The Costa Concordia Disaster: An Opportunity for Revision of Maritime Safety Standards?

By: Sara Tracy-Ruazol

On January 13, the Italian Cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground when it hit a reef off the western coast of Italy, near the island of Giglio.  The collision left a 300-foot-long gash in the ship’s hull, causing the ship to list and eventually partially sink into the sea.  As of this writing, out of the 4,200 passengers and crew, at least eleven people lost their lives and twenty-one are still missing.  While rescue efforts are still underway, Italian officials are considering when to move on to recovery operations.

The Costa Concordia (Vancouver Sun)

Much criticism is geared toward the captain of the ship, Francesco Schettino.  Reports state that he intentionally deviated from the standard route and steered the ship perilously close to shore.  Once the ship had run aground, it took him more than an hour to order an evacuation, causing confusion and panic among the ship’s passengers and crew.  Reports state that the ship sounded its evacuation alarm only after several coast guard calls demanded the captain to take action.  To make matters worse, there are allegations that Schettino abandoned the ship before all passengers and crew were safely rescued, an act that is not necessarily a violation of international maritime law, but is against the longstanding practice of a captain being the last one off a sinking ship. Italy has since placed Schettino under house arrest, and he faces several charges of manslaughter, failure to assist passengers in need and abandonment of ship.

Questions have also arisen regarding about the crew’s preparedness to deal with such an emergency.  Diners were instructed to remain seated by waiters despite the fact that the ship was dramatically listing.  Once evacuation measures were taken, it was a scene of chaos and passengers stated that the crewmembers seemed untrained in evacuation measures.  Another passenger claimed that “[t]here were not enough lifeboats” and that those commanding the lifeboats were “not sailors but waiters who had no idea how to maneuver.”  An additional criticism regarding the emergency procedure is the fact that no safety drill was conducted.  This, many of the passengers were unaware of evacuation procedures.  Notably, however, this did not violate maritime law because a safety drill must be conducted within 24 hours of setting sail and the Costa Concordia had been at sea for less than 24 hours when it ran aground.

In the wake of the incident, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – the  United Nation’s specialized agency concerning the safety and security of shipping – called for Italy, as the flag state, to conduct a thorough investigation of the accident and to submit its findings to the IMO pursuant to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).  The IMO Secretary-General, Koji Sekimizu, stated that the IMO “should seriously consider the lessons to be learned and, if necessary, re-examine the regulations on the safety of large passenger ships in the light of the casualty investigation.”

The Costa Concordia disaster has understandably summoned more scrutiny of international maritime safety regulations.  One of the most crucial international treaties dealing with the minimum safety standards of ships is the SOLAS, which was drafted and adopted in the aftermath of the sinking of the RMS Titanic and has since been amended several times.  Another important treaty is the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (SCTW), which establishes the minimum international training and certification requirements for particular personnel on ships.

However, while the IMO established an international regulatory scheme, the IMO lacks enforcement authority.  It is up to IMO member states to incorporate the provisions of the international agreements into their domestic law and enforce the provisions through their own legal systems.  The IMO stated that in the aftermath of the Costa Concordia incident, it will take measures to review and revise the international regulatory standards if the Italian investigation reveals a need; while this should be lauded, the reality is that any review and revision will almost certainly be a long and slow process that could take years to complete.

In the meantime, it is possible that individual countries may take ad hoc efforts to revise their domestic law and ensure more stringent safety regulations are in place for their own flagged vessels.  However, the quickest and most efficient remedy for many of the safety and training shortcomings would be for the cruise industry to self-regulate and impose more stringent standards themselves.  While the industry may have previously been hesitant to implement stricter standards because of the cost prohibitive nature of those measures, one hopes that the Costa Concordia disaster and the damage the accident may have caused to the industry’s image will encourage it to take the initiative to revise its own procedures.

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