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How To Crash A $400 Million Cruise Ship

01/17/2012 08:02 am ET | Updated Mar 18, 2012

I've been covering the cruise industry for almost 20 years, written about how safe these behemoths are, visited over a dozen European shipyards and spent extensive time talking to cruise ship captains, ship builders and cruise line executives. So when the first photos of Costa Concordia appeared, to say I was stunned is an understatement. What I saw in news reports -- a six year old half-submerged ship on it's side a few feet from shore, reports of utter chaos when the order to abandon ship was announced and most of all, loss of life -- are scenes I never thought I'd witness in the 21st century. People jumped into the water and swam ashore? No way until I saw it with my own eyes.

What I knew is that it's much harder to crash a cruise ship than it is a car or airplane. It's also very difficult to get 2.5 miles off course and end up close enough to shore that passengers could jump in the water and swim to land as over 100 did. On modern cruise ships, computers fix navigational courses. Anytime the ship wanders off course, a loud alarm sounds on the bridge. It was a crystal clear evening with calm seas. The ship's Italian officers certainly know this itinerary since Costa Concordia sails on this route every week.

At a press conference Monday, Costa Cruises Chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi insisted that the ship's master, Captain Francesco Schettino, caused the deadly capsizing of the Costa Concordia off the Italian coast on Friday night. The BBC reports on Mr. Foschi's comments:

The company will be close to the captain and will provide him with all the necessary assistance, but we need to acknowledge the facts and we cannot deny human error. This route was put in correctly. The fact that it left from this course is due solely to a maneuver by the commander that was unapproved, unauthorized and unknown to Costa. He wanted to show the ship, to [go] nearby this island of Giglio, so he decided to change the course of the ship to go closer to the island.

Actually it started to look that way Sunday when Italian officials arrested Captain Schettino and charged him with manslaughter, causing an accident and abandoning ship. Cruise ships also have "black boxes" which track the moment-by-moment movement of cruise ships.

So at least six people died when a $400 million cruise ship hit rocks because the ship's captain overrode the ship's computerized navigation program? And the reason he did it was because he wanted to give passengers a better view of a small island off the coast of Italy? You just can't make this stuff up.

Just like cars, airplanes and trains cruise ships malfunction for two reasons: technical glitches and human error. The only real threat to these modern ships is fire: Weather no longer poses a threat. In 2005, Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dawn was hit by a 70-foot rogue wave, suffering a bit of damage before being repaired and put back in service a few months later. No one died. With satellite navigation and weather reports, only a very bad captain would be in a slow moving hurricane or typhoon.

Since cruise ships are at sea most of the time, even the backup programs have backups.

Reports of Chaos Abandoning Ship
So why did chaos ensue when Costa Concordia's passengers had to abandon ship? Because it is staffed by Italians? Absolutely not. Carnival Corporation (which also owns Princess Cruises, Holland America, Cunard Line, Carnival Cruise Lines, Seabourn Cruises, P&O Cruises) owns Costa Cruises although the company is based in Rome. Carnival builds ships for every cruise line it owns and imposes the same safety features on every ship it owns.

I don't know Costa Cruises' guidelines for crew and, based on the dozen or so interviews with cruise passengers, they felt abandoned by the ship's staff. There should have been announcements from the bridge (in five languages, which is typical on Costa ships) providing information on what was going on, what was happening. I'd guess plenty of crew members also panicked.

But in the rest of the cruise industry evacuation procedures are grilled into ships officers and crew. The crew also rehearses safety measures and lifeboat drills at least 12 times per year when passengers are ashore. I'm certain they know how to proceed when a ship looses power and must rely on emergency generators, which happened aboard Costa Concordia.

What happened is the ship listed so badly at least half the ship's lifeboats were under water when the captain issued the order to abandon ship. Many passengers were at dinner, others were sampling the ship's nightlife and they couldn't go back to staterooms to grab life jackets and learn the location of their assigned muster station for boarding lifeboats. According to maritime law, all ships carrying passengers must undergo lifeboat drills within 24 hours of leaving the port of embarkation. Costa Concordia's drill was scheduled the next morning. (I hope the cruise line industry changes this to 12 hours).

Several maritime experts interviewed after the crash voiced their opinion that cruise ships are simply too big. Costa Concordia is a fairly typical modern cruise ship. At 115,000 tons, she carries a maximum capacity of 4,000 passengers and 1000 officers and crew. On this sailing 4,200 passengers and crew had to abandon ship and, based on this disaster, the experts make a good point.

But you won't find any cruise line building small ships: The cost per passenger decreases significantly when they hold thousands of people. That's one reason cruise ships carrying fewer than 1,000 passengers are nearly all luxury vessels.

So I still say cruise ships are safe -- as long as the Captain doesn't decide to override the ship's computers and change course so passengers get a better view. And as long as the incredible technology doesn't break down.

Anne Campbell owns ShipCritic Blog