A crew member from another cruise line offers thoughts on abandoning ship
Whether cruise ships are truly safe may be moot at this point, but most of those working in the industry would still defend its record — and, particularly, the records of those employed on the Costa Concordia as it sank off the coast of Italy on January 13th. Considering the international vilification of Concordia’s Captain, and the subsequent speculation on the cruise industry’s safety standards, a voice on the inside offered some perspective this week.
Edgar Welch (not his real name — most cruise companies have put a kibosh on employees publicly commenting on the Concordia incident) currently works in the entertainment department on a Royal Caribbean ship, and he called from a break in port the other day to scold me for emailing him a joke about Captain Schettino’s alleged showboating.
You can imagine what sort of discussions have been going on here. They keep demonizing the crew in the media, but there is no way 4000 passengers got off that ship safely without a whole lot of people doing their jobs correctly. Twenty-six dead out of 4000 is a stellar number when you think that that ship, one of the largest in the world — the same size and ten years newer than the one I’m on — sank in twenty-five minutes. It takes me seven minutes to launch a life raft.
Seven minutes? Don’t you just throw those inflatable things in the water? Admittedly, the Concordia sank remarkably fast. So, what are the standard expectations for any imminent shipwreck? “The standard that they want is six minutes,” he explains, noting that life rafts are for crew and hold 28 people each. On the other hand, the lifeboats for passengers hold between 150 and 300 people. The standard goal, laid out by the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) guidelines, is to get every passenger rescue vessel loaded and in the water within half an hour of the call to abandon ship — the prime expectation being that the crew’s rafts are deployed after the lifeboats have been launched. Reality is that most ship evacuations take much longer than that; it took three hours to get 1600 people off of the Sea Diamond, which sank after running into a reef near Greece in 2007.
“There are 1200 and change in crew here, and every single one of us knows how to get people off the ship.” The crew is drilled every ten days on evacuation procedures, and since the Concordia sank, emergency drills have become more varied. “They’re throwing a lot of different things at us, whether it’s a simulated fire, an incident in port, a terrorist or bomb threat — you name it, they’re preparing us for it.
Knowing that the Titanic sank in three-ish hours and left over 1500 dead, the Concordia’s record doesn’t look quite so bad. Chalk that up to a hundred years of increasing safety measures — and the Captain, too, says Welch. “[Schettino] did do the right thing by steering the ship toward land,” Welch says. Some of the Concordia’s passengers were able to swim to safety. Considering the wide speculation that the ship’s proximity to land was the problem to start with, at least there’s one advantage of sticking close to shore.