A clear fact in a murky situation: safety was not a concern


On January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia luxury cruise liner passed approximately 150 meters off the island of Giglio, striking rocks that would tear a 50 meter gash in its hull. According to the ship’s operator, Costa Cruises, the captain of the ship, Francesco Schettino, made an unauthorized and unapproved maneuver, veering off his pre-approved route and bringing the ship dangerously close to shore. In his defense, Schettino says Costa Cruises ordered him to conduct such a maneuver and it was a common practice used to attract publicity and make passengers happy.

Whether the maneuver that caused the accident was approved or not, the actions of Captain Schettino have received plenty of criticism. It’s reported that Schettino has a history of taking risks and disobeying orders. He reportedly left Marseilles, France in bad weather, against company policy and coast guard orders. A former Costa Concordia captain who Schettino served under as first mate described him as “too high-spirited and a dare devil,” while officers who served under him at the time of the accident labeled him as risky, authoritarian, and inflexible. Transcripts of conversations between Captain Schettino and Coast Guard Captain Gregorio de Falco show a defiant Schettino as he failed to comply with orders to re-board and direct passenger and crew evacuation from aboard the Costa Concordia (a criminal act under Italian law). Instead, he claimed he would do so from a life raft with his 2nd in command (who happened to be in the same life raft Captain Schettino claimed he fell into after slipping from the ship).

There is also issue with the delay between the time the Costa Concordia made contact with the rocks and when a distress call and the order to abandon ship were declared. From most reports, a majority of the crew and passengers had no idea of the potential danger they were in. One can see videos of crew members telling passengers in life vests to return to their cabins – informing them the ship was only experiencing an electrical problem. Unfortunately, it appears even those who knew better declined to tell the whole truth; transcripts show that approximately 20-30 minutes after contact with the rocks, phone calls from the Costa Concordia to the local Coast Guard admitted the ship was experiencing electrical problems but failed to initially report the collision. Despite knowledge of contact with the rocks, and the fact the ship was taking on water and listing, it still was over an hour before the captain ordered everyone to abandon ship.

Whether he was confident he could handle the situation on his own, or frozen by fear at the outcome of his actions, Captain Schettino messed up. Accounts from those who have worked with him describe a man who enjoyed doing things his way, was willing to take risks, and had a “pronounced ego.” Audio of the conversations between Schettino and de Faclo show a man who seems to have panicked when his crew and passengers needed him most.  
Despite Schettino’s actions (and inactions), concerns have been raised about the practices of Costa Concordia’s operators, Costa Cruises. Since the accident, the terms “sail-by” and “salute” have become more common, and decidedly negative. During an interview with a Senate committee in Italy, Costa Cruises’s CEO, Pier Foschi, stated the company encourages its captains to bring ships close to shore, saying such actions were “in demand” and helped “enrich the product”; however, he noted the captain’s actions on January 13 were not authorized. Also, Mr. Foschi admitted the Costa Concordia conducted an authorized sail-by a few months earlier, but stressed the ship never came closer than 500 meters to the shore – GPS evidence shows the authorized trip actually brought the Costa Concordia even nearer to shore than the unauthorized January 13 route.

Many of the details surrounding this accident will emerge as the investigation continues. At this point, there are more questions than definitive answers. Was the sail-by actually approved/ordered as Captain Schettino claims? Why did Costa Cruises approve a similar route months earlier, but deny that their ship came as close as GPS evidence shows? Was it really happenstance that Captain Schettino fell and landed in a life boat with his 2nd in command during the evacuation? Answers to these questions will shed light on the actions and mistakes that resulted in the loss of at least 17 lives (15 people are still missing), damage to and the possible destruction of a $500 million ship, and additional costs from lawsuits, fines, penalties, and environmental damage that could approach $1 billion.

When facts have been separated from speculation we will know what truly happened on the Costa Concordia that night. However, in reference to Dan Paulk’s recent blog, we can be sure that many of the scales he outlined are applicable to this situation. By most accounts, Captain Schettino was confident to the point of arrogant, willing to take unnecessary risks, and defiant in the face of authority. Once the accident occurred, he clearly panicked. Expanding on Dan’s analysis, questions have also been raised about the leadership at Costa Cruises. Do they foster an environment which rewards risk taking? Are they trying to use Captain Schettino as a scapegoat for poor industry-wide practices?

This could be a prime example of what can happen when safety takes a back seat to profit and publicity. Unfortunately, as is often the case with safety-related accidents, the costs associated with the Costa Concordia will not only be measured in dollars but in lives.