Costa Concordia Disaster

01.10.13

Abandoned Ship: New Book Details Honeymooners’ Costa Concordia Nightmare

On the first anniversary of the ship’s sinking, two newlyweds recount their trip through bureaucratic hell after the accident stranded them in Italy.

When 35-year-old Benji Smith and his new bride, Emily Lau, 28, were sitting on the outer hull of the sinking Costa Concordia cruise ship last Jan. 13—marooned in the waters off the Tuscan coast of Italy—they thought they were going to die. “It was at this point, with nowhere further to go, that we waited for the ship to finally finish sinking,” Smith writes in his new book Abandoned Ship, published to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the disaster. “I told Emily that I loved her. She kissed me. I sang her a song. We cried a little. With one hand each, we held onto the rope. And with the other hand, we held each other.”

By then the ship had turned on its side, and all the rescue boats were gone. It was quiet and dark. The light of the moon and a spotlight from a search-and-rescue helicopter glistened off the cold water. Smith, a computer scientist from Boston, and Lau, a classical musician, were among several hundred passengers—along with Lau’s Chinese relatives, who had joined them on the honeymoon trip—literally abandoned on the above-water side of the sinking ship. (They are the tiny black dots in a now famous haunting infrared video taken the night of the crash by the Italian Coast Guard.) “We could feel [the ship] moving beneath us, being sucked into the sea at an accelerating pace,” Smith writes. “As though pulled toward its doom by some enormous undersea monster with ten thousand tentacles and a voracious appetite.”

However bad that moment was, Smith says it was easier to face than what came later. “The aftermath was much worse than the abandonment by the captain,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “The captain is a fool who acted carelessly and then hid himself in shame, but we don’t hate him. By contrast, in the aftermath of the disaster, the institutional players—executives at Costa and Carnival, the U.S. ambassador and consular staff, media figures, and the United States Congress—treated us either with calculated indifference or deliberate exploitation. Unlike the captain, they knew exactly what they were doing, and they did it anyhow.”

Capt. Francesco Schettino and seven Costa employees are under investigation for manslaughter in connection with the accident. Costa firmly blames Schettino for the disaster, telling The Daily Beast, “We have no doubt that the professionalism of our company, as well as the ability of our on-board and ashore people to cope with this extraordinary emergency, will be recognized.” Prosecutors are expected to ask a judge to indict Schettino within the next few weeks on charges that include abandoning ship before his passengers and manslaughter. Five other crew members and three senior Costa Cruises officials may also be sent to trial in the ongoing investigation into the shipwreck.

“The aftermath wasmuch worsethan the abandonment by the captain.”

Abandoned Ship is the first English-language book to give a first-person passenger account of the accident. Smith tells the tale with honest reflection and frightening detail. Feeling feverish the evening of the crash, Smith and Lau were relaxing in their stateroom when they heard what he describes as “a slow soft scratching sound [coming] from behind us, like a pencil tip drifting across a page.” Then the room started to shift. Books and papers fell to the ground. “A paper-mache marionette I had bought in Sicily as a gift for my kids jumped from its shelf with wild eyes and flailing arms,” Smith writes, “as if eerily electrocuted.”

Many of the details of the shipwreck and the failure of the crew have been heard before in the countless media reports after the crash, but hearing it again from a passenger gives the terror a different dimension. Like when Smith and his family managed to crowd onto a lifeboat—which then failed to deploy. “We could feel the lifeboat swaying at the end of its ropes as we dangled high above the water,” he writes and describes the passengers’ screams as the boat was dropped several feet at a time and eventually pulled back to the launch deck. “The palpable sense of silent doom hung in the air among the passengers of our lifeboat as we climbed down the step ladder and struggled back onto the ever-more slanting surface of deck four.” They eventually made a rope ladder and lowered themselves onto the hull of the ship, now high above the water, where they waited for hours before a lifeboat finally returned to rescue them. They had no idea how close they were to land, and eventually they had to jump from the protruding hull to the roof of a rescue boat to reach safety.

Smith, who has three children, including a special-needs child, from a previous marriage, also poses many frightening “what if” scenarios in which he wonders what would have happened if Chloe, his 9-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy, had been with them. While the child can walk with a limp, he writes, “she wouldn’t be able to walk on these slanted floors, and she certainly wouldn’t be able to climb down a rope.”

Smith’s horror story didn’t end after he, his bride, and her family had reached safe ground. Once on Giglio, the island where the ship crashed, they searched for safety and warmth in the local church and the hotels, vying for blankets and morsels of food with the 4,000 passengers who had also become castaways on the island. They also searched in vain for a representative from the Costa cruise company, to no avail, says Smith, and eventually simply followed the crowds who were shuttled onto a ferry that took them to Porto Santo Stefano on the mainland. No one offered them any information or support from the company, Smith says. They had no idea what to do but follow the crowds. Eventually, he writes, they were shepherded onto a bus provided by the Italian civil protection agency, which dropped them at an airport hotel in Rome. There they were fed and given a room. Their passports and credit cards were still in the sunken stateroom, and with very little cash, they felt they were abandoned once again. Only twice did representatives from Costa come to the hotel, Smith says, but they had no information of value.

Costa says it was available to all passengers in the aftermath of the accident, but the sheer number of survivors made it difficult to give one-on-one attention.

