As the story of the January 13 Costa Concordia disaster unfolds, the spotlight has turned sharply on 52-year-old Captain Francesco Schettino who is said to have abandoned ship—or tripped and fallen into a lifeboat, as he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica—before all passengers and crew members were evacuated. Schettino has served as a Costa captain since 2006 and comes from a family of ship owners in the Bay of Naples area. People in his hometown Meta di Sorrento, where he was put under house arrest, have rallied around him, and 1,500 fans have supported him as friends on Facebook. The Concordia carried some 4,200 passengers; as of this writing, several have been confirmed dead and a score were reported missing.
The Genoa-based Costa Company was quick to blame him for deviating from authorized course while passing the islet of Giglio just off the Tuscan Coast. In a statement, the company pointed to possible human error on the part of the captain, unauthorized course deviation and mishandling of safety procedures. But questions remain about why standard on-board passenger security drills had not been conducted, and Lloyd’s List Intelligence reports that Concordia last August changed route to pass close by the island, a maneuver approved by the cruise line at the time, prompting editor Richard Meade to ask of the recent accident, “The company‘s account of what happened isn‘t quite as black and white as they presented originally.”
Costa disasters have made the line the butt of jokes about Italian navigation (never mind Amerigo Vespucci, Christopher Columbus and Giovanni Cabot, a.k.a. John Cabot). In recent years these have included a botched attempt in 2008 to dock the Europa during high winds at Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, killing three crew members, another docking accident involving the Concordia in Palermo the same year, and the collision of the Costa Classica with a cargo ship in China’s Yangtze River in 2010.
None of the earlier Costa accidents figures on anecdotal lists of history’s worst cruising disasters. Industry insurers and trade groups do not keep safety records, though a statement released on January 16 by the Florida-based Cruise Line International Organization calls cruising “one of the safest means of travel among all types of vacationing." Cruise Critic’s Carolyn Spencer Brown and other industry observers agree about the rarity of accidents at sea but continue to ask questions about Costa’s safety procedures. “This is a wake-up call for Costa, most particularly, but also for any other line that has slacked off on the nautical rulebook.”
I’m sorry to say I wasn’t surprised when I heard that the Concordia was a Costa vessel. In my family, at least, the line has long been synonymous with calamity because my brother was on Costa’s Angelina Lauro on March 30, 1979, when it caught fire at Charlotte Amalie on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He and his wife had gone to shore with most other passengers, rented a car and driven across the hills to the far side of the island. On the way back, they saw a header of smoke rising from a ship docked in the port—the Angelina Lauro, a 40-year old Dutch-made vessel that had been refitted for Costa. Stranded with nothing more than wallets, bathing suits, tee shirts and sneakers, completely unassisted by the cruise line, they checked into a hotel, then flew home. It made a good story, especially given that both of them were newspaper reporters. But after the ship was declared a total loss they spent years trying to get compensation for their belongings—they ended up being reimbursed for 50 percent of the value of their belongings—and ultimately cheered when the Angelina Lauro sank in the Pacific on its way to Taiwanese scrap yards.
Unlike the Angelina Lauro, the Concordia was a new, state-of-the-art cruise ship with no known defects. Which leaves two avenues for inquiry: the captain whose role in the disaster is already well-known, and Costa which has deflected heavy criticism, as yet.