Eleven months after the cruise ship Costa Concordia grounded off the coast of Italy, the ship remains on its side. “60 Minutes” sent a camera crew in that brought out never-before-seen images of the surreal site on this “60 Minutes Overtime” web exclusive.
“You’ve got this giant thing that’s three football fields long sitting on a slanted mountainside underwater,” says “60 Minutes” producer Rich Bonin, whose story on the Costa Concordia salvage project aired on the broadcast this week on the “CBS News” website. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”
“CBS News” photographers used a number of unusual photographic techniques to get the shots including a hovering drone flying miniature cameras above the ship, cameras as close to the hulking wreck as possible.
The grounded cruise shipCosta Concordia may not be on trial itself but court proceedings began this week, looking for answers to what happened. More than 100 lawyers representing survivors and the families of passengers and crew members who died in the January event are on hand to plead their case.
The proceedings will be based on evidence from the ship’s black box recordings, navigational details and conversations recorded on the bridge of the ship. Making up part of the 270 pages of documents before the court is Captain Francesco Schettino’s testimony that his ship was not too close to the island of Gigio. Schettino maintains that he was simply following company policy to “salute” the island.
Thirty-two people died after Schettino allegedly took the ship off course and dangerously close to the Tuscan island of Giglio on the night of January 13. The ship then ran aground and capsized. Hearings this week will help decide whether to put Schettino on trial for manslaughter among other charges.
“We want to look him in the eye to see how he will react to the accusations,” German survivor Michael Liessen, 50, who was attending with his wife said in a ClarionLedger report.
Images of sinking ships aren’t normally the best advertisements for cruise lines, but after watching the Discovery Channel’s documentary on the ill-fated Costa Concordia, it made me want to book a cruise. And not just any cruise – a Costa cruise. Why?
I’ve traveled extensively in more than 50 countries over the last two decades on almost every imaginable mode of transport – cars, trains, ferries, planes and buses – but I haven’t been on a cruise since a family trip way back in 1985. I had a blast on that cruise but somehow in the intervening years, I acquired this fuzzy notion that cruises were for families, senior citizens and inexperienced travelers incapable of exploring on their own.
But after reading Pico Iyer’s convincing story, “Confessions of a Cruise Convert,” about the merits of cruising in Conde Naste, I resolved to give it a shot. With the Costa Concordia crash in January, and an engine room fire aboard the Costa Allegra in late February, it’s been a rough year for Costa. But while others were recoiling in horror while watching the NatGeo and Discovery documentaries on the Concordia this spring, I still wanted to check out Costa on my own.I checked Costa’s website and, sure enough, found some great deals. Prices for a seven-night cruise departing from Savona, Italy, aboard the recently renovated Neo Romantica started at just $399 for adults and $159 for children for a mid-April departure. The itinerary included stops in Barcelona, Palma di Mallorca, Valletta, Catania and Naples. I did the math and realized that we might spend more money on our own, staying in hotels, eating at restaurants and traveling by train around Italy.
I don’t take the safety issue lightly. Particularly because I’m traveling with my wife and two children, ages 2 and 4. But my parents have traveled with Costa before and had nothing but good experiences, and, in light of the Concordia fiasco, I guessed that there’s probably no safer time to travel on Costa than right now. What follows is a brief review of our experience on the Neo Romantica.
Safety. In the wake of the Concordia disaster, Costa now distributes red cards to each passenger that they have to turn in to prove they attended a security procedure briefing prior to departure. I had an opportunity to interview Salvatore Donato, the ship’s captain, and he was quite candid in discussing what went wrong on the Concordia.
“We are more than safe,” he said. “Safety for us first, before everything else. We all have families and want to go back home safely.”
Donato has been with Costa since 1990 and knows Captain Schettino, the Concordia’s captain who is now under house arrest and is facing criminal charges in Italy.
“We all know Schettino, and still, none of us can believe he would act as he did,” he said. “Every one of us, we are still asking ourselves, why, why. I think he lost his mind after the incident, not before. After he hit the rock, too much information arrived in his brain and the light switched off. The light switched off.”
During our cruise, we encountered some brisk winds and mildly inclement weather at times, but none of us ever felt seasick. In fact, the gentle swaying of the boat helped us sleep at night.
Moving past the Concordia. Our ship had a capacity of 1,800 and there were 927 passengers on board, with only 28 from English speaking countries. The majority of the ship’s passengers were from Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland, but we met people from around the world, and most seemed motivated by Costa’s prices. No one I spoke to was the least bit concerned about safety issues.
Jacomien Melis, a woman we met from The Netherlands, told us she booked her cruise before the Concordia sank, but didn’t think about canceling for a moment.
“You can crash at any time, doing anything,” she said. “Riding in a car, on a bus, on a plane.”
At the port in Savona, a family from Kelowna, British Colombia that had just completed a cruise on the Costa Atlantica told me that Costa sent them a letter after the Concordia disaster offering them the opportunity to cancel their cruise with a full refund, but they elected not to cancel and were happy they didn’t. They said their cruise had 1,600 passengers out of a capacity of 2,500.
