Death on the High Seas
Conant, Eve, Newsweek
Byline: Eve Conant
Thinking about booking a cruise? The crew may be unprepared.
Talk to cruise-line workers, and you won't hear much surprise about the chaos during the Costa Concordia disaster. "Those of us who've had close calls before knew it was a question of 'when,' not 'if,'" says Shari Cecil, a former merchant marine with Norwegian Cruise Line America. Cecil describes safety drills where crew members had no clue about their responsibilities--some were so nonchalant that they didn't want to take off their high heels when boarding inflatable safety rafts--and the crew would be handed safety-reminder "cheat sheets" ahead of U.S. Coast Guard inspections. "I passed them out myself," she says. "We'd even shut down the bar for crew so no one would be hung over." (A Norwegian Cruise spokeswoman would not comment on specific claims but says "the safety of our guests and crew is, at all times, our No. 1 priority.")
Former crew of numerous other lines say workers were often too exhausted to pay attention during safety-training sessions, and many didn't speak enough English to even understand what was being said. Reshma Harilal says that during her eight years as a stateroom attendant with Carnival Cruise Lines, parent company of the ill-fated Concordia, boat-safety drills varied in regularity, and she never once had a native English speaker conduct training. "We all got safety training, but even I had difficulty understanding the English of the officers who trained us, who were always Italian with strong accents." Carnival referred questions to the Cruise Lines International Association, which responded that "training must be conducted in a language that will be understood by the particular crew members."
Though most big cruise lines like Carnival have headquarters and home ports in the U.S. and cater to American travelers, they are actually "flagged" in countries like the Bahamas or Panama, staffed mostly by foreigners, and incorporated overseas--thus allowing the companies to pay minimal U. …