Why Ships Sink

Are you safe aboard a modern cruise ship? Airing September 18, 2013 at 9 pm on PBS Aired September 18, 2013 on PBS

  • Originally aired 04.18.12

Program Description

Twenty million passengers embark on cruises each year, vacationing in deluxe "floating cities" that offer everything from swimming pools to shopping malls to ice skating rinks. And the ships just keep getting bigger: The average cruise ship has doubled in size in just the last ten years. Some engineers fear that these towering behemoths are dangerously unstable, and the recent tragedy of the Costa Concordia has raised new questions about their safety. Now, NOVA brings together marine engineering and safety experts to reconstruct the events that led up to famous cruise disasters, including the ill-fated Concordia, the Sea Diamond, and the Oceanos.



PBS Airdate: April 18, 2012

NARRATOR: Disaster at sea: as terrifying as it is rare for millions of people on today's ocean cruises, yet two tragedies,100 years apart, remind us that accidents do happen. A century ago, the state-of-the-art passenger ship Titanic hit an iceberg. More than 1,500 people died. In 2012, the cruise ship Costa Concordia sank, at the cost of 32 lives.

Statistics show that cruises are reasonably safe, but with ships now carrying thousands of people, might another catastrophe be looming?

NOVA examines cruise ship construction, design, and how captains are trained, all to understand Why Ships Sink, right now, on NOVA.

More than ten million Americans set sail on cruise ship vacations each year. This worldwide, 33-billion-dollar industry has grown fast, as have the ships.

JIM WALKER (Maritime Attorney): Some of the ships have 6,500 passengers aboard and 2,000 crew members, more people than my hometown.

NARRATOR: As this industry and its ships reach for the skies, is enough attention being paid to passenger safety?

Industry official statistics, citing just 16 deaths in the five years up to 2010, suggest cruising is safe. But since then, the tragic deaths on the sunken Italian cruise ship, Costa Concordia, raise new concerns.

Disasters are rare, but is the risk growing, potentially with huge loss of life, like the most iconic sea disaster of all time, the 1912 sinking of Titanic, almost exactly 100 years before Concordia?

The catastrophes, a century apart, reveal astonishing similarities. That raises the question: are the massive technological advances of the past 100 years enough to guarantee our safety at sea?

Such maritime accidents highlight important issues in ship construction, design and the training of captains and crews.

So, are modern cruise ships tough enough to withstand the dangers of the sea?

MICHAEL BRUNO (Stevens Institute of Technology): We'll never build a ship, large or small, to withstand an impact with a rock or, likely, with an impact with an iceberg, for that matter.

NARRATOR: Are cruise ships now too large to be safe? And is it too easy to ignore their complex navigation systems?

CAPTAIN RICK COMEAU (Maritime Simulation Institute): You're able to get navigational warnings; you're able to monitor other traffic; you're able to see how close you want to get to points of danger.

NARRATOR: And do crews have the training to handle dangerous situations?

JIM WALKER: The majority of employees on the ship are designed to sell food and alcohol. You have only very few true, professional mariners.

NARRATOR: Costa Concordia was owned by a subsidiary of the U.S. Carnival Corporation. It had a luxurious cinema and spa, five restaurants, 13 bars, four swimming pools—everything a honeymoon couple could have wanted.

MEGAN MAURI (Costa Concordia Survivor): This was pretty much something we both dreamed of, it was a beautiful ship.

ROBERT MAURI (Costa Concordia Survivors): Just the food, the sites, the sounds, the culture, a change of pace, just really looking forward to enjoying ourselves on our honeymoon.

NARRATOR: There had been no safety drill for the passengers who had boarded that day. International regulations allowed the obligatory, lifeboat "muster" to be delayed for up to 24 hours after leaving port.

ROBERT MAURI: Safety was, like, the last thing we were thinking of, you know. "Where's our life jacket," you know? We didn't think anything like that.

MEGAN MAURI: What can go wrong on your honeymoon?

NARRATOR: Friday, January 13, 2012: With 4,200 souls on board, the Concordia had just left port, near Rome. Approaching the island of Giglio, the vessel diverted from its prescribed route, apparently to perform a "sail-by," just off the coast.

