A massive concentration of energy, power, and people

The incident with the Costa Concordia on Friday 13 may be seen as an excellent example of what American disaster sociologist Charles Perrow in his recent book The Next Catastrophe has described as the consequence of concentration on three different levels:

  • Concentration of energy
  • Concentration of power (political and economic)
  • Concentration of people

The max speed of the Costa Concordia was “only” 23 knots – roughly the same as the Titanic, but significantly less than that of the United States which took the Blue Riband on the Atlantic in the 1950’s with an average crossing speed of around 35 knots. But the Italian cruise ship had a tonnage of almost 115,000 tonnes compared to the 40,000 tonnes of the Titanic – a behemoth of her own time. Moving an object weighing of this immense size (the largest cruise ship of today, for comparison, is the Allure of the Seas, weighing in at 225,000 tonnes) through the water represents a massive outlet of energy – with potential distastrous consequences in the event of a collision. Notice the photograph above of the after port section of the Costa Concordia below the waterline showing how she actually tore off part of the reef which became imbedded inside the hull.

The concentration of economic and political power stems from a limited number of extremely large companies running the majority of the world’s cruise ships (primarily Royal Caribbean and Carnival). To avoid taxation and stricter safety regulations they usually sail under Bermudan or other flags of convenience. These companies are so large and powerfull (probably employing more lawyers and accountants than the international maritime organizations altogether) that oversight and regulation is difficult.

Reg. concentration of people: 4,300 souls sailed in the Costa Concordia, packed together on an area less than a thousand yards in length and a 100 yards in width. With the Allure of the Seas and her sister ship you may raise this number to more than 8,000. Everybody (the passengers, the crew, owners, and perhaps also legislators) tend to view these giants of the sea as “practically unsinkable”, a term coined by the Shipbuilder Magazine in 1911 in a special edition celebrating the building of the Olympic and the Titanic in Belfast for the White Star Line.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an unsinkable ship. This might be the most important overall lesson of the Costa Concordia. Memento mori – remember that you are mortal. That goes for us all, also when we sail on a big cruise ship or board an A380.

The new Titanic?

On Friday 13 (how ironic is that?) the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground on a rocky sandbar off the small island of Giglio in the Mediterranean Ocean. The rocks carved a 150 foot opening in the buttom of the ship, and water gushed in. Later it capsized and finally came to rest on its side just a few hundred yards from the coast.

When the collision happened, most people aboard were seated in the restaurants. According to eye witnesses a mild panic broke out when the crew asked the passengers to go to the boat deck in order to evacuate the ship. Two passengers and a crew member died after jumping in to the ice cold water. Still (Sunday afternoon) more than 15 people are unaccounted for. The captain of the Costa Concordia has been arrested, and the accident has already been named the “New Titanic” by the media.

But is it?

Let’s take a moment to examine the preliminary data on the Costa Concordia incident and compare them to the sinking of the Titanic on April 15 1912.

  • Casualties: On the Titanic more than 1,500 people were lost out of the just over 2,200 souls who sailed in her on the maiden voyage. To compare this unfathomable number to the three confirmed deaths on the Costa Concordia and the limited number of people still unaccounted for is simply unjust.
  • Context: The Costa Concordia ran aground just off the coast of an island with a small harbor close by while the Titanic hit an iceberg hundreds of nautical miles from land in the North Atlantic. Ships and small boats from Giglio came to the rescue on Friday within minutes of the collision, and the lifeboats from the Costa Concordia could easily reach safety. When the Titanic sank no ships that could be reached by emergency signals were able to come to the rescue before the steamer had disappeared from the surface (the Carpathia, arriving four hours after receiving the distress call).
  • Means of evacuation: The Titanic had only room in her lifeboats for around 1,100 of the 2,300 people who were aboard the ship due to the obsolete regulations from the British Board of Trade. Due to this tragic fact it was simply not possible to rescue everyone on board – the Titanic was supposed to be “it’s own lifeboat”, the result of a political trade off between the number of required lifeboats and compartmentalized designs with waterproof bulkheads. Today it is mandatory for a cruise ship to carry enough lifeboats or inflatable rafts to hold everybody. So this comparison does not hold water (no pun intended) either.
  • Passenger reactions: Reports of panic among the passengers of the Costa Concordia complete with comparisons with scenes from the Titanic sinking have already found their way into the media (http://bit.ly/wO41zM). But according to the sources panic was actually not very common on the Titanic. Most passengers quietly followed the orders of the crew and went into the lifeboats – although many refused to leave the big “unsinkable” steamer for a small wooden unpowered boat in the middle of the Atlantic. Only during the last minutes before the ship went under – when the foremost funnel collapsed and people in the water were crushed as it fell forwards – did people panic. The reports of fighting over lifejackets that are coming out regarding the Costa Concordia are not reflected in the eye witness accounts from the Titanic. Author and sailor Joseph Conrad commented on this in 1912 in an article about the loss of the Titanic: “In extremity, in the worst extremity, the majority of people, even of common people, will behave decently. It’s a fact of which only the journalists don’t seem aware.” (http://bit.ly/AqQdfe) Very few documented examples of passengers or crew members trying to fight their way into lifeboats etc. on the Titanic exist.
  • Causes and captains: No inquiry into the capsizing of the Costa Concordia has yet been made, but experts and locals have already commented on the case, stating that the shallow area with rocks WAS marked on the maps. It also appears that the Italian cruise ship was several miles off course when the collision occurred. Lending the words of Human Factors expert James Reason, a “conspiracy of unlikely events” might be the explanation for this: Perhaps a malfunctioning piece of navigational equipment caused the Costa Concordia to leave her designated route, lack/negligence of procedures meant that none of the ship’s officers noticed this, and sheer human error due to boredom caused by routine, loss of situational awareness etc. resulted in no one “stepping back five” to check that everything was as it was supposed to be. The cause of the sinking of the Titanic has been discussed for almost a century ever since the ship went down. Did J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, convince the captain to go too fast through an area infested with icebergs to arrive early in New York for publicity reasons? Did a coal fire weaken the steel plates and rivets? Should the lookouts have been provided with binoculars? Did an officer on the bridge by accident turn the wheel the wrong way when the order to avoid the iceberg was given? Impossible to say. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw knew who to point his finger at in June 1912: “The only thing positively known was that Captain Smith had lost his ship by deliberately and knowingly steaming into an ice field at the highest speed that had coal for. He paid the penalty, so did most of those for whose lives he was responsible. Had he brought them and the ship safely to land, nobody would have taken the smallest notice of him.” (PDF: http://bit.ly/yMelaF) Captain Smith went down with his ship and gained a place in history as a hero even though he didn’t contribute much to the rescue operation. Captain Schettino of the Costa Concordia left his ship before all the passengers and crew members were rescued. Scapegoat coming up? You bet.

Conclusion: Even if it at first seems obvious it is actually not relevant to compare the incident with the Costa Concordia to the tragedy of the Titanic. Based on what we know so far (and that’s not a lot yet) it seems much more reasonable to compare it with the capsizing of the Norwegian ferry Skagerak off the coast of Jutland in 1966 or perhaps the Herald of Free Enterprise in the English Channel in 1987.