Cruise companies would like passengers to think that the fatal wreck of the Costa Concordia off Giglio, Italy, on Jan. 13 was a one-off accident caused by a chain of human errors set off by the erstwhile captain, Francesco Schettino, and that the cruise industry is an otherwise safe vacation option. Maybe that’s true in theory, but try convincing the 1,049 passengers and crew of another of Costa’s luxury liners, the Allegra, who spent nearly 12 hours drifting through the pirate-infested waters off the southwest coast of Africa after an onboard fire caused its engines and electrical systems to shut down.
The fire was put out relatively quickly, and no injuries have yet been reported, but one can only imagine the terror those passengers felt, no doubt each of them recalling the vivid pictures from the Concordia disaster just six weeks earlier. As crew members worked to put out the fire, which Costa representatives say was contained to the generator room, the passengers gathered at their muster stations with their lifejackets in place, ready to abandon ship at a moment’s notice. The ship was about 20 miles from the nearest island when the fire broke out. But unlike the Concordia, which crashed in the relatively safe and calm Mediterranean Sea, the Allegra was sailing through the Indian Ocean where waves reach several meters in height and where sharks are common. Last summer, a British tourist on his honeymoon was killed by a great white shark in nearby waters.
Pirates, too, have plagued the waters for the last several years, commandeering freighters at gunpoint and demanding ransom. The limping Allegra would have been easy prey—and could still be, even with tug-boat escorts. In the last three years, several cruise liners have outrun pirate ships in these very waters after gunning their engines to get away. The Allegra even had an armed anti-pirate team of nine Italian military officials on board to ward off pirate attacks, a common practice that has become common on cruise liners off the African coast.
Late Monday night, the Allegra was joined by a French fishing trawler that answered an SOS call. It began the slow process of towing the cruise ship back toward the Seychelles archipelago, albeit at a snail’s pace. The Allegra, which is about a third of the size of the Concordia, still has no power and hygienic conditions are worsening. There is no running water, which means toilets are not functioning and passengers are unable to take showers or properly wash. The passengers and crew have had to sleep on the outdoor decks using their lifejackets as cushions. They were allowed to retrieve personal items from their cabins, but they are not allowed to sleep there because of the fire, which was directly below the sleeping decks. The ship’s kitchens have also lost power, which has compromised both the refrigeration of food and the cooks’ ability to cook even nonperishable items. The passengers were fed vending machine snacks and given fruit, bread, sodas, and bottled water while they were adrift, says the Costa company, but the food supplies were closely rationed until help arrived. On Tuesday morning, a helicopter sent by the Seychelles Coast Guard dropped food supplies and a satellite telephone and backup radios onto the ship’s deck. The ship’s crew was also able to use a battery-powered generator to offer limited lighting, which is especially important when night falls. The Costa Crociere company, based in Genoa, Italy, told The Daily Beast that the passengers are all in good health and that they were fed a hearty cold breakfast on Tuesday morning. “They are being kept abreast of all the developments and are being made as comfortable as possible,” Costa spokesman Davide Barbano said. Barbano also said that most of the passengers’ emergency contacts, which are given when passengers board a ship, had been notified to relay the news that their family members are fine but unable to communicate without Internet connectivity on the boat. “They are out of present danger.”
Still, it will take at least another two days before they reach the island of Mahe, bypassing the closer island of Desroches “for security reasons” because the island is unable to handle the number of passengers and crew. More tugboats are expected to reach the powerless ship on Tuesday afternoon, which should quicken the pace of the massive towing job. They should reach Mahe by Thursday afternoon and then will be either flown to the mainland or moved there on smaller, faster boats. From there they will either be repatriated or offered another cruise, says Costa.
For one mother, Jayne Thomas of Sutton Coldfield, England, the Allegra disaster is like a recurring nightmare. Her son James was a crew member working as a dancer on the Concordia. He was lauded for his bravery in helping passengers escape by acting as a human bridge on the sinking ship, but he has no intention of ever getting back on a ship again. In an odd coincidence, Thomas’s daughter Rebecca is a crew member, also working as a dancer, on the Allegra and has not been heard from since Sunday. “It’s just a twist of fate that unfortunately they’ve both been involved in two such unfortunate instances,” Thomas told the BBC. She has not heard from the Costa company, but assumes her daughter will be in touch when electricity and Internet connections are reestablished. "I thought it was a one-off and we wouldn't be going through this experience again. I really didn't think disaster could strike twice.”