Analysis: Italy disaster shows Titanic lifeboat issues linger

Fri Jan 20, 2012 4:53pm EST
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By Jonathan Saul and Ben Berkowitz

LONDON/BOSTON (Reuters) - The capsizing of the Costa Concordia will pressure the cruise industry to address a safety question that has lingered since the Titanic disaster almost 100 years ago - how to get thousands of people off a giant cruise ship into lifeboats quickly.

Carnival Corp, owner of the Concordia, conceded on Thursday that the accident, which has led to the deaths of at least 11 people with another 24 unaccounted for out of its 4,200 passengers and crew, "has called into question our company's safety and emergency response procedures." A Carnival spokesman could not immediately comment on whether the company's safety review would include the lifeboats.

Veteran mariners say the Concordia wreck - particularly the problems the passengers encountered in launching lifeboats as the ship listed to one side - proves there are problems the industry, try though it might, still has not solved.

"The regulations rely on untrained and frightened passengers being able to deal with life rafts in the absence of trained crew members - including having to board them from the water," said John Dalby, a former oil tanker captain who now runs maritime security firm Marine Risk Management.

"The whole point of the Titanic regulations was to avoid what happened with her, and it has now happened again with Costa - that is, the difficulty, if not impossibility, of launching lifeboats from the 'high side,'" Dalby said, referring to the side of the boat tipped into the air.

In the wake of the Titanic disaster, maritime regulations make it mandatory for all ships to have a minimum of 125 percent lifeboat and life raft capacity, comprising 50 percent on each side of the ship plus an additional 25 percent available. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, they are designed to be ready for use within 5 minutes and to be filled as quickly as needed.

But all of that is for naught if the lifeboats cannot get into the water, or if the ship finds itself in distress in adverse conditions - late at night, in a storm or far from land, for example.

That was the lesson the Titanic first taught in 1912, when - besides not having enough lifeboats on board - some lifeboats did not launch properly in the ship's final, harried minutes.   Continued...

<p>Firefighters approach from the side of the Costa Concordia cruise ship which ran aground off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island January 19, 2012. REUTERS/Vigili del Fuoco/Handout</p>