The Horror below Decks

Article excerpt

Byline: Eve Conant and Barbie Latza Nadeau

What you should know before boarding a cruise ship.

On the morning after the Costa Concordia hit a reef off an Italian island and capsized, cruise-ship waiters still in their soaked uniforms were separated from the regular passengers and loaded onto a bus, to be shipped off to separate hotels on the mainland. Before boarding, one employee from the Philippines named Miguel lamented to Newsweek that he'd lost everything on the ship. "We were paid in cash, and my whole savings from the last six months is in my locker. I was going to send that money to my wife and daughters." The waiter was luckier than several of his crewmates, five of whom perished, including Erika Fani Soriamolina, a young Peruvian waitress who gave her life jacket to an elderly man who escaped unharmed.

The rest of the 32 killed in the Concordia accident were passengers waiting for crew to lead them to safety. In April divers sent a mini-submarine under the vessel to search the lifeboat deck that is now, effectively, at the bottom of the capsized ship. There they found eight bodies, including those of Gerald and Barbara Heil, a retired couple from Minnesota, and a 5-year-old Italian girl who had floated to the top of the elevator shaft that led to the deck. "They were there on that deck waiting for someone to rescue them, waiting for a lifeboat to come back," the diver who helped recover the bodies tells Newsweek. "They had trust in the system, but it failed them. You try not to think of the horror when they realized no one was coming back for them."

With a Tuscan court set to consider whether Capt. Francesco Schettino should stand trial for manslaughter and abandoning ship, Schettino appeared in an interview on Italian TV July 10 and said he was sorry for the accident, explaining that he had been distracted by a phone call when it occurred. Schettino, who described the collision as a "banal accident" in which "destiny" played a role, denies the charges against him and said in the interview that others should share the blame because the ship was under the command of another officer at the time.

But it's Schettino's actions after the collision that will be dissected in court. As the ship was sinking, the captain called his superiors in Genoa, Italy, more than a dozen times and asked for helicopters and a barge--all while lying to the Italian Coast Guard about the gravity of the incident. "It's only a blackout" Schettino told the Coast Guard commander in a conversation that was taped and later broadcast. Meantime, worried passengers were flooding the emergency landlines, reporting that the ship was dark and listing; one passenger described how water was pouring down the stairs that led to the lower staterooms. The captain lost a valuable hour before finally pulling the "abandon ship" alarm. Meanwhile, his 1,000-strong crew was having to take charge with no authority to evacuate and little training. "The crew was given mixed messages. They knew the ship was sinking, but their captain had ultimate authority so they were caught," says Franco Gabrielli, Italy's civil-protection chief.

The cruise industry hopes you won't worry about such horrors the next time you're lured by one of those Internet ads for a $299 voyage to the Bahamas. "Obviously, I am very sorry it happened," Micky Arison, CEO of Costa Cruises parent Carnival, told The Miami Herald in March, his first interview after the accident. "When you have 100 ships out there, sometimes unfortunate things happen, but as I said, it was an accident. We as a company do everything we can to encourage the highest of safety standards." The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced new policies in April that spokesman David Peikin says "go beyond even the strictest of regulatory requirements" to include more life jackets in heavily populated parts of ships, and minimizing access of unnecessary personnel to the bridge (this later policy is thought to be a direct reaction to Captain Schettino's entertaining a female guest at the time of Concordia's wreck). …