Cruise disaster: Perfect storm of events caused Costa Concordia crash

Francesco Paolillo, a local coastguard commander, said the vessel “hit an
obstacle” ripping a 160ft-wide gash in the side of the ship, which started
taking on water.

The captain was reported to have said he hit a rock that was not marked on his
charts. But that failed to explain adequately the scale of the disaster,
which experts said should be unthinkable.

Like all passenger cruise liners, the ship will have needed safety management
certification to show that it had detailed and up-to-date safety systems.

Modern vessels are designed with bulkheads in the hull so that any water
coming in through a breach would be evenly distributed, helping

to prevent the ship from keeling over.

The Concordia, whose officers were all Italian, will also have operated Bridge
Team Management, a system adopted from the aviation industry whereby each
operation is double and triple-checked by several members of the crew.

Modern ships are required to carry voyage data recorders which store detailed
information about the vessel’s speed, position, heading, radar and

The Costa Concordia also carried two live web cameras that updated every few
seconds and may have recorded the events as they unfolded. Another live
webcam overlooking the port at Giglio is also thought to have captured the

One expert said he believed a “perfect storm” of problems had hit the ship,
even though it was cruising in calm water and clear conditions.

The first thing investigators will have to determine is whether the vessel
should even have been where it was.

A source close to the investigation told a leading Italian newspaper that the
boat was on the wrong course — possibly due to human error — and was sailing
too close to Giglio.

The ship should have passed to the west of the island, rather than the east,
according to this theory.

Yesterday fishermen on Giglio and in Porto Santo Stefano said it was very
unusual for such a large ship to attempt a passage to the east of the

Next the explosion and apparent power failure will be the subject of a
technical investigation.

Malcolm Latarche, editor of IHS Fairplay Solutions, the global shipping
magazine, said he believed that the most likely explanation began with a
catastrophic loss of power on board the 114,500-ton ship, which led to a
series of disastrous consequences.

In common with every modern passenger vessel, the ship is powered by a bank of
diesel engines.

They act as a mini-power station, generating electricity which turns the
propellers, and also powers every aspect of life on board.

Mr Latarche said it appeared that a power surge — something which regularly
happens in generators — could have caused the explosion heard by passengers.

A similar problem hit the Queen Mary 2 in September 2010 as she approached

“Once you have a problem with the electric supply to the ship’s main
propulsion motors that could lead to a problem with steering,” Mr Latarche

“There are various backup systems in place on all ships but they may have
failed also.

“Once you are in a position where you cannot control a ship’s speed and
direction you have a problem until you can get those systems back on line.
It seems that this may have happened quite close to land. In shallow water
when you can’t steer you are going to run aground and hit rocks at some

Dr Phil Anderson, a former president of The Nautical Institute and a marine
safety consultant, said: “If there was a loss of power it is possible that
the steering gear failed and the engine shut down.

“It has happened to me at sea. You lose the steering and the engine at the
same time. If you don’t get the steering back when the engine comes back on,
the telegraph system that signals the engine room may have still been on
full ahead and so the vessel will have continued forward under power but
with no steering.”

A key question for the coastguard inquiry will be whether whoever was at the
helm intended to steer the ship towards the island to make an evacuation
easier and safer, the version of events outlined initially yesterday by the
Italian coastguard.

The safety rules for large cruise liners tell captains that evacuation is the
last resort, and recommends heading for port. Mr Latarche said: “The
International Maritime Organisation have formulated new rules for passenger
ship safety and the very latest ships are supposedly meant to have the
capability for a return to port in the event of a major fire or loss of
power, so evacuation should not be necessary.

“If you have a ship with several thousand people on board they need to be fed,
watered, able to go to the lavatory and be kept warm, so modern vessels
actually become the lifeboat.

“If the captain had no steering or reduced steering it may have been that he
had no choice where he was heading and that is why he ended up in shallow
water, but he also may have decided that he needed to head to safer waters
so that he could use the lifeboats closer to land.

