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.

One thought on “The new Titanic?”

  1. Update: Now five confirmed deaths on the Costa Concordia (two elderly passengers located inside the hull by divers).

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