Questions loom over Costa Concordia disaster
By Bart Jansen, USA TODAYUpdated 3
Why the cruise ship Costa Concordia capsized remains a mystery to world maritime and salvage experts two weeks after the tragedy that left 16 people dead and 16 still missing.
The state-of-the-art ship carrying 4,200 passengers and crew struck rocks off Italy's Tuscan island of Giglio on Jan. 13, opening a 160-foot hole in its side.
Experts on ships and salvage have questions about how that tear turned into the worst cruise ship disaster of recent times. Chief among them:
•Why did the ship partially sink? Modern cruise ships are designed to remain afloat even after two of their water-tight compartments are breached, says Richard Pellew, who inspects cruise ships for the United Kingdom's Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
If the gash exposed three compartments or if the crew didn't properly seal them, he and others say, flooding could have spread and capsized the vessel.
"Any vessel that has such a collision could lose the game if response actions by the crew failed or were unorganized," says Anthony Davis, a retired Coast Guard officer .
•Why did the ship roll on its right, or starboard side, when the gash in vessel was on the left, or port, side? In addition to a possible failure of the water-tight compartments, wind, currents and maneuvering of the ship could tilt the wounded vessel away from the damage, says Dracos Vassalos, professor of maritime safety at Britain's University of Strathclyde.
"The internal architecture of cruise ships is so complex that even with the same effects being accounted for in say experiments, computer simulations or indeed in real life accidents, we could potentially see a different outcome every time we simulate the accident," Vassalos says.
•Why did the captain, Francesco Schettino, run the ship aground after it was breached? Maritime experts say that's a captain's judgment call, based on how fast water is coming aboard.
Even so, the grounding raises the question of whether the Costa Concordia was that gravely imperiled or could have waited for a tow to port.
"That's not an unusual maneuver," T. Black Powell, president of JMS Naval Architects & Salvage Engineers in Mystic, Conn., says of grounding. "Typically, you're not going to do that, though, unless you've determined that the ship is lost and it's going to sink."
The ship's severe tilt after being run aground complicated the evacuation because lifeboats couldn't be lowered from one side of the ship.
"The ship listed and was inclined to a degree that didn't enable us to use boats at the side of the ship," Pier Luigi Foschi, chief executive of Costa Cruises, told reporters Jan. 16. "The fact that the ship was listing created a very difficult situation."
The answers to these crucial questions about the Costa Concordia disaster may not be known until information from the ship's so-called black box of voyage data is released by Italian prosecutors, maritime experts say.
For example, if the black box recorded orders to close water-tight compartments, that could signal that the compartments hadn't been closed beforehand as they should be for shallow-water navigation.
Maritime experts say it's unclear when information from the black box will be released because Italian prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges against Schettino. The case must be resolved before any accident investigation would begin.
There's been conflicting information about Schettino's actions. However, he told prosecutors Jan. 17 that after striking the rocks he continued maneuvering the ship, before grounding the ship on a submerged reef.
The ultimate findings are likely to spur greater safety precautions, which some experts say are needed.
"Considering the number of individuals that are being carried, certainly this should be a shot across the bow that things need to change," says Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates maritime disasters in the USA.