When a large passenger ship meets with disaster, that event becomes the only thing the ship will forever be known for in the minds of the public. Such will be the case with the COSTA CONCORDIA, which at the time of her launch was the largest Italian cruise ship in history. While a spectacular shipwreck within sight of hundreds of camera lenses turned out to be this vessel’s fate, there is no arguing that this was a very significant ship for other important reasons.
The COSTA CONCORDIA was ordered in January, 2004 as a bigger, modified version of the 102,587 gross ton COSTA FORTUNA and COSTA MAGICA which entered service in 2003 and 2004 respectively. The newest vessel would be the name ship of the “Costa Concordia Class” of five nearly identical 114,147 gross ton ships that would carry approximately 300 more passengers than their predecessors. Based on double-occupancy the latest Costa entrant would carry 3,004 passengers and a crew of over 1,000. At full capacity there could be up to 3,780 passengers aboard occupying the 1,502 staterooms. The overall length of the ship is 952 feet (290.2 meters), a beam of 116 feet (35.5 meters) and a draft of over 26 feet (8.2 meters). The newer Costa ships are based on a common platform as vessels in parent company Carnival Cruise Line’s fleet. The same basic design for the COSTA CONCORDIA, originated with the CARNIVAL CONQUEST class of ships beginning in 2002.
The rapid pace of building is well illustrated by the large number of ships delivered by Italy’s Fincantieri shipyards during the decade from 2002 to 2012. For just the two brands, Carnival and Costa, the yard produced 19 cruise ships, 11 of which share similarities of design with the COSTA CONCORDIA. Among their many subsidiary companies, Costa Cruises and their affiliated Aida Cruises brand were the primary beneficiaries of Carnival’s new building largesse. The COSTA CONCORDIA entered salt water for the first time from the Sestri Ponente yard of Fincantieri near Genoa, Italy, on September 2, 2005. The floating out ceremony was somewhat unusual in that it resembled a traditional ship launch more than a mere move to the builder’s wet dock. Carnival Corporation chairman Micky Arison was present for the blessing which was performed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Archbishop of Genoa. An employee of the shipyard, Graziella Frisone, acted as Godmother. As she sent the ceremonial bottle of champagne against the hull, the bottle did not break. Widely regarded in seagoing lore as an extremely unlucky omen, another shipyard worker successfully smashed the bottle against the hull on the second attempt. On June 30th the largest Italian ship in history was delivered, followed by the official christening ceremony on July 7, 2006 by supermodel Eva Herzigova. Again underscoring the rapid building pace, the next ship of the class, the COSTA SERENA was floated out on August 4th and commenced her own maiden voyage in May, 2007. The third sister COSTA PACIFICA came along in 2009. As if that wasn’t enough, two smaller 92,720 gross ton sisters were ordered by Carnival Corporation for Costa, and delivered in 2009 and 2010. The final two units in the “Concordia Class” are brand new; the COSTA FAVOLOSA, recently christened in July, 2011 and the COSTA FASCINOSA, coming later this year in May.
The new COSTA CONCORDIA offered an amazing number of public rooms, spanning three full decks and portions of three others. The Teatro Atene showroom located in the forward section of the ship rose three decks in height from Decks 3 through 5. There were 13 bars, five restaurants and four swimming pools, the two main ones both covered by moveable macrodomes. The Samsara Spa staterooms and suites were among the first to provide “discreet and convenient access to the largest spa at sea.” The spa complex was located on the two highest levels, Decks 10 and 11. The midship Roma restaurant and aft, Milano restaurant were each two decks in height. Perhaps most spectacular among the many features, the Grand Atrium Europa rose through nine decks. Like all of the Carnival Cruise Line ships, the interior was designed by Carnival’s chief architect Joe Farcus. The theme was loosely based on the great architectural styles found in the cities of Europe up through the 1900’s. For example, there was the Grand Bar Berlin, Piano Bar Budapest and the Café Helsinki. An actual Costa-version of a Formula One racecar was placed aboard to highlight the ship’s Grand Prix racing simulator. While well known for including over-the-top design elements in the ships of both Carnival and Costa, Mr. Farcus on several occasions summed up his philosophy stating “The idea is to create an environment for people on vacation, allowing them to get away from their normal, every-day life, making even the shyest persons come out of their shells.” The interior decoration could never be mistaken for that of the classic Italian liners of an earlier era, but with its bold emphasis on primary colors and changing lighting patterns it certainly made a statement of its own. Carnival had taken all of the features that make them so successful with American audiences and gave the whole ship an Italian accent designed for European cruise passengers.