When Smith phoned the American Embassy in Rome to ask for assistance, he says the couple was treated like second-rate citizens. While many other passengers from other countries were visited by ambassadors and their representatives at the hotel, Smith says, the American and Chinese embassies ignored them. He says the American Embassy would not provide logistical assistance and told them they had to find their own way from the airport hotel into the center of Rome, despite that they had no cash. A switchboard operator at the embassy’s emergency number suggested they “borrow cash from a friend” to hire a taxi. In the book, Smith recalls a conversation with an embassy operator the day after the crash, in which he pleaded with the operator for help: “Everyone we know in this country just got off a sinking ship. With nothing in our pockets ... can you send a bus or a van to come pick us up?” Smith says the embassy’s response was condescending and that he was told, “‘We are working very hard to help you. And let us not forget that this is a weekend, and we are not usually working on a weekend.” Other American passengers shared similar stories with The Daily Beast.

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A photo taken by Spanish passenger Carlos Carballa on board the cruise ship Costa Concordia shows passengers waiting to be evacuated on Jan. 13, 2012. (Carlos Carballa/EPA, via Landov )

When reached for comment, the U.S. Embassy in Rome told The Daily Beast that it was not familiar with Smith’s book, so it couldn’t comment on any specifics, but that it did respond to American passengers’ needs, especially in support of Gerald and Barbara Heil of Minnesota, who died in the accident. “The Department of State assisted the family of the two Americans who died in the accident in every possible way,” an embassy press attaché told The Daily Beast.

Things were no better at the Chinese Embassy for Smith’s wife and her Chinese relatives, says Smith. His wife had a green card on her now missing Chinese passport, but without the passport, the American Embassy could not give her a replacement card, meaning she could not return home with her husband—but because Lau lived in the United States and did not have a Chinese residency identification card, the Chinese Embassy would not give her a replacement passport. (Calls and emails for comment to the Chinese Embassy in Rome remained unanswered by press time.)

Frustrated, Smith and his wife’s Chinese relatives pooled their cash and took an expensive cab to the center of Rome. Eventually they got their passports, and Lau was given an emergency green card after a State Department representative reluctantly intervened, according to Smith, who says their treatment was appalling. “There’s nothing in our current policy that prevents the specific people who hold positions of responsibility from reaching out with compassion to the people who need help,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “We don’t need new laws as much as we need new people, people who give a damn about public service rather than just having a fancy title and hobnobbing with elites. We never got a satisfactory response from anyone at the embassy or in the State Department. Part of the problem is that nobody every held their feet to the fire and demanded a response. We the passengers lack the institutional power to do so, so one of my goals with this book was to reclaim some of that power and demand a response from the ambassador.”

In contrast, the U.S. Embassy in Rome told The Daily Beast that its staff did respond in the aftermath of the disaster. “Upon learning of the accident, the U.S. Embassy and our consulates immediately mobilized to serve the U.S. citizens aboard the Costa Concordia,” an embassy press attaché told The Daily Beast. “This included issuing emergency passports, assisting with travel plans, facilitating contact with family and friends, and providing emergency clothing.”

But the couple’s journey didn’t end there. Once back in the United States—thanks to tickets courtesy of the travel agent who booked their cruise in the first place, and not the Costa cruise company, which supplied them with tickets to Boston from Munich, with no ticket from Rome to the German city—the couple says they grappled with posttraumatic stress disorder, which manifested itself in different ways. Lau lost her voice and was unable to perform in scheduled concerts. She eventually regained her voice and wrote an album of classical songs dedicated to the disaster called “Isle of Lucidity.” She describes how each song came to be in haunting liner notes like, “One of the major themes of my PTSD was the temporary transformation of my personality from someone who was completely trusting and generally full of good will, to a much more suspicious and questioning person. I spent many-an-afternoon wandering around Boston, having these voices talking to me relentlessly” to describe how she was inspired to write “I Wander, I Wonder.”

Smith couldn’t concentrate on work and began having recurring nightmares immediately after the accident. “Sometimes the ship keeps sinking and we get stuck in a stairwell and the water rushes in and sucks us under and pulls us down and we hold our breaths for as long as we can,” he writes. “In my dreams, Emily dies. Every time. Sometimes I die with her, and sometimes I watch her disappear into the water without me.”

Smith and his wife have joined other passengers in a lawsuit against Costa’s parent company, Carnival, but they have not yet accepted a settlement. But Smith is hoping that the cruise industry takes some responsibility for the disaster beyond financial compensation. “Costa’s responsibility to passengers is to treat them with care and dignity,” he told The Daily Beast. “They abdicated that responsibility long before the cruise ship hit the rocks, with a kind of attitude that can only come from the top of an organization. In our view, the corporate leadership of Costa and Carnival bear far more responsible for this disaster than the captain of the ship.” Costa officials disagree, and say their employees—with the exception of Schettino, who has since been fired—acted appropriately the night of the accident, saving more than 4,000 lives. “Costa Crociere would like to express its complete trust and solidarity in these individuals,” said a company spokesperson, “being absolutely confident in their professional competence and ethical correctness.”

Smith says he’s not sure what dollar amount would be fair for all they’ve gone through, in part because the emotional journey is still in its infancy. “Maybe we would never accept any dollar amount,” he writes in the book. “Maybe we would only be satisfied with a full apology and statement of guilt from the captain of the ship and the executive officers of Carnival and Costa. Maybe we’d only be happy if the CEO was personally handcuffed and frog-marched out his front door and into solitary confinement for the rest of his life. We wanted them to know that they couldn’t just sink us in the sea or dump us on the street. We wanted them to suffer the consequences of their actions.”