Many passengers were at dinner, others were watching a magic show, when everything stopped.

NANCY LOFARO (Costa Concordia Survivor): We heard a very unusual kind of grinding sound.

MARIO LOFARO (Costa Concordia Survivor): Like fingers, almost like fingers on a chalkboard.

ROBERT MAURI: Plates were moving, silverware was jingling, glasses were jingling.

MARIO LOFARO: The music stopped.

NANCY LOFARO: The magician literally ran off the stage.

MARIO LOFARO: The lights went out.

MEGAN MAURI: We all just looked at each other like, "What is that?"

NARRATOR: At 16 knots, nearly 20 miles per hour, the 114,000-ton ship had hit rock.

Thirty-two people would perish, and the world would ask why.

That same question was asked 100 years ago, after the maiden voyage of another giant ship, the Titanic. The men, women and children on board, just like the passengers on Concordia, were also sailing into a nightmare. Four days out from England, heading to New York, an iceberg split open its hull. It sank within hours. More than 1,500 people drowned or died of hypothermia.

The ghost of Titanic still seems to haunt its shipyard birthplace in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Here, thousands of laborers built Titanic for the American-owned White Star shipping line.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN (White Star Line Historian): She is the 747 of her day: she's designed as a giant people-carrier.

NARRATOR: Nearly 900 feet long and 100 feet wide, Titanic was then the biggest manmade object to move on the face of the planet.

Computer graphics can bring her first and final voyage back to life.

The ship's journey was two-thirds complete, by late evening on April 14th, 1912. Despite reports of icebergs, Captain Edward Smith maintained speed to stay on schedule.

11:40 p.m., ship's time: Titanic was approximately 400 miles south-east of Newfoundland, a 45,000 ton ship, heading towards a massive iceberg.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN: This giant iceberg was a rogue. It had broken away from the pack. By the time the two lookouts had seen it and reported it to the bridge, it was too late.

NARRATOR: The Concordia and Titanic disasters bear remarkable parallels. Both cruised at speed into large underwater obstacles. Both hulls were ripped open below the waterline, piercing so many watertight compartments, that they could not stay afloat.

Could the quality of the steel used in their construction have been at fault?

The answer is being sought here, at the California Maritime Academy, in Vallejo.

Michael Strange conducts what's called a "Charpy impact test" on two samples of steel: one similar to that from Titanic's era, the other a modern-day sample.

MICHAEL STRANGE (California Maritime Academy): We install a specimen into the machine, that has a very special shape with a small groove in it, which focuses the energy into one location. The head is released, crashing into the specimen.

NARRATOR: The test measures how high the pendulum swings after it smashes through the steel bar. The higher the swing, the less energy has been used by the pendulum to break the sample, and the weaker the steel.

The tests reveal that modern-day steel is seven times more resistant to impact than was Titanic's.

This fits with earlier studies, showing Titanic's steel contained more sulfur and phosphorous than modern materials. These impurities can accumulate between the crystal layers of the metal and weaken its structure.

But the strength of a metal also depends on how much it stretches and deforms to absorb energy.

Strange stretches sample bars to their breaking point. A stronger metal will stretch further before it breaks.

MICHAEL STRANGE: We can see, in the bottom third, it is starting to narrow a little bit, and it has just about reached its failure point.

It is quite a bit longer than it was when it originated. If you look in the area between my fingers, here, you will see that it has reduced in diameter, and that area is called "necking." That is where the forces and the stresses are highest, right before failure.

NARRATOR: In this case, the sample that fails to cope with the strain and snaps first is the Titanic-era steel.

Its quality suffered, because the importance of controlling temperature during the smelting process was not well understood.

MICHAEL STRANGE: In comparison to some of the older materials, for instance the material used in the Titanic, they don't have the ability to absorb nearly as much energy as current steels do.

NARRATOR: Unsurprisingly, the metal of modern ships is more suited to surviving at sea than Titanic's. A more significant problem was the way Titanic's steel plates were connected.

After hitting the iceberg, Titanic stayed afloat for less than three hours. Iron rivets held the steel plates of her hull together at the bow and stern. They were her weakest link.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN: In Titanic, there'd be approximately 3,000,000 rivets.

