Death toll mounting in new ‘Titanic’ disaster

Questions: Why so close to shore? Why was the evacuation so chaotic? Who is to blame? © Getty Images

One hundred years after the world’s most famous luxury liner hit an iceberg, a super-modern cruise ship smashes into the rocks. Panic and chaos follow. Is it right to blame technology?

To the terrified holidaymakers if felt like the movie Titanic. By Saturday night, the 4,200 passengers and crew had just had time to settle into their cabins. As dusk fell over the Mediterranean it was chilly outside but in the restaurant, where grilled mushrooms and scallops were on the menu, warm enough to wear an evening dress.

Minutes later the £372 million Costa Concordia was lying on its side, a jagged rock sticking through a massive 160 foot gash in its hull. In the gathering dark, chaos and confusion took over. Some jumped into the sea, some trampled over other passengers, some crawled up vertical gangways, and children clung to rope ladders laid over the wildly tilting deck. Helpless, untrained waiters manned the lifeboats, going round in circles repeatedly crashing into the side of the sinking ship. Everyone was freezing cold; everyone was shouting.

Today, the wreck is a crime scene, the death toll is mounting and passengers are still missing. How could a modern ship bristling with the latest navigation devices suffer such a catastrophe on a calm night, on a route sailed by the same captain and crew every week of the year, in seas that have been well charted since the Phoenicians started trading 3,200 years ago? How could the systems and back-up systems, the GPS satellite navigation, the depth sounders, have been so useless?

Or is it wrong to blame technology? Perhaps the real question is: how could so many responsible men and women, including the ship’s captain, have been so stupid and behaved so badly?

To the first question, some possible answers are emerging. Marine engineers are saying that a power failure could have temporarily disabled the ship’s steering. Geologists are saying that there might have been an underwater rockfall on the notoriously craggy Italian coastline, blocking the normal channel. Ship designers are admitting that swift evacuation of modern cruise liners is impossible: they have become ‘floating towns’, doubling the number of passengers in the past decade to maximise profits.

Women and children first

As for the final question: it is likely that some stories of heroism will emerge. But generally the picture is about ignorance and panic, people confused and lost, and the very opposite of ‘women and children first’ as happened on the Titanic. If integrity is how people behave when other people aren’t looking (in the darkness on a sinking ship) and true character is exposed in a crisis – then the Costa Concordia may be remembered as a low point of human morality.

Nonsense, others argue. Behaving badly in a crisis does not mean you are a bad person. Primitive survival instincts are overpowering and normal morality is suspended. Anyway, who are we to pass judgement from the warmth and safety of our schools and classrooms?

You Decide

  1. Should the captain of a sinking ship really be the last person to get off?
  2. Do you think the search for greater profit has made life more dangerous for many?

Activities

  1. Draw a map of the normal weekly route of the Costa Concordia including the main cities that it visits.
  2. Imagine you are a survivor. Write a short account for a newspaper of what it was like from the moment that the ship hit a rock.

Some People Say...

“If my life was in danger I would focus 100% on saving myself.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not planning on a cruise. So I guess I’m alright?
Not really. The moral of the story might be: ‘nothing, not even the safest activity you can think of, is as safe as it looks’. It is usually the combination of events that causes disaster. Investigators of Saturday’s horror are already talking about a ‘perfect storm’ of failures.
How risky is cruising then?
The FBI says that you are safer on a cruise ship than you are on American land. In general the cruise industry has a very good record considering the number of passengers that sail every year. The industry is tightly regulated. Yet there are always incidents such as the fire on the Royal Princess or the Melody which was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia or the Ocean Nova which ran aground in Antarctica.

Word Watch

Titanic
The RMS Titanic was the world’s largest passenger ship when she was launched in 1912. Her makers thought she was unsinkable. However, on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, with the loss of 1,517 lives.
Phoenicians
The Phoenician people lived on the Mediterranean coastline of modern day Israel and Lebanon during the 1st and 2nd millennia BC. They were famous traders and sailors, and established colonies as far away as Spain.
Women and children first
The principle of ‘women and children first’ says that in a disaster situation men must wait to help women and children escape before trying to escape themselves. It originated during the 19th Century, and was most famously applied during the sinking of the Titanic, when 70% of the women on board were saved, but only around 20% of the men.

Subjects

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