Staterooms. The Neo Romantica was completely renovated in 2011, after a fire aboard the Romantica, and the ship was beautifully remodeled. I had an opportunity to check out a variety of cabins (see videos below) and I thought they were all quite smartly designed and furnished. The beds have memory foam mattresses, which are superbly comfortable, water pressure in the showers is excellent, and the rooms come equipped with brand new, 47-inch Samsung flat-panel TV’s. The toiletries they leave in the room are super high-end and the housekeepers leave ice and fresh water in the room every day.
Food. One of the advantages of choosing an Italian ship is the food, which we found to be almost uniformly excellent both in the main dining room and the buffet. Every evening, I looked forward to returning to our cabin, where we’d find that evening’s menu in our mailbox. I went a bit crazy, I have to admit. At most dinners, I ordered 1-2 appetizers, a cheese plate, 1-2 pastas, 1-2 entrees, gelato, plus another dessert, if I was feeling particularly gluttonous, which I usually was.
Our kids are extremely picky eaters, but the staff was willing to make them anything they wanted, within reason. The kids’ menus featured standards like hot dogs and chicken fingers but also gourmet items like braised leg of Spanish spring lamb and chicken Milanese.
As one would expect on an Italian ship, the pastas and gelato were outstanding. Potato gnocci, pumpkin ravioli and agnolotti with a Piedmont style meat sauce were a few of my favorites. The ship also has a pizzeria with Neapolitan style, wood-fire pizzas, at a cost of 7 euros for as much as you want.
Service. The mostly Filipino waiters and housekeepers are extremely friendly and outgoing. Diner in the dining room takes about 1.5 hours per night, a challenge for families with small children, but that’s what you get when you order 5-10 courses per night, as we did. If we ate more modestly, it wouldn’t have taken so long.
Ports. For me, Malta was a highlight, so I was happy we had a full day in Valletta. We also had a full day in Palma, which I was lukewarm on, and half days in Barcelona, Catania and Naples. If you don’t take the ship’s excursions, it’s hard to go very far from the port in Catania and Naples on your own without worrying you’ll miss the departure.
Entertainment. The floorshows weren’t my cup of tea but they had a few musicians that I loved – a classical ensemble, a flamenco guitarist and a blues/folk singer from Poland.
Room for Improvement. Internet access is an issue on most cruise lines and I found the speed on the Neo Romantica to be hit or miss. At times, it was quite good and other times it was practically unusable. If you buy access in three-hour increments, it costs 8 euros per hour, which isn’t bad by industry standards.
The only other issues I had with the ship probably come down to its size and concept. The Neo Romantica is Costa’s smallest ship, and that has both plusses and minuses. We found out after booking that the Neo Romantica is probably the least kid-oriented ship in the fleet, and indeed, there isn’t a lot for kids to do on board. They have a kids’ club, but it’s only open to children age 3 and up. We have a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old who’s almost 3. I’m told that the best Costa ships for kids are the Costa Favolosa and the Costa Fascinosa.
Conclusion. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Neo Romantica but it’s probably best suited for families with older children, couples and seniors. If you’re looking for a nicely renovated ship, with quality staterooms, great food and an interesting itinerary at great prices, it’s probably a great option for you.
A disabled cruise ship, the Costa Allegra, is now docked at Port Victoria, Mahé, in the Seychelles, and disembarkation of guests is under way. The ship spent an extra 10 to 12 hours at sea without electricity, air conditioning, or toilet facilities all due to the hesitation of a French fishing vessel. First to respond to the emergency, the French vessel delayed rescue showing more concern about securing their claim to tow fees. They refused to allow faster tugboats to take over.
Seychelles government official Joel Morgan told The Associated Press that Costa Allegra would have likely arrived in port Wednesday night local time if the tugs had been allowed to take over. Instead, the ship arrived mid-day Thursday.
“The Seychelles authorities are not happy about this situation and we would have wished to get the ship into port as soon as possible in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the passengers,” said Morgan, the Seychelles minister of home affairs, environment, transport and energy, in an interview with Newsday.
“We were in a rescue operation; the tuna boat arrived first. Then there are negotiations, as one can imagine,” said Nicolas Le Bianic, a French official, in Newsday. “Any assistance to people is free, not the case here,” he said. “Assistance to the boat, in contrast, is paid. That’s the rule of principle set by maritime texts.”
We suppose that makes sense and encourages other ships to respond in situations such as this. They know that if they get there first they get the tow. But it kind of sounds like an episode of TruTV’s “South Beach Tow” where tow truck operators battle to get to the scene of an auto accident first in order to earn the tow charge.
Different from an episode of “South Beach Tow,” though, passengers off the ship today will spend a week or two (their choice) at a luxury Seychelles resort, compliments of the cruise line. Passengers from an episode of “South Beach Tow” usually just get a bill.
