the SOLAS rules to take a hard look at the design of modern cruise ships.  Most now have only one deck that is open and runs around the ship's superstructure whereas in the past there were typically three with the lifeboats on the top deck.  This seriously limits your potential evacuation staging areas.  On the older ships you could lower the boats to each deck below and embark passengers from each point as needed.  Also modern cruise ships have been adding more and more decks with less and less open deck space (private balconies being much in demand).  This seems to me to create two distinct problems.  First it can seriously add to stability issues with that much weight that far above the main deck.  If you have a hull breach or any other event that could cause a serious list all of that added topside weight could destabilize the ship and increase the chances of capsizing.  Secondly it also creates internal difficulties with evacuation.  You have ships with more than a dozen decks, only one being open and with access to the lifeboats typically near the bottom of the superstructure, and the need to move as many 4000+ people in a very short time to muster and abandon ship stations.  Elevators should be shut down in any emergency so that leaves stairs, in some cases perhaps ten or more flights.  How do you manage that in a true emergency?  Power may be out, the ship may be tilting, some areas may be blocked by fire or damage and you will have elderly, handicapped and potentially injured people in need of help.  This is a recipe for a major calamity IMHO.  In theory the standard is that ships must be able to get everyone off within 30 minutes of an abandon ship order.  In reality this is not likely to happen in a serious emergency given modern ship design.  See the below photos of a typical modern cruise ship, and a typical passenger ship of pre-floating condo design for reference.
R.M.S. Alcantara (click to enlarge) a medium sized passenger ship from the first half of the 20th century.  Note three open decks with lifeboats arranged on the top deck.

The M.V. Carnival Magic (click to enlarge).  Note only one open deck with lifeboats located at the bottom of the superstructure.  I count at least eight(!) passenger decks above the lifeboats.

1 comment:

peggy38 said...

It may go without saying, but, Titanic will haunt the seas forever.

The accident in Italy, while terrifying for those involved and tragic for those who were killed, simply pales in comparison.