“This, after all, was a passenger ship and there would have been lots of
elderly and young people on board so evacuation in life boats is not ideal.”

A failure of electronic navigation systems will also be considered.

Douglas Ward, a cruise ship expert and author of Berlitz Ocean Cruising and
Cruise Ships, said: “Crew don’t have as much training as in the past.

“Ships today are built with completely enclosed navigation bridges and the
navigators don’t even have to learn how to use a sextant, whereas marine
officers in the past always had to.

“The advance in hi-tech navigation systems is so good that we have come to
rely on them. But even these can fail — look at car satnavs.”

Another question which will have to be answered is how the ship capsized in
shallow water.

The Concordia needs a “draught” of 26ft — in other words, it will keel over if
the water is not 26ft deep.

Mr Latarche said: “An ocean cruise ship is not designed to float in 20ft of
water. It needs much more than that to remain upright.

“If it was in a dry dock it would be supported with blocks and supports to
keep it upright. That situation doesn’t exist just off the coast, where the
water is shallow.

“So unless the Costa Concordia was fortunate enough to be sitting on
relatively flat ground, with very soft mud which would allow it to sink it
and support the ship in some way, the vessel will have no alternative but to
turn over on its side.”

He added: “In any of those ships, even the most sophisticated in the world
went into shallow water, the likelihood of it turning on its side is very

“The fact that at some stage the ship ripped a 50-metre gash in its side is
not going to help events but that in itself is not the reason why the ship
keeled over.

“It might sit deeper in the water and it might take on a small list.”

The final area — and possibly most significant for the cruise industry — which
will be considered by inquiries will be the evacuation.

Passengers told of scenes of panic as the listing ship was evacuated, with
frantic attempts to lower the lifeboats and people jumping into the water as
they failed.

Because of the list, only those on one side could be used and yesterday some
were still stranded on the side of the vessel after attempts to deploy them
were abandoned.

How prepared the Italian officers and Indian, South American and Filipino crew
were for an emergency will be examined along with their response.

Especially scrutinised will be why the evacuation drill was not carried out
shortly after the cruise began. It was scheduled to take place yesterday

Experts said that the panic which ensued was inevitable as soon as the order
to abandon ship was given, but one union said there were questions over the
ability of crews to get vast numbers of passengers safely off increasingly
large cruise ships. Mark Dickinson, of Nautilus International, the maritime
professionals’ union, said: “Many ships are now effectively small towns at
sea, and the sheer number of people on board raises serious questions about

He added: “Insurers and salvors have also spoken about the way in which the
sheer size and scale of such ships presents massive challenges for emergency
services, evacuation, rescue, and salvage.”

One change being suggested last night was compulsory lifeboat drills before
the start of cruises.

One young Italian man said: “Costa told us we needn’t wear life jackets
because it was a simple electrical problem.”

However, industry experts said the overall record of cruise liners was

Mr Ward said: “Cruising is without doubt the safest form of travel there is.
That has been proven over so many years.

“In the 1970s we had about 500,000 passengers worldwide, last year we had 21.8 
million and that doesn’t include river cruising. The growth rate is
tremendous and the safety factor is incredibly good.”

The Italian investigation will be watched closely around the world. Costa,
originally an Italian family firm, has been owned since 2000 by Carnival
Corporation, the world’s largest cruising operator which also owns Cunard
Line and PO Cruises in the UK, as well as lines in Germany, Spain, the
United States and Australia.

The American firm runs a combined fleet of more than 100 ships and has a 49
per cent share of the total worldwide cruise market. It made £1.3 billion
profit last year and is controlled by the family of its late founder, Ted

Some of the vessels it operates from America and in the Caribbean have
superstructures — although not hulls — identical to the stricken Italian
ship. The Concordia is one of a class of five commissioned in 2004, three of
which are smaller and one which is an identical size. The tonnage of the
Concordia reflects the rapid growth in the size of cruise ships.

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