The COSTA CONCORDIA has the distinction of remaining on basically the same 7-day Western Mediterranean itinerary nearly her entire career. That first season in 2006, the normal route took the ship from Civitavecchia, the seaport for Rome, to Savona, Italy, the Spanish ports of Barcelona and Palma De Mallorca, then on to Tunis, Tunisia, Valletta, Malta and Palermo in Sicily. Following the inaugural cruise, a special 9-night voyage on July 14th found the ship sailing out of the Strait of Gibraltar as far west as Lisbon, Portugal, also visiting a number of Spanish ports. That first season, the only other exceptions to the norm were several 10 and 11-night cruises visiting Egypt, Cyprus and Greece during the winter holidays. The 7-day itinerary was repeated in subsequent years, however for the 2010 season Barcelona became the primary embarkation port instead of Rome which was dropped along with the call at Malta. In its place, Marseille, France was added as French passengers came aboard in increasing numbers. Guests could also embark at Savona upon request. For many years, the Mediterranean was not considered a year-round cruising destination. It could be cold and stormy almost any time other than mid-summer, and especially during the winter months. During the winter of 2009/2010 the ship which rarely ventured out of the Mediterranean Sea crossed the south Atlantic for a series of cruises within Brazil. Embarking passengers at Santos, a typical 7-night itinerary visited Rio De Janeiro followed by a day at sea, then Salvador de Bahia, the southern resort city of Ilheus, another sea day, then a stop at Ilhabela (translation Beautiful Island) before returning to Santos; All Brazilian ports. Back to the Mediterranean, for the current 2011/2012 season the COSTA CONCORDIA once again offered a weekly Western route including Civitavecchia, Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Caligari, and Palermo. The majority of passengers originated in Italy, although it was certainly a international passenger list with large numbers of German and French passengers aboard, along with British, Spanish, North and South Americans, Australians and even South Koreans. All told, 39 nationalities were represented among the passengers. The crew was also a multinational mix with the majority originating in the Philippines, India and Indonesia. At the time of the final voyage, the COSTA CONCORDIA might embark passengers at up to four ports along the itinerary. This may have contributed to some of the confusion that has arisen regarding the lifeboat drills, or lack of. Most of the cruise lines sailing from the United States conduct an emergency drill just prior to departure from port, or shortly thereafter. In Europe the drill is frequently conducted the following day, but still within 24 hours of sailing. Normally, drills are conducted along the way only for those passengers that embarked at a transit port the previous day. On her final voyage, the COSTA CONCORDIA had sailed from Civitavecchia, on Friday, January 13th only a little over two hours before disaster struck.
When the grounding first occurred that Friday evening it was widely speculated that a technical problem had caused the electrical systems to falter, possibly putting the ship off course and plunging parts of the interior into darkness. Italian Prosecutors quickly ruled that out saying the captain was on the bridge at the time of the incident and had “made a grave error.” In a television interview the CEO of Costa Crociere, Pier Luigi Fosci squarely placed the blame on the ship’s master, stating “The captain decided to change the route and he went into a water he did not know in advance.” An earlier statement from the cruise line noted, “The route of the vessel appears to have been too close to the shore, and the captain’s judgment in handling the emergency appears to have not followed standard Costa procedures.” By the captain’s own admission, he was maneuvering the ship in “touristic navigation” although it would not have been for the benefit of the passengers onboard who could not see much of the island in the darkness. On a number of previous occasions (at least four according to records and a statement from the captain) the COSTA CONCORDIA was brought close to shore, showing off the brightly lit ship for retired Captain Mario Palombo, a native of Giglio and a legend among Italian sea captains. Captain Schettino was on the telephone with Captain Palombo at the time of the accident. In addition, reports say the family of the ship’s Maitre d’ also reside on Giglio. The normal shipping lanes lie approximately five miles offshore. An Italian prosecutor has indicated the ship was only 150 meters from shore at the time of the grounding. Captain Schettino claims he was 300 meters from the shoreline. That is equal to 328 yards or 984 feet, only slightly greater than the length of the COSTA CONCORDIA itself. That was obviously too close to the Le Scole Reef which is well-marked on charts. Captain Schettino insists the rocks he hit were not indicated. Speaking on Italian television, he said “On the nautical chart, it was marked just as water. We were navigating approximately 300 meters from the rocks. There shouldn’t have been such a rock. On the nautical chart it indicated that there was water deep below.” He added “we were the last ones to leave the ship,” which was an untrue statement as there were at least 100 and possibly as many as 300 still onboard waiting to be evacuated. He later revised that saying as the ship listed he was “catapulted into the sea” and in another version he tripped and fell into a lifeboat when the vessel heeled to over 60 degrees.
Captain Francesco Schettino had been with Costa since 2002 beginning as a safety officer. He was promoted to captain in 2006. This was his first accident. The 52-year old captain comes from Meta di Sorrento, a village with deep maritime traditions. Several cruise and ferry captains hail from there. Captain Schettino was arrested and charged with the serious crimes of causing a shipwreck, manslaughter and abandoning his ship. First officer, Ciro Ambrosio was also placed under arrest. With the rapidly growing size of international cruise fleets and the size ships that make up the bulk of the tonnage, finding enough competent crew to provide good service has been an increasing problem. To a lesser extent, the same holds true for the position of captain. With the smaller fleets of the recent past, it would have been unheard of for a ship master with just over five years experience to be given command of a passenger ship of over 114,000 gross tons. Within the Carnival group, sister company Holland America Line does not have enough Dutch sea captains to man their 15 ship fleet, so has turned to Great Britain for some of their senior officers. Even a few Americans are now finding their way to the top position aboard foreign registered cruise ships. Costa’s 2012 fleet would number 16 ships if the COSTA CONCORDIA were included.