This is an iron rivet, recovered from the seabed, from the Titanic. This is actually the head of the rivet; this is the tail of the rivet. So this is inside the hull, and this is outside the hull.

NARRATOR: Riveting was a backbreaking job. Men were paid by how many rivets they drove in a day. They were known as the "hard men" of the shipyard.

Titanic's rivets were heated, then hammered through holes in two plates of steel. Cooling and contracting, the rivets pulled the hull plates tightly together into a watertight seal.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN: So you have a steel ship, but it's constructed using iron rivets. Unfortunately the rivets themselves are, by nature, weaker than the plates which they are attaching.

And the head has been, literally, ripped off the top of this rivet.

NARRATOR: As the iceberg bent and buckled each plate, the rivets popped out, unzipping seams along a 300-foot section of hull.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN: The iron rivets just haven't been strong enough to withstand the immense pressure of the iceberg striking.

NARRATOR: By contrast, Concordia's modern hull had no rivets at all; sections were welded together.

Below the surface, divers are finding solid rock, polished or cracked apart by the force of the collision. They've also come across an amazing piece of evidence: this twisted ribbon of solid, inches-thick steel, stripped from Concordia's hull, as though opened up by the key of a giant sardine can.

The conclusion is unmistakable. Modern steel may be strong, but nothing can withstand the crushing impact of a 100,000-ton cruise ship on an immoveable, granite outcrop.

MICHAEL BRUNO: You have to remember the weight of this vessel and the momentum. So even a very slow movement of an object this size just produces enormous forces, perfectly able to just strip the metal apart and shear it off, like it's a piece of paper.

We will never be able to design a, a ship, large or small, to withstand an impact with a rock, or with an iceberg, for that matter.

NARRATOR: The designers of the Titanic did try. Internal compartments, with watertight doors were supposed to contain any flooding in her hull, but the bulkheads between those compartments did not reach all the way up to the deck above.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN: Ultimately, this meant that the water would flow over the top of one bulkhead, over the top of another, and it was inevitable the Titanic would sink. It was just a question of time.

NARRATOR: Bulkhead design has since been improved. In modern ships, they reach right to the top.

MICHAEL BRUNO: All vessels have watertight compartments. This is a technology, a design feature that dates back to the Titanic.

NARRATOR: Titanic and Concordia had another safety feature in common. They had protective double bottoms, an extra, watertight layer of steel, above the keel. If the bottom of the ship is damaged, water still won't enter the inner hull. But both Titanic and Concordia were struck above their double bottoms. Here, their only protection was a single layer of steel.

RICK COMEAU: The double hull isn't around the entire skin of the ship. It's usually just in the bottom area of the ship, so that if a breach of the hull occurs above that, then you would have open flow of water coming into the vessel.

NARRATOR: The consequences were fatal for both ships. Concordia took on water and listed heavily. Only being beached near the shore saved her from sinking outright. Titanic, tragically, sank in the open ocean.

In the 100 years between these two accidents, the lessons of the Titanic disaster were applied to ships, such as oil tankers. Their double-thickness hulls now reach right up to the waterline. But only some modern cruise ships have adopted this design.

MICHAEL BRUNO: It's clear that you have an added degree of safety with a double hull.

NARRATOR: But full double hulls add expense.

RICK COMEAU: There would be cost limitations involved with that, also maybe a reduction in the amount of cargo a vessel could carry, in a commercial sense.

NARRATOR: The Cruise Lines International Association represents 25 lines. They and other major cruise companies declined to be interviewed about any of the issues raised in this program, including the design of the latest generation of cruise ships.

This is a controversial area, and not all experts agree, but some industry figures question where these giant ships are headed.

ALLAN GRAVESON (Senior National Secretary, Nautilus UK): These ships now are being built in such a way that they are inherently unstable. It is a design issue.

NARRATOR: The first, and most obvious, design development of recent years has been the ever-increasing height of the ships. The tallest now in service reach more than 230 feet above the waterline—a 20-story building at sea.

In strong winds, a high-sided ship acts like a giant sail, a concept illustrated by the collision between two ships off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico, in 2009.

