There is lots of guessing out there in the wake of the COSTA CONCORDIA disaster. Here are my thoughts on the matter.
The initial accident:
First, there is lots of speculation on some sort of electrical failure or explosion which impacted the propulsion of the vessel. I think this speculation is merely the result of passengers being told this as an excuse at the time of the accident. I think that any electrical failure or ‘loud bang’ that has been widely reported was the result of the initial grounding.
Passenger statements that I have read all seem to lack a period of time between this alleged electrical failure and the grounding. Given the lack of time, for this to have been a contributing factor, would have meant that the vessel was in such close quarters that a mere interruption in propulsion power was enough to ground the ship. That seems unlikely. Also, given the damage to the hull, it appears that the vessel was traveling in a straight line when it ran aground. So for this theory to hold true, the ship would have been about to turn, to avoid this outcropping, or the vessel would have turned into a new course and then run a straight course, that resulted in the grounding. Again, not likely.
Some statements note that they hit something that was not charted. I do not find this a credible excuse if combined with the comment of a failure in the engine room. Interesting in that the passengers have come ashore with stories of electrical problems and the crew appear to be blaming the accuracy of the charts. I suspect that the chart just might have been accurate, and the crew miscalculated the real estate that they were occupying on the chart. The grounding itself is the cause of the electrical problems. Keep in mind that these vessels are so large, that the GPS mark does not tell the whole story. What kind of position display did they have on the bridge? Did it accurately display the vessel on the chart? Lots of coverage seem to view the final resting place of the vessel as where it hit the rocks, but my understanding is that the accident happened further offshore. The stories that the Captain wanted to pass close to the island are giving the impression that the initial grounding happened at the island where in the details it appears that this happened on the way to Giglio.
I see comments regarding the damage to the hull on the port side and that the damage on the submerged starboard side must be as bad. I suspect that the exposed damage is the damage from the initial grounding. The opening in the hull is massive and in some photos you can clearly see that the inside of the ship was open to the sea. At least large enough for a person to climb through. Open enough to immediately flood that compartment. Even once the ship listed enough to put the hole above the surface, the water that came in was still inside, denying the vessel the bouncy of that compartment as well as reducing the stability of the vessel due to free surface effect. I think that if there is damage on the starboard side, that it would have been inflicted later.
Concerning the evacuation:
First, despite all the complaints of chaos and difficultly in loading and launching the lifeboats, the port side (the high side) of the vessel is draped with lifeboat falls of successfully launched boats (It appears that boat 6 is still in her cradle on the port side). The Starboard side also appears to have gotten most, if not all of their boats into the water as well, looking at the photo below. Also, photos from the harbor show both even and odd numbered boats. For the most-part, the thousands of passengers and crew were evacuated from the vessel.
There were unfortunately some deaths. From what I gather, some passengers jumped overboard and some of them died as a result. It is unclear home many decided to self-evacuate. If the number of those who jumped into the sea turns out to have been in the hundreds, than I might have to re-evaluation my opinion regarding what I consider a successful evacuation. Now it might be that passengers ended up in the water due to the chaos of the moment and demands that woman and children go first. As far as that issue goes, I wonder who started that policy. I doubt is helped the situation at all. The goal should have been to fill the boats as quickly as possible to get them launched. The progress in clearing the deck would have helped calm the situation. Alternatively, pushing the men back would have just the opposite effect. Anyway, the whole point behind evacuating the women and children first off the TITANIC was the simple sad fact that there were not enough spaces in the lifeboats for all the passengers. This was not the case here. Anyway, looking at the photo above, I see lots of people eager to get off the vessel. I do not see anyone that I can clearly identify as crew. (I’m not saying this is a problem. I’m not sure I would want to be in that crowd. I would rather be either getting passengers into boats or trying to keep the ship afloat.) Given the number of passengers, how could that not feel chaotic? Still, they managed to find the boat deck, managed to remember their life jacket from their staterooms and aren’t all there with their carry-on luggage. Also note that there is lighting on the boat deck. The rest of the ship might be dark, but there is light here.
It is interesting that there are reports that the Captain somehow managed to abandon ship hours before the last passenger. According to this timeline at the National Post, the Captain was found ashore merely 25 minutes after the first lifeboat made it ashore. That makes me wonder if he was onboard that first lifeboat.
Just how did he manage to abandon ship so quickly? If true, regardless of his involvement in contributing to the initial grounding, his absence would be a contributing factor to the confusion afterwards, and perhaps even to the loss of the vessel. Which brings me to the question:
How did the vessel end up resting on its side on the bottom?
If the vessel was holed in only one compartment, I would think that it would have been possible to keep the vessel upright and afloat. This however would have required dedicated efforts from the engineering staff and damage control crew. Just how long do you think they would keep up their efforts once the rumor spreads that the Captain already abandoned ship and was ‘safe’ ashore?
The vessel remained afloat with a list for hours after the incident. So how did it end up on its side? The lowering of the lifeboats would have helped increase the stability of the vessel. Did the initial list permit water to enter the hull from somewhere else into an otherwise secure compartment? If so, wouldn’t the pumps have been able to handle this? To be clear, I think that there was nothing that could have been done regarding the holed compartment, other than to secure it to prevent flooding of other compartments. Or was the damage so great that it spanned more than one watertight compartment? (Can someone with access to the RENA website check hull compartmentalization as well as whether this was a 1 or 2 compartment vessel)
One possibility was that the vessel went aground again near shore, putting this vessel on its side. I would have thought that if it was clear that flooding was going to sink the vessel that they would have purposefully put it aground again to save the ship and keep it upright. The crew might have thought that would have been the result in the location that they were at. The outcome might have been different had the Captain remained on his ship. Even without propulsion, he might have been able to call in tugs to better position the vessel to prevent her from going over onto her side. It could be that there was nothing that the Captain could have been able to do. Who knows, maybe the crew was better off without him. Many of us know Captains like that. But Captains like that are generally not placed in charge of better ships. At any rate, this vessel seems to have lacked leadership at the moment she needed it most.
Certainly more answers will be coming over time. My guess is that the actions of the crew will generally be seen as a contributing factor to the number of lives saved. I also suspect that the actions of the Captain and whoever was the bridge watch officer are going to figure highly in the list of causes of this accident. As I write this over Sunday, I can already see the news stories turning against the Captain. I’m thinking it will only get worse.
I’m not one for criminalization of the seafarer. However, criminal acts deserve to be punished. The Captain’s actions are going to be difficult to defend, if it turns out that he wasn’t there…
Sign up for our newsletter