Most of the recent media coverage of the Costa Concordia disaster has focused on the the captain, who, after disabling the autopilot and tearing the ship’s hull open, abandoned ship early and refused to return. When there are so many opportunities to contrast his apparent cowardice with the bravery of hundreds of other captains, I’m sure the media will drill into this and keep drilling until that well is bone dry. (Here’s a prime example from the Guardian, with bonus Falklands heroism.)
But there’s another factor in this story that’s a lot more important than a wimpy captain, and that’s the preparedness of the passengers and the tendency of the crews to minimize and deny when something goes wrong. It’s apparently still common practice for cruise lines to board passengers in the evening and delay lifeboat drills until the next day. The Costa Concordia sailed in the evening and the passengers were scheduled to get a lifeboat drill the next morning, the day after the ship sank. And the crew told passengers that the collision was an “electrical problem” and waited over an hour before ordering an evacuation even though the captain was informed by his engineers that his ship was going to sink a few minutes after the collision.
I was on a cruise about 15 years ago, and on that cruise, there was a fire in the galley. We sailed in the evening, and the fire occurred a few hours later, in the middle of the night. I had no idea where my lifeboat station was, where the lifejackets were, or what was going on–all I heard was the ship’s whistle blowing, paging of fire teams and crew running through halls. Luckily, the crew was able to put out the fire, but we were told nothing about the whole event until we had a very abbreviated and incomplete announcement the next morning.
My guess is that the few hours after a boat is launched are very busy for the crew, so it’s more convenient to delay the lifeboat drills to the next day. And there’s such a huge investment in pretending that ships can’t sink that cruise line personnel have an deep, inbred reluctance to attend to disasters quickly. I’ll bet that a lifeboat drill shortly after boarding would have saved a few people on that boat, because I know that I’d have been in deep shit if I had been ordered to abandon ship on that one and only cruise that I’ll ever take.