PASSENGER: Wow, he's going to hit!

NARRATOR: Passengers on board the 88,000-ton, cruise ship Carnival Legend took these shots, as a 55-mile-per-hour wind sent the vessel veering out of control.

PASSENGER: We're going to hit, we're going to hit, we're going to hit.

NARRATOR: Even her directional steering thrusters could not prevent her from colliding with the cruise ship, Enchantment of the Seas.

PASSENGER: We've hit, we've hit!

NARRATOR: In continuing high winds, the ships clashed for more than 20 minutes. It was a dangerous situation with costly damage. But, there was no breach of the ships' hulls, and no one was injured.

The towering height of these ships also raises the issue of stability. At the University of Michigan, Steve Zalek studies how ships float and why they sink.

This 360-foot-long tank holds three-quarters of a million gallons of water.

On accurate models, Zalek adjusts the weight distribution to mimic ships of all shapes and sizes.

STEVE ZALEK (University of Michigan, Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratories): The fundamental concept between how any boat floats, large or small, is the, is the relationship between its center of mass, its gravity, and the buoyancy of the volume of water that it displaces. They have to be in balance, in order for the boat to float.

NARRATOR: A ship's center of gravity is the point through which all of its weight appears to be concentrated. The upward force, making it float, acts as if directed through its center of buoyancy, at the heart of the submerged part of the hull.

STEVE ZALEK: When the center of gravity is generally lower, the ship is generally considered a little more stable.

NARRATOR: Zalek adjusts the weights to more closely resemble the higher center of gravity of a cruise ship.

STEVE ZALEK: By placing the same amount of weight on the ship, but moving a large amount of it to a higher position so that we've raised the center of gravity, we've changed the roll characteristics.

NARRATOR: A lower center of gravity makes a ship more stable. The downside is that it rocks more rapidly from side to side, especially in rough seas. So cruise ship operators prefer a higher center of gravity. The ship rolls more slowly, making passengers more comfortable, and fewer get seasick.

STEVE ZALEK: Now, that ship with the higher center of gravity is going to have a more gentle, swaying roll, but that ship is not quite as stable, even though it may have better characteristics for people to ride on.

NARRATOR: The reason why the ship is less stable is that a higher center of gravity also makes the ship roll further from side to side. In extreme conditions, some experts believe this makes ships less safe.

ALLAN GRAVESON: The ship should be designed so that when the wheel is put hard over in either direction, the vessel should not heel more than 10 degrees. In reality, some of these vessels are heeling to 20 degrees or even more.

NARRATOR: In April, 2010, 60 passengers on the Carnival Ecstasy were injured, when the ship heeled sharply as it made a rapid turn, to avoid a buoy, off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Such violent maneuvers should normally be avoidable, with modern navigation aids. But 100 years ago, the ill-fated Titanic had nothing but the eyes of its two lookouts to warn of hazards ahead. On a calm, moonless night, with no whitewater breaking, they failed to see an iceberg, until it was barely half a mile away.

Modern ships have far more than a lookout's eyes to guide them.

After five years as a master mariner, Rick Comeau now runs this simulator in Rhode Island. This virtual bridge can conjure up every possible danger.

RICK COMEAU: Turn the rain off and add fog.

NARRATOR: It also has a full navigation facility.

RICK COMEAU: This is the electronic charting system, very similar to the one that was being used on the Concordia. You're able to get charted depths; you're able to get navigational warnings; you're able to monitor other traffic; you're able to see how close you want to get to points of danger. It really does allow us to have a bird's-eye view of where we are and how close dangers are.

NARRATOR: But the state of the art technology on modern cruise ships is only as good as the captain and crew who use it.

JIM WALKER: So you can have seemingly well-designed and -constructed ships with the best technology, but if you don't have experienced mariners at the helm, they can, they can find themselves in great trouble.

MICHAEL BRUNO: Ultimately, we cannot design against human error.

NARRATOR: How do human mistakes sink ships?

Costa Concordia's accident is still under investigation by Italian authorities, with human error as the prime suspect.

MICHAEL BRUNO: My first reaction, on seeing the Concordia run aground, was "What was that ship doing so close to the rocks, in such shallow water?"

