This is a look back at the Costa Concordia during a two-week period when commercial transportation gave the media a lot to report on. AirAsia lost an Airbus A320 with 162 people onboard in the Java Sea. The Norman Atlantic, a ferry, suffered a fire on the auto deck off the coast of Greece enroute to Italy, while two other ships, the Ezadeen and the Blue Sky M, carrying over 1,000 refugees, were also abandoned to the Italian Navy. Days later the Hoegh Osaka, a car-carrier, ran aground off the Isle of Wight; the Cemfjord sank off the coast of Scotland – without a trace of the crew. A Norwegian carrier, the Bulk Jupiter, left one survivor from a crew of nineteen when it sank off the coast of Vietnam.
The Norman Atlantic had 478 passengers on the manifest, but it’s still unclear how many people were actually on board. No alarm sounded, and many passengers were alerted by other passengers, or the acrid smoke in their cabins. Once on deck they were greeted by pounding rain, water from cannons used to fight the fire, and forty-knot winds. Survivors were lifted to safety in rescue baskets from Italian Navy helicopters operated until the ship was emptied.
Although more than ten people died, Norman Atlantic survivors were fortunate. The ship remained afloat throughout the rescue operation – not the case for passengers on the M.V. Sewol.
The MV Sewol sank off the South Korean coast on April 16, 2014. In that tragedy, hundreds of Korean school children were told to put their lifejackets on, but remain where they were inside the ship, to avoid increasing a list created by a sharp turn commanded by the crew. Incredibly the ship’s Captain reinforced the order to “stay put” even as he abandoned ship. Most of the students were found in the cafeteria when divers searched the ship in the days following the disaster. Now, Captain Lee, and eleven of his crew are facing murder charges in South Korea.
Traveler deaths in ferry and shipping disasters are far higher than those from commercial aircraft accidents. There are too many examples where crew-member instructions doom people who, left on their own, would have saved themselves. This is true for the next story too.
In January 2012, when the Costa Concordia ran aground off the Italian coast, Blake Miller was on-board. The cruise picked up passengers at several ports; Blake and his partner, Steve, boarded in Rome a few hours before the accident. Rather than provide a security briefing when new passengers were added, the briefing was scheduled for 3PM the next day.
As they passed close to an Island off the Italian coast passengers felt an impact and sought direction from the crew. Earlier that day Steve reviewed safety materials in their cabin and noticed lifeboats were mounted on Deck 4, but now the crew instructed passengers to muster on Deck 10 and to don life-jackets. Blake and Steve were already on deck 7, but had a nagging feeling that a ship that size shouldn’t have a recognizable list so quickly. Something was seriously wrong, and they both thought the crew should be sending people to the lifeboats. After a long delay they decided it was time to go, and without grabbing cellphones or jackets, left their cabin and moved against the crowd on the quiet ship to find the lifeboats.
On the fourth deck it was obvious lifeboats would be deployed – and many without enough passengers to fill them. Blake and Steve boarded the closest one. Within minutes they were told to get out since the lifeboat couldn’t disengage from the heavily listing ship. They moved to another boat and bumped along the side before falling the final 30 feet into the ocean.
In the water they saw people in a small raft who had jumped from the ship, and they watched as more lifeboats were lowered. Unfortunately, by the time abandon ship was called an hour after the disaster, lifeboats on the Port side, the high-side, could not swing free of the ship and lowering them safely was impossible.
I asked Blake if their decision to ignore crew-member instructions saved their lives, he replied, “No, not in this case, but most of the passengers on Deck 10 had to rappel down the side of the ship and jump into rafts in the ocean, or wait to be rescued by helicopter. Many were still waiting on board until after midnight.”
An accident in open-water might have had a different outcome. When the Costa Concordia rolled onto it’s side, the island prevented it from sinking. Blake’s experience demonstrates how powerful intuition can be to save us from harm. He and Steve overcame self-doubt and denial, but they also ignored ill-informed instructions from the ship’s crew.
Those were two powerful forces working against them – conscious denial slowed their progress towards the lifeboats, even as intuition told them they were in danger, but the crew slowed their self-rescue too. Authority figures gave them the wrong instructions. Blake’s skepticism, and a wind that caused the ship to shift to it’s other side convinced Blake that it was time to go. Steve was already there, but their actions demonstrate that when our conscious brains, and authorities take over, we can be slow to take life-saving action in our own defense.