The cruise ship industry is in for a serious bruising over the coming days as more information comes to light about the sinking of the Costa Concordia in Italy on January 13.
Coupled with the recent grounding of MSC Poesia in Freeport, Bahamas (where there were no deaths or serious injuries) in fourteen feet of water, there will have to be some serious introspection about passenger safety.
[MSC Poesia's first visit to Halifax: http://shipfax.blogspot.com/2010/09/poetry-in-motion.html ]
What have we really learned since the sinking of the Titanic (100 years ago), Empress of Ireland (1914), Lusitania (1915), Andrea Doria (1956) and countless others?
1. When ships sink they do not do so on an even keel - if they list to port or starboard to any significant degree, half the lifeboats will not launch at all, and the others will be too far from the ship's side or the ship will roll over on them.
2. If the ship sinks by the bow or stern most of the lifeboats will be useless.
3. Ships are built to withstand flooding of some compartments, but they are never built to withstand long rips in the side of the hull. There is more reserve buoyancy in modern ships, but a big ship at any significant speed, cannot stop quickly, and is thus likely to rip out a lot of its length.
4. Lifeboat drills are never sufficient to prepare passengers for safe evacuation. In the panic of an emergency many things will go wrong (see above) many people will not know what to do. Crew members, even if highly trained (and not all are), will be severely hampered. Language issues will exacerbate the problem.
5. More than a thousand died in the Empress of Ireland and 1,500 from Titanic. More lifeboats were added, davits were changed to gravity type. Even so 1,198 died in the Lusitania, because they could not use most of the lifeboats, due to the ship's trim.
Improvements have been made continuously, and loss of life in those numbers has not occurred in many years, on well found, first class ships. Navigational aids such as radar and satellite navigation, radio and telephone have improved both safety and communication. Personal flotation devices are also vastly superior. Lifeboats themselves are more durable and fire and weather resistant. But that is no reason for complacency.
The issues are still the same: lifeboats and human error. Most accidents are now caused by human error, and when a serious accident occurs, those in danger must rely on lifeboats or take the chance of staying aboard until rescued by others. This last option is often the best, but who really knows that at the time? Jumping overboard is rarely a wise option.
What is the solution?
We will hear many suggestions in the coming weeks-some crazy, some sensible, but one thing is certain, the cruise lines will be under the microscope. Ship designers too, but in reality it is the international safety standards organizations that should be dealing with this on a world scale.