NARRATOR: The captain was 51-year-old Francesco Schettino. He joined the Costa line in 2002 and took command of the half-billion dollar Costa Concordia just four years later. Like all cruise ship captains, he also acted as the ship's chief of public relations and host.

Nobody has yet been able to explain why he allowed his ship to hit a rock that is marked on navigation charts.

JIM WALKER: They have preprogrammed navigational routes that are embedded in their computers, so that you can chart a safe passage, and if the ship, for any reason, departs from that safe itinerary, alarms should go off.

NARRATOR: Schettino has reportedly told the Italian authorities that he was navigating by sight only, in the dark. Tracking data shows that he diverted from his route to perform a sail-by close to the island of Giglio.

JIM WALKER: This is part of their entertainment; this is part of the drama and flair of modern-day cruising.

NARRATOR: For the Costa Concordia, it proved to be a fatal decision.

9:40 p.m.: The ship was heading towards rocks at the edge of the island. By the time Schettino realized the danger, the Concordia was just 1,000 feet from shore, too late to turn. The ship struck rock.

This was not the only mistake that evening, and certainly not the only example of human error imperiling lives at sea.

In 1991, a tropical storm threatened the cruise ship Oceanos, off the coast of South Africa. The emergency shows just how a captain and crew's behavior can compromise safety.

Some of the nearly 600 passengers were being entertained by guitarist Moss Hills and his wife, Tracy. None of them realized a serious problem was developing below decks.

Most ships have small openings below their waterline, to pump water in and out. In the battering from the waves, a crucial valve had failed. Oceanos was taking on water.

MOSS HILLS (Oceanos Survivor): Then, suddenly, we seemed to hit extra big waves, and you could hear these really louds crashes, as these waves hit the side of the ship, and we lost all the power, and the lights went off.

NARRATOR: Below deck, seawater had reached the generator room, knocking out all power.

MOSS HILLS: It started to be 15, 20 minutes, no lights, no announcement, and the ship really started to lurch heavily onto one side, now. It wasn't even returning to an even keel.

NARRATOR: Water was collecting in the bowels of the ship pulling the vessel to one side.

TRACY HILLS (Oceanos Survivor): There were no alarms, no warning signals or anything that anything had gone wrong. In fact it was just nothing from anybody.

MOSS HILLS: We saw some of the crew starting to get little bags, sort of duffle bags and rucksacks and, and running up the stairs, back up to the topside of the ship. And we thought, well, you know, "There's, there's something very bad going on here."

NARRATOR: Disturbed by the crews' actions, Moss went to investigate.

MOSS HILLS: I wanted to go down below and see exactly what was happening.

NARRATOR: Carrying a camcorder, and recording everything, Moss realized they were in big trouble.

MOSS HILLS: There's water everywhere, looks like it's flowing in reasonably fast. It's sloshing about from side to side.

When I suddenly saw all that water, that was a huge shock.

NARRATOR: The failed valve was now letting water course through every pipe in the ship's plumbing system. Traditional watertight bulkheads couldn't stop the water: the pipes passed right through them. The seawater exploded out of toilets and sinks all over the ship. Oceanos was flooding from the inside out.

In despair, Moss raced to the bridge.

MOSS HILLS: I went up to the bridge area and it was completely abandoned. And it looked in a bit of disarray. There were binoculars lying around and sliding around, and charts had fallen to the floor. And it's just not a sight that you expect to see.

NARRATOR: The missing captain was later discovered, smoking a cigarette under the stairs. Many of the crew had fled in a lifeboat.

MOSS HILLS: Still no announcements, still no officers to been seen anywhere, and we started to realize we were in charge.

NARRATOR: Moss grabbed the ship's radio.

MOSS HILLS: And I'd said, "Mayday!" And he said, "Right," well, you know, "What is your mayday?" And I said, you know, "We're the cruise ship Oceanos. We're sinking."

And he said, "Well, what rank are you?" I said, "Well I'm, I'm not actually a rank, I'm a guitarist." And he said, "Well, what are you doing on the bridge?"

I said, "Well, there's nobody else here." And he said, "Where's the captain and the officers?" I said, "I don't know. We don't know where they are."

