Russian riverboat tragedy highlights cruise ship safety

The Russian river boat Bulgaria went down at 2 p.m. local time Sunday about 450 miles east of Moscow. While the exact cause is unknown, it was reported to be raining heavily at the time, the ship was maintained poorly and a lax implementation of safety rules look to be contributing factors in the Titanic-like sinking of the ship. The tragic accident highlights good reasons for some of the strict requirements major cruise lines have for passengers.

The ship was overloaded

The 56 year old ship had 208 people on board including 25 unregistered passengers and not enough life vests in Russia’s worst river accident in three decades.

“We have raised 41 bodies. There are 28 women, 10 men and the rest are children,” an emergencies ministry official in the central Russian republic of Tatarstan where the accident occurred Sunday told the Interfax news agency.

This is one reason why major cruise lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, etc) have cabins rated to hold a certain number of passengers. While double occupancy is the industry standard, a limited number of cabins on most ships will accommodate more, but not all. U.S. Coast Guard ship inspections put a high emphasis on safety and ships not in compliance with standards are not able to sail. Period.

Children lost at sea

As many as 60 of the passengers may have been children, Russian media reported, and survivors said some 30 children had gathered in a room near the stern of the ship to play just minutes before it sank.

“Practically no children made it out. There were many children on the boat, very many,” survivor Natalya Makarova said on state television. She said she had lost her grip on her daughter as they struggled to escape.

Major cruise lines tag children with arm bands and know were children are. In order to board ships operated by major cruise lines, strict documentation requirements are in place that must be satisfied or boarding will be denied.

The Moscow Times reports that thirty-six children who died on the Bulgaria all had the same birth date, Dec. 30, 1999, on the passenger manifest, indicating that they were allowed to board without their identification documents, said ministry official Marat Rakhmatullin.

Safety is an ongoing issue with major cruise lines who are constantly working to make ships even safer. Royal Caribbean, for example, introduced a tagging system on Oasis of the Seas for three to 11-year-olds that uses an electronic device built into the wristbands that all children on the ship must wear. The system enables parents to locate children wherever they are among the ship’s 16 decks reports the Telegraph.

Safety not a big priority

Lax implementation of safety rules are responsible for many of Russia’s deadly accidents, from fires to plane crashes and mining disasters since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Major cruise lines hold safety drills at the beginning of each voyage so passengers know what to do in case of emergency.

‘It sank in two or three minutes, very fast,” Liliya Khaziyeva, a spokeswoman for the Rescue Service from the neighboring Udmurtia region, said by phone from a boat near the accident site. “We found dead people wearing life vests, people who were simply unable to leave the ship.” reports Business Week.

Last overhauled in 1980, the ship was running with a malfunctioning left engine and was not licensed to carry passengers.

One possible cause appeared to have been a lack of air conditioning which prompted the crew to open portholes that were then flooded by an incoming wave reports the Moscow Times.

Lessons learned

History will probably write that this ship sank over safety issues. From overloading the vessel with too many passengers to relaxed maintenance or simply attempting to operate a ship that was too old, the incident clearly points out how very important these issues are and what a good job major cruise lines do of answering the call for safety.

Safety drills at the beginning of each cruise on major cruise lines are mandatory, ships have ample life vests for all guests and oversight by government authorities keep the system in check.

Today’s Titanic

The Russian incident naturally raises some serious questions. Are today’s cruise lines operating as safely as possible? Is it possible to ever have another Titanic-like event?

Major cruise lines have set-in-stone rules regarding documentation needed to board a passenger ship. The requirements are strict and systems on board keep track of every passenger coming on or going off a ship. Behind-the-scenes activities performed by everyone from travel agents to embarkation staff at the pier help insure a safe voyage.

Cruise liners today are much bigger and better equipped. At 46,328 gross registered tons, Titanic was the largest and most advanced ship of her day. Today’s largest and most advanced ship, Allure of the Seas, is more than four times larger and carries almost twice as many people. Big ships are not nearly as “remarkable” as they were in 1912. Shipyards seem to crank them out as fast as they are ordered. Cruise lines deploy ships all over the planet now without hesitation to move one if an itinerary does not produce the anticipated results.

This Russian riverboat tragedy looks to be a totally preventable accident if common safety and maintenance procedures used by cruise lines world-wide had been followed. It is also a good reason to pay attention during those safety drills performed at the beginning of each cruise. Yes, odds are your cruise ship will not sink, but its a good idea to know what to do in case of an emergency and maybe have a little more patience with cruise line workers who insist on following the rules.

Flickr photo by mil8