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What Does Italy’s Sinking Ship Mean for the Cruise Industry?

January 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
At least six people died after a cruise ship capsized off the coast of Italy Friday. Ray Suarez discusses some of the legal and safety issues stemming from the disaster with longtime travel writer Rudy Maxa, currently the host of "Rudy Maxa's World" on PBS, and Richard Alsina, a lawyer specializing in maritime law.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: We take a closer look at the accident now with Rudy Maxa, a longtime travel writer, currently contributing to National Geographic Traveler magazine. He also hosts his own show on PBS, “Rudy Maxa’s World.” And Richard Alsina is a lawyer who specializes in maritime law and represents passengers in personal injury trials.

Richard Alsina, we just heard from Alex Thomson’s report that already the attention is being focused on the actions of the captain. Do oceangoing passenger ships have the equivalent of a black box, so the events leading up to that running aground can be recreated without using human recollection?

RICHARD ALSINA, maritime attorney: Most of the modern ships do.

RAY SUAREZ: So it will only be a matter of time until we’re able to piece together the events that led up to this incident?

RICHARD ALSINA: Yeah. The Concordia is a fairly modern ship. So, they should have the equivalent of a black box and they should have recorded the telemetry of where they were and what was happening on the bridge.

RAY SUAREZ: Rudy Maxa, are — are these voyages becoming more risky not because of any inherent danger in the ship, but because the sheer size of these new liners means that, if something does go wrong, you’ve got to get many thousands of people safely off that vessel?

RUDY MAXA, “Rudy Maxa’s World”: Well, there’s no question that it takes more effort to get a lot of people off, as opposed to a few people off.

But the ships have life jackets. They have lifeboats to equate to the number of passengers. Just from what we’ve heard over the last three days, this seemed to be — I mean, first of all, there was no safety get-together. Every cruise ship, before it begins cruising, generally, before it begins cruising — I put that — I underline that — has all the passengers get together in an enormous — usually in the theater, and they learn how to put on their life jackets. They learn how to go to the lifeboats.

They are divided up into segments so they can go to lifeboats in an orderly way. None of that happened on this ship. And apparently the crew — I know a lot of the crew doubles as waiters and as rescue personnel. But in this case, I certainly hope they were better waiters than they were rescue personnel, because it seemed to be pandemonium, from all accounts so far.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Richard Alsina, are there international regulations, norms, standards? Often, a ship is owned in one place, crewed with people from another place, operated by a captain from a third place altogether.

Is there an international entity that says, this is what has to happen if something goes wrong?

RICHARD ALSINA: Well, what you have is SOLAS, which is safety of life at sea. It’s a convention that applies to all cruise ships.

Costa is wholly owned by Carnival Corporation. When Costa is sailing in U.S. waters out of Fort Lauderdale or the other places it sails out of here in Miami, you do have a boat drill. You do follow all the safety requirements.

Now, obviously, these folks were in Europe. And things may be different over there. But it doesn’t excuse the not having the safety drill before they set sail and explaining to people what they’re supposed to do. They run the bell, so you know what it sounds like if there is an emergency.

So if Costa decided not to do that in this particular incident, that would be deviating from the norm. Usually, it is done, and, under law, it should have been done.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the people who are acting as safety officers, herding the crew from one place to another, are they mariners, or are they members of the staff, cooks, waiters, entertainers, other kinds of people who are on board ship?

RICHARD ALSINA: The officers tend to be professional mariners.

Anyone underneath an officer, anyone not a rank is usually a land-based person who got a job with a cruise ship because they tend to pay better salaries than what these people can accomplish in their own countries. They are given basic training. And they all double in their jobs.

Your cabin steward will also be directing you to your lifeboat and telling you what to do, as will your waiter, as will everybody else on that ship.

RAY SUAREZ: Rudy Maxa, if you want to shop safety when you’re shopping a cruise, is there any way to compare one company to another, its records to another company’s record of performance at sea?

RUDY MAXA: I don’t know if there’s a website that I can quote that tells you how to do that.

But there are certainly — given the access now through the Internet, you can certainly put in ships. You know, some ships change entire companies. You may hear about a ship going out of service on say one of the Carnival Cruise Lines’ lines. It can appear then suddenly sailing in the Baltic or the Mediterranean under a different flag, with different colors, a different paint job, a different crew in another.

So, it’s not easy for the average cruiser, the average cruise passenger to trace the history of a ship, and certainly not to trace the history of captains. This captain’s career is obviously over. And most would be in this case. So, no, there’s not really one definitive place you go that ranks safety, as you might do with airlines, for example.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard, the company is calling them heroes, but there are scathing reviews from passengers about the behavior of the crew.

As they try to nail down the cause of the accident, will there also be, as part of the investigation, a review of the safety procedures taken and who was in charge?

RICHARD ALSINA: Well, if we were here in the United States, the answer would be a definite yes under the NTSB and the other organizations that, you know, analyze accidents here in the U.S.

Because, again, you’re in Europe, you’re in Italy, I don’t know how thorough they’re going to be. Costa is an Italian corporation. I don’t know how connected they are to the government. I mean, we all know what happened here when the cruise lines were being investigated by Congress.

When American Hawaiian went under after 9/11 and NCL started sailing ships out there, they petitioned Congress to be able to have a 50 percent foreign crew, which had never existed before in U.S. waters, and Congress gave it to them.

So there is very close connection between governments and cruise ships. They make an incredible amount of money. They have very huge lobbies. And that’s here in the U.S. So, in places like Italy, I would not be surprised if things don’t turn out the way we would want them to and are not as crystal clear as they would be if the investigation was done here.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Rudy, to close, even though the pictures are horrifying, and if you put yourself in those passengers’ places, it must have been an awful night, it is important to remember that more than 4,000 people got off that ship alive and well. And this is a pretty rare event, isn’t it?

RUDY MAXA: Oh, it’s a very — it is a rare event. It has certainly happened before.

I mean, I’m delighted that that many people got off. I think if they were not so close to land, we might not — we might have a totally different story here tonight. And I’m hoping — to pick up on your last question to Richard, I’m hoping in this case that the lawyers will do their job, if the government doesn’t do the job, as far as investigating what kind of pre-safety procedures there were or weren’t and all those other legal questions that I think are going to come up.

But, yeah, we got very lucky. I mean, the world got very lucky. Those passengers got very lucky they were actually so close to land. Of course, if they hadn’t been close to land, the accident probably wouldn’t have happened. So, as in all things — many things in life, it’s a double-edged sword.

RAY SUAREZ: Rudy Maxa, Richard Alsina, gentlemen, thank you both.

RICHARD ALSINA: Thank you.

RUDY MAXA: You’re welcome.