NARRATOR: Moss and the other passengers waited nervously for help. Eventually, more than a dozen South African navy helicopters arrived.

MOSS HILLS: And we could see them flying in, and, and that was an enormous sense of relief. It was almost like a movie.

NARRATOR: Arriving on deck, a navy rescuer brought bad news.

MOSS HILLS: He said, "We can see from up above, the ship's definitely going to sink. It's a lot more serious than you think. We're not even sure we can get everybody off."

NARRATOR: Aware that they were running out of time, Moss helped the rescuers lift passengers to safety.

MOSS HILLS: So I went through a very fast training period with him on how to work the harnesses and how to give signals to the helicopter pilots.

NARRATOR: After helping everyone else to escape, it was Moss and his wife's turn to be saved.

MOSS HILLS: He yanked us in, and we looked down, and we realized just how close to the water we were and how terribly close to sinking that ship was.

NARRATOR: The Oceanos had now taken on too much water. As the ship fell onto her side, water rushed to her bow, dragging her under.

In the aftermath of the sinking, there was an unusual defense from the captain, who claimed he had given an abandon ship order.

CAPTAIN YIANNIS AVRANAS (Oceanos /News Clip): When I order abandon ship, it doesn't matter what time I leave. Abandon means for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay.

NARRATOR: Captain Avranas was convicted of neglecting his duties, but there may be an explanation for this kind of inaction.

Ed Galea models human behavior in extreme situations.

ED GALEA (University of Greenwich): This is what we call "behavioral inaction". What you find is that the person freezes. The situation is so overwhelming, they just don't know what to do.

NARRATOR: Ed Galea's theory of "negative panic" might help explain the errors made on board both Costa Concordia and Titanic. Despite a distinguished career, official inquiries found fault with Captain Smith, of Titanic, for steaming too fast into an area known to have ice. While some credit his actions in the rescue efforts that followed, others find more to criticize.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN: If you look at his actions on the night of 14th, 15th April, he failed not only the passengers but also the crew and himself.

NARRATOR: With Titanic sinking fast, Captain Smith failed to ensure that the lifeboats were filled as they should have been.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN: In an emergency, in a crisis situation, in a dead flat calm, a lifeboat could certainly carry perhaps 70 or even 80 women and children. And instead, some lifeboats left the side of the Titanic with a handful of passengers.

NARRATOR: As a result, the death toll was far higher than it needed to be. Some reports claim that Smith failed to take charge, as the crisis worsened around him.

PAUL LOUDEN-BROWN: Is this negligence, criminal negligence? Is this a complete failure of the command structure on board? Or is it that Captain Smith had some sort of mental collapse? I think it's Captain Smith had a mental collapse. I think the magnitude of the coming disaster was just too much for him, and he was paralyzed.

NARRATOR: One hundred years later, could the Costa Concordia's captain also have been overwhelmed by events? One fact is certain: he failed to ensure that his passengers knew the ship was in danger.

They were left confused by the lack of any useful information.

MARIO LOFARO: We were asking them, "What's going on? What shall we do?"

NANCY LOFARO: They would tell us, "We have no information, we have no information."

ROBERT MAURI: We just really didn't know where to go. Some people were screaming "Go to your cabin," and some people were saying "Go to the master station." And ended up just standing around waiting and waiting, you know? "What we do from here?"

NARRATOR: The lack of directions made a bad situation even worse.

ED GALEA: You need to provide them with accurate information. You don't want to give them too much information, so that they're overloaded, and you have to provide the information in an authoritative way.

RICK COMEAU: When people don't know what's going on, or they don't have a firm grasp of what the s…the, the gravity of the situation may be, they'll start to panic.

NARRATOR: Then, 10 minutes after the collision, all the lights went out. Passengers were literally left in the dark, told only there was an electrical fault.

SHIP ANNOUNCEMENT: …on behalf of the captain, to inform you that due to an electrical fault, which is currently under control, we are currently in a blackout. Our technicians are working to resolve the situation and we'll inform you of developments as they occur.


JIM WALKER: The cruise line was saying everything is fine. So that was, that was false information the cruise line was generating.

