Talk to cruise-line workers, and you won’t hear much surprise about the chaos during the Costa Concordia disaster. “Those of us who’ve had close calls before knew it was a question of ‘when,’ not ‘if,’” says Shari Cecil, a former merchant marine with Norwegian Cruise Line America. Cecil describes safety drills where crew members had no clue about their responsibilities—some were so nonchalant that they didn’t want to take off their high heels when boarding inflatable safety rafts—and the crew would be handed safety-reminder “cheat sheets” ahead of U.S. Coast Guard inspections. “I passed them out myself,” she says. “We’d even shut down the bar for crew so no one would be hung over.” (A Norwegian Cruise spokeswoman would not comment on specific claims but says “the safety of our guests and crew is, at all times, our No. 1 priority.”)
Former crew of numerous other lines say workers were often too exhausted to pay attention during safety-training sessions, and many didn’t speak enough English to even understand what was being said. Reshma Harilal says that during her eight years as a stateroom attendant with Carnival Cruise Lines, parent company of the ill-fated Concordia, boat-safety drills varied in regularity, and she never once had a native English speaker conduct training. “We all got safety training, but even I had difficulty understanding the English of the officers who trained us, who were always Italian with strong accents.” Carnival referred questions to the Cruise Lines International Association, which responded that “training must be conducted in a language that will be understood by the particular crew members.”
Though most big cruise lines like Carnival have headquarters and home ports in the U.S. and cater to American travelers, they are actually “flagged” in countries like the Bahamas or Panama, staffed mostly by foreigners, and incorporated overseas—thus allowing the companies to pay minimal U.S. taxes and circumvent many domestic labor and safety regulations. “There is a real absence of regulatory oversight or authority over the cruise industry,” says Jim Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board during the Clinton administration.
Yet the multiple investigations now underway into the Concordia crew’s handling of the disaster could change all that. “While I have every confidence in the safety of our vessels and the professionalism of our crews,” Carnival CEO Micky Arison said in a statement, “this review will evaluate all practices and procedures to make sure that this kind of accident doesn’t happen again.”
Those who’ve spent their lives in the industry say some answers are floating right on the surface. One is crew-to-passenger ratios, which have widened over the past few decades from an average of one crew member for every two passengers to one for every three, according to the International Transport Workers’ Fed-eration. Crew members work 12-to-14-hour days, seven days a week, for months at a stretch, with minimal time off. “Half the ship is working in a state of fatigue,” says James Walker, a former cruise-industry lawyer who now represents aggrieved crew. “All types of safety studies have shown if you’re really exhausted you can be impaired to the point of intoxication.” The mostly Asian crew of the Costa Concordia had been on an eight-month shift when the ship capsized after running ashore off the Tuscan island of Giglio. Accommodations were like the Titanic’s steerage section. Only managers had shared cabins, and the others slept in dormitory bunks.
“These are bean-counter dynamics,” says lawyer and author of Unsafe on the High Seas Charles Lipcon, who is in talks with several potential Concordia plaintiffs.
With Barbie Latza Nadeau in Giglio.