A partial timeline of events can be assembled from the known facts. The COSTA CONCORDIA struck rocks off Isola del Giglio at approximately 9:42pm, the speed when it hit the rocks, 15.5 knots. Late sitting passengers were finishing up dinner in the restaurants. Guests from the early sitting were enjoying the bars and lounges while many were in the showroom watching a magic show. There was a boom or banging sound and the lights went out. Staff announced that it was an electrical failure. Pier Luigi Fosci stated that Costa headquarters was in touch with the ship at 10:05pm but could not access the gravity of the situation because the captain’s conversation “did not correspond to the truth.” He said there were problems but did not mention hitting rocks. At 10:12pm the Italian Coast Guard contacted the ship after being alerted by calls from passengers to shore, but was told “it’s all okay, it’s just a blackout, we’re taking care of the situation.” By 10:30pm after a repeated call from the Coast Guard, the captain agreed to send out a distress call. Twelve minutes later and exactly an hour after the collision, authorities were finally told that the problems began with striking the rocks. When the ship hit, it veered sharply to the right. Most reports indicate the captain continued to bring the ship around to starboard in a circle heading back toward the island. By this point time the ship was listing 20 degrees. The order to abandon ship was not given until 10:50pm. Some people were jumping into the sea attempting to swim to the island while others assembled at their lifeboat stations along Deck 3. Had the order to leave the ship been given earlier all passengers should have been able to evacuate in less than an hour with the ship upright. Nearing midnight, the list had increased to such a degree that the port lifeboats could no longer be lowered. Sometime between 11:30pm and 11:40pm, Captain Schettino was reportedly seen getting into a lifeboat. Dominica Cemortan, described as a 25-year old former hostess and friend of the captain, claims she was on the bridge until 11:50pm when Schettino ordered her to “go down to the third deck and get into a lifeboat that could take more people.” She said she was brought to the bridge because she speaks five languages and was asked by the captain to translate announcements from Italian into Russian. Until the call to abandon ship, the message she repeatedly was asked to deliver was “Passengers should return to their cabins because it is just a power failure.” Her claim is that the captain did not leave the bridge until sometime after midnight. What is known is that at 12:40am, Captain Schettino told the Coast Guard “I’m coordinating the rescue” when he was in fact in a lifeboat. The Coast Guard official tells him “You’re in a lifeboat? Get back on your ship immediately.” The captain was later seen wandering onshore and had a heated exchange with the Coast Guard over leaving his command. With the ship abandoned, the Coast Guard took over the rescue operation at 12:50am. Most of the passengers and remaining crew were off the ship by 1:30am, with the last that could evacuate, leaving before 3:00am. During the night, the COSTA CONCORDIA rolled over onto her starboard side, nearly half submerged, just outside the entrance to Giglio Harbor on Gabbianara Point.
Beyond the human tragedy and the long-term repercussions in the maritime world, the financial impact of this disaster will be substantial. On the Monday following the wreck, when the British stock markets opened, shares of Carnival Corporation & plc, fell by over 20% representing the loss of 1 billion pounds in market value. They closed the day down 17.04%. The United States markets reopened on Tuesday following the Martin Luther King holiday when stocks sank by 14.2%. Carnival’s own analysts say the incident will impact 2012 earnings by $85 to $95 million, but acknowledges that their profits could suffer more than $100 million for the fiscal year which ends on November 30th. Carnival’s insurance policy on the COSTA CONCORDIA carries a $30 million deductible. In addition, their third party personal injury liability coverage has another $10 million deductible. All told the insurers are expecting to face $512 million in total costs. At least two major financial groups downgraded their ratings of Carnival stocks. Analysts warned that the disaster could hurt bookings at a crucial time of year, the January through March peak sales period, reduce the company’s capacity and lead to an avalanche of lawsuits. For their part, statements coming from Carnival, at least initially, seem to indicate that they expect the ship to return someday: “The vessel is expected to be out of service for the remainder of our current fiscal year, if not longer,” said the cruise line. “In addition, the company anticipates other costs to the business that are not possible to determine at this time.” If COSTA CONCORDIA were to rise from the seabed the question becomes what passengers would be anxious to book a cruise on the now infamous ship and what division of the company would the repaired vessel be handed over to? Both may be moot points if the half-sunken hulk slides off the rocks and sinks to the bottom. The most likely scenario is that the doomed ship will be abandoned to the insurance underwriters as a total constructive loss.
We now know that there were 3,216 passengers and 1,013 crew members aboard the COSTA CONCORDIA for a total of 4,229 souls. As this is written 13 bodies have been recovered while another 19 are missing and presumed lost. Considering the circumstances it seems amazing that more lives were not lost in the darkness and confusion of the capsizing ship. Investigations will continue and rumors will be replaced by newly learned facts. The COSTA CONCORDIA will become a legendary ship for the worst of all possible reasons.
Thanks to Martin Cox, Bruce Dake, Caroline Dake and Delbert Dake.
Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years. A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary. A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs. Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America. With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.