NARRATOR: Despite the crew's reassuring words, some passengers suspected that the situation was getting worse.

ROBERT MAURI: Just seeing the look on the staff's face, you know, deer in the headlights look, it just kind of sunk in that this is for real.

MARIO LOFARO: My wife and I looked at each other, and we said, "They're full of it."

NANCY LOFARO: I said, "We have to get off this ship."

NARRATOR: Different people reacted in different ways. Some simply could not grasp the reality of the situation: that the ship was sinking.

MEGAN MAURI: Well, at first, when I saw the water starting to seep into the hallway, I ignored it at first, like "It's not really happening. It just…" You know?

ROBERT MAURI: We were in denial.

MEGAN MAURI: That just doesn't happen. That doesn't happen on your honeymoon. It's not possible, in this day and time, that a huge cruise ship like that could sink.

NARRATOR: Denial can be a normal reaction.

ED GALEA: The initial response is actually not to respond at all. There's a tendency to continue doing what you're doing. And it takes some time before people disengage from their normal activities.

NARRATOR: Other passengers decided to see for themselves what was going on.

NANCY LOFARO: We decided to go up to the 12th deck and see for ourselves what was going on. And we looked over the rail. The ship is leaning, and it's leaning more and more. We knew this was so serious.

NARRATOR: Finally, around an hour after the collision, Captain Schettino gave the order to abandon ship.

JIM WALKER: At this point, it literally was too late. He had run the, the clock out on his own passengers and crew.

NARRATOR: Lifeboats were quickly filling up with panicky passengers.

MARIO LOFARO: These men were just pushing and shoving their way into the lifeboats. We went to one lifeboat, and it looked like it was getting full, so we went to the next one.

NARRATOR: The full consequences of Captain Schettino's delay in ordering "abandon ship" now became clear. Concordia was listing heavily. Lowering the port-side lifeboats turned into a nightmare.

This was Nancy and Mario's designated lifeboat.

MARIO LOFARO: It was listing, probably about 20 degrees or so, maybe a little bit more. And as the lifeboat's lowering, it just dropped and went into a free fall. And all the people went flying to one side.

NANCY LOFARO: This is when we really, really thought, "This is it for us."

MARIO LOFARO: And then you could hear, as they were lowering it, it just screeched down the side of the ship.

NANCY LOFARO: It just scraped. And then, finally, we got on the water and everybody just clapped.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Captain Schettino had left the ship, claiming he accidentally fell from the side into a lifeboat. In addition, he refused the demands of the Coast Guard that he return to his post.

COAST GUARD (Radio Clip/Translation): Get back on board immediately, Captain. get back on board…

FRANCESCO SCHETTINO (Costa Concordia/Radio Clip/Translation): I was going, but there is something in the way.

COAST GUARD (Radio Clip/Translation): Listen to me now! Get back on that ship! Get back on board now!

RICK COMEAU: To be able to understand the situation as to what's going on, you have to be onboard the vessel to direct that. You have to, to see what's going on. There is no forgiveness for abandoning ship and leaving, your charge is somewhere else.

MICHAEL BRUNO: The behavior of this captain, if it is true that he left prior to all the passengers being evacuated from the ship, it runs entirely against every code that I'm aware of and all the behavior of every captain I've ever met.

NARRATOR: Schettino never did return to his ship, but hundreds of his passengers remained trapped on board.

Honeymooners Megan and Robert were looking for a way onto the boat deck.

ROBERT MAURI: I don't think either one of us ever ran..as fast as we've ever ran. It seemed like that hallway went on forever.

MEGAN MAURI: Just trying to get up to those stairs. And it was harder to run, because it was tilting, at that time.

NARRATOR: But even once on the deck, they could not find a useable lifeboat.

ROBERT MAURI: Nobody was really helping. It was pretty much just every man for himself.

NARRATOR: They were fresh out of options.

ROBERT MAURI: That's when I turned to her and said, "We're going to have to swim."

NARRATOR: Rushing to the starboard side, now listing towards the water, they saw a lifeboat passing below.

ROBERT MAURI: And we leaped over the railing and dropped down, I'd say, a good eight to ten foot drop.

