I was shocked to hear that the luxury cruise liner, the Costa Concordia was laying on its side submerged in water after striking rocks 18 miles off the coast of Tuscany. I have been handling maritime cases for almost 30 years, and I thought I had seen virtually everything. I have handled many cases involving major maritime disasters, including a fire aboard a cruise ship that killed over 159 people, a cruise ship that sank during a hurricane, killing all those aboard, as well as other sinking of ships. This disaster involving this Costa cruise line cruise ship again shows the vulnerability of ships, including these massive cruise ships. The Costa Concordia is 950 feet long, more than 3 football fields. There were over 4000 crew and passengers aboard.
The incident is immediately raising questions as to the competency of the crew in handling such an emergency. Passengers have described the situation as chaotic. There was panic. The captain did not start evacuation procedures immediately. Instead, the passengers were told it was an electrical problem on the ship. As time passed the ship took on more water and suddenly the ship was 90 degrees to the starboard side, submerged in water. Passengers were reported to have jumped off the ship. Due to the tilting of the ship lifeboats could not be deployed.
Three people so far have been reported to have died. The two who died are reported to have been two French tourists and a crew member from Peru. Seventy nine others have been reported missing, although these numbers have varied in the news reports. It has been reported that 80 passengers onboard the cruise ship Costa Concordia were American.
I spoke with a client of mine, a cruise ship captain for many years. I asked him how could this happen? How could they be in such shallow waters? How could they allow the ship to practically sink before starting evacuation procedures? What happened to all the sophisticated equipment on the ship? What do you think captain? He was cautious to respond because all of the information so far is from the passengers and media. He was surprised Costa cruise lines hasn’t immediately come out in the media and made a statement. He would have expected a cruise line company to have done so immediately. He said the failure to do so will be criticized. He was closely following the different reports.
So, what did my client/captain have to say? He says he would have expected the captain to have plotted a course line that would not have taken him into an area where there were such a large rocks. How he ended up there is unclear, but could have been because of a lot of traffic in the area which resulted in the captain deviating too much from the intended course line. It could have been an uncharted reef. It could have been because of distraction on the bridge. Obviously, human error is the main cause of this incident he said. He was surprised because the ship is a frequent visitor to this area.
As far as what took so long for the evacuation, he was very surprised. He said the captain must immediately assess the situation when there is a grounding or striking of an object that causes damage to the cruise ship and results in water intrusion. All ships, even the Titanic, he pointed out are vulnerable. Rapid water intrusion can affect the stability of the ship, even a huge cruise ship like the Costa Concordia, and cause it to list drastically and ultimately sink. Depending on how rapid the water was entering, evacuation must be considered immediately. Obviously, the captain thought he could get the cruise ship closer to land to facilitate evacuation, but this decision proved costly indeed.
My client, the captain, preferred I didn’t use his name, but said he expects heavy criticism from Italy of Costa cruise lines, and the failure to provide information promptly. This incident again demonstrates how cruise lines try to hide the truth about an emergency situation for fear of overreaction or panic, and again this incident will result in increased focus on the need to immediately convey the truth to passengers and crewmembers, and ultimately the public.
This incident clearly was a result of negligence and even gross negligence. Passengers have described the situation as like the Titanic. One passenger, Lynn Kaelin was interviewed on TV, and said it was total chaos. It was like the Titanic without the water. She said she was sure lives would have been saved had the captain started evacuation immediately. She said the ship immediately tilted upon striking the rocks, things were falling and striking passengers. It was obvious there was a critical situation that required evacuation. The captain just waited too long to start evacuation, and the crew appeared not to be ready for such an emergency.
How many people will actually be found to have died as a result of this tragedy, and how many suffered severe injuries, remains to be seen. Of course all those onboard the cruise ship have suffered severe emotional distress as a result of this disaster.
I have appeared before Congress during congressional hearings discussing cruise ship safety, and have been representing those harmed at sea for almost 30 years. Anyone onboard the Costa Concordia should immediately seek advice from an experienced maritime attorney to discuss their rights.