Changes are coming for cruise travelers even though exactly what happened to force Costa Concordia to ground off the coast of Italy has yet to be defined by forensic evidence. Playing out as everything from rumors to accusations and first-hand reports from passengers actually on the ship, media outlets have been working overtime reporting the story. Some accounts seem reasonable, some far-fetched and some totally bizarre. But churning to the top and coming more in focus all the time are changes likely to be seen in the very near future that will affect every cruise traveler.
Thinking of what we know and have seen about the Costa Concordia event, there are some facts that we don’t need an official report to verify. We see a once-mighty cruise ship on its side with our own eyes and ask “How could this have happened?” That’s the big question that concerns cruise industry experts and will force changes in the operation of cruise ships in the very near future.
Technically, by the numbers, cruise vacations are safe. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, more than 16 million passengers sailed in 2011 and 2012 is projected to exceed that by at least another million. This type of accident is rare. But so was the sinking of the RMS Titanic, 100 years ago in April. That disastrous event served as a wake up call to an overly confident cruise industry at the time much like Concordia has shaken even the hyper-safe cruise industry of today.
“While I have every confidence in the safety of our vessels and the professionalism of our crews, this review will evaluate all practices and procedures to make sure that this kind of accident doesn’t happen again,” said Arison.
To insure future safety at a higher, more effective level, Arison ordered a complete review of safety procedures fleet-wide across all the various cruise line brands that fall under the Carnival Corporation umbrella.
“Any loss of life at sea is tragic, but the Costa Concordia disaster is even more traumatic since it was entirely preventable,” said Captain Bill Doherty, director of maritime affairs for Nexus, a provider of private maritime safety and security solutions.
“Safety is a journey rather than a destination,” said Royal Caribbean President and CEOAdam Goldstein echoing the position of many in the cruise industry. Goldstein notes the need to look for lessons in every minor incident or accident. Looking to the future, Goldstein cautions against complacency. “This is a never ending cycle. As our Chairman Richard Fain says, there is no such thing as perfect safety but there is such a thing as perfect dedication to safety. We strive to be true to that concept.”
A complete review of safety procedures will naturally come in contact with security issues that can create potential safety problems. Right after 9-11, the travel industry was on it’s highest level of security ever. Airlines, cruise lines, hotels, and airports in addition to governmental agencies put into place new protocols to help prevent a disaster such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center from happening ever again.
In the process, the cruise industry inquiry will probably run into other areas of safety and security that will force cascading change on areas other than lifeboats, safety drills and the like.
Changes to look for:
Safety Drill before the ship leaves the dock on every sailing- This is just a no-brainer after the Costa Concordia event where hundreds who had embarked the vessel the day of the grounding had received little if any safety instruction.
The modification or end of Navigational Bridge and behind the scenes tours- They went away right after 9-11 but have crept back in from one cruise line to another as a revenue source that offers an opportunity to cause harm that could affect a ship full of passengers.
Increased security presence on ships- Although rare, instances of binge drinking and other associated “I’m at sea so its OK” behavior will come under greater control with an increased security presence on ships industry-wide.
Tighter rules on teens- Teen rape, underage drinking and other associated problems with teen travelers are caused by an environment that inadvertently allows these things to happen. While cruise lines have a zero-tolerance for crime and drugs on ships, the very nature of a cruise ship environment allows them to happen. This will be a tough one to address but one that is overdue for action.
Passports required- The issue has been kept on hold for years as the travel industry moans that requiring passports for US citizens would prevent many from traveling. One step toward better security and resulting safety would be the increased level of security brought by requiring passports of all passengers embarking any ship, any time.
Background checks- Critics of the cruise industry point to a lack of diligence that allows sex and drug offenders and child molesters, required to register on land, to easily board cruise ships. Their presence creates an environment of easy prey as underage passengers are allowed to roam free. Once seen as the call of overly-critical cruise foes, the industry will give the topic serious consideration.
Psychological profiles of command officers- Especially if evidence confirms that the captain of Costa Concordia was on a joy ride to show off the ship to the folks on shore, this will be huge. “Captains ultimately answer to no one — on board,” Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic told MSNBC. The reasons are steeped in seafaring history, she said. “But I think that’s something that will change.” More checks and balances are needed, and Brown anticipate changes in the future as a result of the Concordia grounding. “A lot of standardization is probably coming out of this,” she said.
Experts agree, this can’t happen again, but questions are raised.
Done right, this increased focus on safety and security plus all the areas of cruise ship operations that are affected by both will be costly. Expect cruise prices to rise as a result. Still, wouldn’t it be better to pay $50 more for a cruise and greatly reduce the odds of these things happening ever again?
It was not all that long ago that safety concerns over trouble spots like Egypt, Mexico, Japan and others around the globe were driving travelers toward cruise vacations. Does this Costa Concordia tragedy change that attraction?
These are questions that will be answered over time as the cruise industry, still reeling from this latest event, recovers, regroups and moves on.