Friday, January 20, 2012

Last Man Off or "Don't Give Up the Ship."

It's been nearly a week since the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground off the Italian coast near the Tuscan island of Isola del Giglio.  News gathered since the crash indicates that the ship was "saluting" those on shore by pointing its prow towards the island when the crash occurred.  Apparently this was a common practice among captains for the cruise line even though company officials strenuously deny that claim.  So far every attempt has been made to heap blame for the ship's running aground upon the head of its captain--Francesco Schettino.  He is currently still under house arrest and charged with multiple counts of manslaughter as well as criminal negligence.

The death of eleven people in a clearly avoidable accident deserves an in-depth investigation.  Capt. Schettino also deserves to carry his portion of the blame for this crash, but there is more than enough blame to go around and not all of it should rest on the shoulder's of the ship's commander. 

Reports from passenger's indicate a woeful lack of training for the ship's crew who spent most of the time immediately following the crash denying that it happened and trying to entertain the passengers.  This simply reflected the reality that the majority of the ship's personnel were entertainers or service industry professionals rather than seaman of even indifferent skill.  No amount of training could have prepared this overwhelmed staff to abruptly change roles from floating hotel employee to boat crew.  Those with maritime skill were either in the wheelhouse of far below decks tending to the ship's engines. 

I wish I could say that this is uncommon, but it is not.  Years of working as a deckhand on fresh water ferries and tour boats in the United States exposed to me a very similar tale.  The crews I worked with were just lucky that nothing terrible happened to us during our watch. 

Captains were required to have extensive training to meet Coast Guard requirements but the crew had widely varying experience.  We were simply cheap and easily replaceable labor.  I had no prior experience on a commercial vessel when I started working on the water and tried to learn on the job the skills needed to help passengers in the event of an accident or mechanical malfunction.  We did have a few cursory drills.  Particularly to deal with fires or someone falling overboard.  Never was there a discussion, however, of what to do when the boat needed to be evacuated.  Such accidents were viewed, apparently, as unthinkable. 

One asset on the crews I worked with that the Italian cruise ship lacked was that we at least all spoke the same language.  This made it possible for us to communicate in the event of an emergency.  Costa Concordia's crew lacked not only the training but also a lingua franca to figure out what to do in lieu of an established and well drilled evacuation plan. 

Although I happen to agree with the truism the Captain should be the last man off the ship, it is not the main lesson to be learned from this crash.  Instead the Costa Concordia should force consumers to demand a better trained crew.  They are, after all, on a ship and not a floating hotel.  The gods of the sea demand respect and will have it with or without our cooperation.  All we can do is plan to meet any emergency that might arise. 

No comments:

Post a Comment