Saturday, January 14, 2012

Lucky to get away with it

To add to the questions already raised on the safety of the Costa Concordia, we read from the latest Reuters report that:
Passengers crowded into lifeboats, but the mainly Asian staff, few of them able to speak Italian, struggled to bring order to the evacuation. "It was complete panic. People were behaving like animals. We had to wait too long in the lifeboats", said 47-year-old Patrizia Perilli.
This is by no means the first time that there has been chaos reported during the evacuation of a stricken ship. Most famously, there was the tragedy when the liner City of Benares (see also news report – click to readable size) was torpedoed in the Atlantic on 18 September 1940. In total 260 of the 407 souls on board were lost, including 77 of the 90 child evacuees who were being taken to the safety of Canada.

Contemporary reports spoke of the crew rushing to the lifeboats, heedless of the safety of their passengers. In the last lifeboat to be recovered were approximately 30 Indian crewmen, a Polish merchant, several sailors, three passengers and only six evacuee boys.

In wartime Britain, there might be some excuse for hiring half-trained Asian crewmen to man ships, but in the supposedly affluent Europe of the 21st Century, one might expect safety-critical posts to be staffed by fully-trained and competent personnel.

There is a parallel here with hospitals, where foreign staff – sometimes with limited language skills - are put in charge of patients, giving rise to safety-critical communication problems, while indigenous personnel go unemployed.

Reports now indicate that the ship was four miles off course, and the captain and a crew member have been arrested. Yet, despite the reports of evacuation chaos, a spokesman for the Passenger Shipping Association tells us that, "Ships' crews undertake rigorous training, drills and scenarios for emergency situations including the evacuation of a vessel".

The corporates never change. With the Costa Concordia, though, one suspects that the operators have been lucky to get away with it. Had the challenge been more demanding, the casualty rate might have been considerably higher.