Costa Concordia Disaster

01.16.12

What Went Wrong on the Costa Concordia

As rescue efforts hit trouble, Barbie Latza Nadeau reports on the final moments of the cruise ship that went down off Italy’s coast, the captain's fishy story—and looming oil-spill fears.

UPDATE 4:40 p.m. ET: The U.S. Embassy in Rome has posted photos and names of the missing Americans, Jerry and Barbara Heil of Minnesota.

Rescue efforts aboard the sunken Costa Concordia luxury cruise liner off the coast of Tuscany were halted Monday morning when rough seas caused the ship to shift, endangering divers and rescue workers who have been searching around the clock for survivors. Hours before operations were suspended, a male victim was found in an above-water section of the ship with his lifejacket on, bringing the number of fatalities from the Friday the 13th maritime disaster up to six. Three survivors have been rescued since the ship was evacuated in the early hours of Saturday morning.

cruise-ship-captain-cs
Francesco Schettino, captain of the luxury cruiser Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Italy's Tuscan coast, enters a carabinieri car in Porto Santo Stefano, Italy. (Enzo Russo / AP Photo)

In Genoa, Pierluigi Foschi, president of the Costa Crociere cruise line, held a press conference in which he blamed Capt. Francesco Schettino, 52, for “deviating from the authorized route” and taking matters into his own hands. He reserved judgment on the captain’s action until the company has access to the ship’s black box to study the evidence—but he conceded that “it may well be grave human error.” 

Schettino faces up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted of manslaughter and abandoning ship. He is under house arrest with the ship’s first mate, Ciro Ambrosio, who is also under investigation. Schettino’s lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, told an Italian wire service that his client was the last to leave the ship—even though local media reported seeing him on the shore as lifeboats were still making landfall the night of the accident. The local Giglio newspaper reported that some crew members urged Schettino to go back to the ship at one point during the evacuation. Leporatti says Schettino’s actions showed “great nautical skills and allowed many passengers to reach safety.” A judge will make a ruling on Tuesday about whether Schettino should remain in custody during the investigation. More than 100 crew members and some passengers have been interrogated since the crash occurred.

As the investigation moves forward, there is little doubt that the ship was traveling far too close to the tiny tourist island of Giglio when it hit a reef or rocky sandbar (one rock is still visibly embedded in the ship’s crumpled hull). Residents of Giglio confirmed to The Daily Beast that it was a regular occurrence for these giant ships to “buzz” the island. Giglio’s mayor, Sergio Ortelli, told The Daily Beast that it was a common practice for cruise-ship captains to “fly by” the island, flash their lights, and blow the ship's horn three times to greet friends of the ship’s officers. Ortelli said he didn’t know if that’s what happened Friday night, but he admitted that it seemed “probable.” Last August, Ortelli even wrote a letter of thanks to the cruise line for making the pass and delighting the tourists and residents. 

For now, search and recovery efforts have been hampered by changing weather conditions. Heavy sea storms are forecast in the area for Wednesday, causing concern that this accident may turn into an environmental disaster. Italy’s environmental minister, Corrado Clini, has called a group of experts to study just how they can prevent a major fuel spill. The cruise ship was carrying some 2,400 TOE (tons of oil equivalent) of fuel, separated into 17 reinforced compartments, but some fuel has already leaked into the Mediterranean Sea. “The risk of a spill for the entire area is extremely high,” Clini said. “We’re doing everything we can to monitor the situation.”

But efforts to secure the partially sunken ship are proving to be a logistical nightmare. Maritime-salvage experts have said they will eventually try to lift the ship onto giant balloons, anchored by cranes, but it may take weeks to put that system in place. Meanwhile the ship is vulnerable and could even drift farther out into the sea, making rescue efforts even more difficult. On Monday the massive wreckage suddenly shifted nine centimeters vertically and 1.5 centimeters horizontally, causing a scraping noise that sent rescuers scrambling.

Officials on the ground say there are still 10 missing passengers and as many as six missing crewmen, according to Luca Cari, the spokesperson for the fire brigade overseeing rescue operations in Giglio and Porto Santo Stefano, but Foschi refused to confirm an exact number, calling the situation fluid. Cari speculated that perhaps the cruise line didn’t have an exact list of crew members on file and that the discrepancy is the product of careless recordkeeping. Of the 10 missing passengers, two may be Americans. The American Embassy in Rome tweeted, “The US Embassy has revised the estimated number of Americans aboard the #Costa #Concordia down to 120, of which 118 have been accounted for.” It also confirmed it has helped 100 Americans get emergency passports since Saturday morning.

On Monday afternoon, an official from the German Consulate in Rome told Ansa News Service that there were 11 Germans missing in the accident, calling into question the accuracy of the reports.

What worries authorities on Giglio is that there may actually be more than 16 people unaccounted for. Many family members have come forward to report missing relatives, bringing the number of missing higher than 16. The discrepancies have caused anger and frustration among survivors, as has, in their view, a total lack of accountability by the cruise company. Benji Smith and his newlywed wife are staying at a hotel in Rome but on Sunday had still not heard anything from the cruise company. Smith told CNN that the company has not reached out to them or reimbursed them for their lost possessions despite their efforts to reach out. “It’s as if no one is in charge,” he said.

Residents confirmed that it was a regular occurrence for these giant ships to “buzz” the island.

Costa Crociere posted some news and a letter of condolence on its website, and some survivors and family members have created a Facebook page where they are posting pictures and comments and airing frustrations with the way the aftermath of the disaster was conducted. 

With stormy seas suspending rescue operations, the hopes of finding anyone alive are greatly diminished, and the mystery of why this giant ship found its way to rest on the rocky shores of Giglio may take many more months to solve.