Five blunders that doomed the cruise ship Costa Concordia

Oct 15, 2012
Andrea Vogt

Black box evidence points to language problems, the wrong map and a long-delayed evacuation

Filippo Monteforte

ITALY, SUNDAY: A search team examines the wreck of the Costa Concordia after the cruise ship ran aground and keeled over off the Isola del Giglio.     

GROSSETO, ITALY – Black box evidence from the Costa Concordia will be heard for the first time when the preliminary hearing gets underway here today into the cause of death of 32 passengers who perished when the giant cruise liner sank off the coast of Tuscany earlier this year.

The Costa Concordia hit the rocks while doing a sail-by "salute" of the island of Giglio on the night of 13 January. In the chaos that ensued, 4,220 people were marooned on the tiny Mediterranean island of Giglio, and 32 drowned.

Today, as the sun-tanned ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, arrived in Grosseto for the hearing, the ship remains where it sank in shallow waters, battered by storms and rusting away as a delicate salvage operation continues to suffer delays.

The dry but damning 270-page technical evidence report being presented this week, and obtained by The Week, was compiled by two Navy admirals and two engineers. It is rich in detail - but five main reasons for the disaster stand out:

1. The sail-by: The "salute" of Giglio was a favour Captain Francesco Schettino had promised to the ship’s head waiter, who came from the island. The decision was made before the ship set sail from Civitavecchia and a new course was set by the cartographer. At six nautical miles from Giglio, Schettino went to the bridge and ordered manual steering. However, the paper map that Schettino was using was 1:100,000 scale, satisfactory for open seas but not for sailing close to land, where a 1:20,000 scale map is required. The rock the ship hit was not marked on this map.

2. The phone call: At 21:37 Captain Schettino called his former mentor, Captain Palumbo. Palumbo comes from Giglio, but was in Livorno at the time. Schettino asked if there would be enough water beneath the cruise ship if he sailed between 0.3 and 0.4 nautical miles from the coast. Palumbo said yes. There was a cheerful exchange as Schettino promised to "blow the horns and salute everyone". During the call and the time it took afterwards to hand over command from the first officer to the captain, the ship, sailing at more than 15 knots, went past the turn point.

3. The wind: Schettino and his crew did not take into account a 15-knot northeasterly wind blowing toward the island. As he tried to turn the ship, the wind was reducing his manoeuvres by half. That same wind, however, would save hundreds of lives. It was the wind, the report states, not a steering manoeuvre, that turned the Costa Concordia and pushed it back towards land. When the ship rolled, the granite shelf stopped it from going all the way under.

4. The language barrier: As the ship neared the rocks with the auto-pilot turned off, there was a "comprehension gap" between the Italian officers giving English orders and the Indonesian helmsman doing the manual steering, according to the report, with some orders repeated by Schettino multiple times. There was even laughter as Schettino said: "Starboard, otherwise we go on the rocks." Schettino, realising they were too close, continued to give starboard orders, as tension mounted. The bow passed the rocks. Then, to slide the stern around, he ordered two turns to port. Some crew apparently misunderstood, and the ship continued starboard. It took a critical 13 seconds for the ship to correct, according to the document. At 21.45.05 Schettino ordered "hard to port". The ship hit the rocks two seconds later, ripping a 53-metre gash in its side.

5. The late evacuation: Two minutes after impact, Schettino knew all six engines were flooded and the ship was without power. At 21:58 Schettino called his managers at the cruise company, Costa Crociere. At this point, it should have been clear to all that the ship was doomed, but no evacuation order was given. At 22:02 the coast guard asked if he needed help, but Schettino said it was an electrical fault and was being worked on. In another coast guard call at 22:13, he asked for a tug. Still no evacuation order was given, but meanwhile water was coming up through the decks via the stairs and shafts and the ship was listing heavily. Schettino ordered a general emergency at 22:33 and the first officer ordered abandon ship at 22:35, but Schettino said "Wait, we need to lower the anchor". Passengers and staff had already taken the situation into their own hands and begun lowering lifeboats when Schettino officially gave the order to abandon ship at 22:48 - an hour after hitting the rocks.

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