NARRATOR: The couple was amazingly lucky. They landed on the lifeboat, just before Concordia finally rolled on her side.

Other passengers were forced to make a frightening hand-over-hand descent in the dark, on a rope laid across the capsized ship's hull.

MEGAN MAURI: It was almost like a dream, when we finally got onto the island, and…just looking back, just seeing what we had just come from.

NARRATOR: Thirty-two people never made it at all. It took months to recover some of the bodies.

Francesco Schettino was placed under house arrest, facing charges of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, abandoning ship when passengers were still on board and failing to communicate with maritime authorities.

But, as the inquiries continue, it emerged that some credit may be owed Schettino for acting to save the lives of hundreds.

RICK COMEAU: One of the decisions that, apparently, that was made correctly and certainly saved lives was getting the ship onto the beach and putting it into a position where it wouldn't sink into deep water.

NARRATOR: The chaos of the Costa Concordia sinking has thrown a spotlight on the standards of training and emergency preparedness for crew members, even those whose duties mainly involve passenger service.

Following his nautical institute graduation, Captain Schettino worked for 30 years as an officer on ferries and in the oil industry. But he had only worked on Costa Line ships for four years before captaining his first, and ultimately only ship, the Concordia, from its launch in 2006.

JIM WALKER: This is an industry that's exploding. There's only so many of those truly experienced, professional, mature mariners.

NARRATOR: Training in a simulator could help cruise ship captains to react more effectively in stressful situations. Many major lines do insist on their captains taking simulator training for two weeks each year, but it's only a voluntary arrangement. In aviation, by contrast, ongoing training is a legal necessity.

ED GALEA: Training is, is really important in really emergency, life-threatening situations that the personnel can just slip almost into automatic pilot, and their behaviors become almost a natural reaction.

NARRATOR: Ideally, mistakes should be made and lessons learned on a simulator, not in real life.

RICK COMEAU: We have had some people freeze up. That happens. That's okay, you know? This is the place to do it.

In the marine industry, we are probably 20 to 25 years behind what the aviation industry does.

NARRATOR: But simulators will only have an impact on marine safety if they become a mandated part of crew training.

RICK COMEAU: The main difference between the aviation industry and simulation and the maritime industry and simulation is their governments of countries that will oversee—the F.A.A., here in the United States—they require simulator training for their pilots, that…it's a, it's a law. It's required. We don't have that in the marine industry yet.

NARRATOR: The question now is: will the Concordia disaster produce an improvement in training and safety throughout the cruise industry, as the sinking of the Titanic did a century before?

MICHAEL BRUNO: This is an opportune time to take a look at the size of the vessels, and the way that we operate these vessels.

NARRATOR: The cruise industry is reviewing safety procedures in light of the Concordia disaster. Lifeboat drills are now held before a ship leaves port. It's not yet known what other changes are in store.

But has the sinking of Costa Concordia decreased the public's appetite for taking a vacation cruise?

Even guitarist Moss Hills, despite his traumatic experience aboard the sinking ship Oceanos, retains his enthusiasm for life aboard ship. In fact, when the cruise ship Achille Lauro caught fire 125 miles off the coast of Somalia, in 1994, there was a familiar face among the entertainment staff.

MOSS HILLS: It was incredible. I could hardly believe that I was on another ship that was sinking. It just didn't seem possible, but it was.

NARRATOR: The fire had started in the engine room and spread through the ship. Moss was once again involved in helping passengers escape, but even that hasn't kept him away from the sea.

MOSS HILLS: I've cruised for many years, after I sank twice, and I've never had a problem again, and I still love it.

Broadcast Credits


Jonathan Challis
Olly Jones
Christopher Amess Samantha Beddoes
Brian Leckey
Carolyn Wells Matt Smith
Mike Lithgow
Chris Roberts
Zilke Lemmer
Sarah Hewer
Matt Pearson
Vince Beeton
Martin Brown
Daryl Higgins
Mark Kochis
Mike Hodder
Paul Lang
Chris Sutcliffe
Tony Burke
Tom Burr
Mark Caudill
Jack Hutson
Eric Meyers
Audio Network Plc
Golden Break Music Ltd
HG Films / Barefoot VFX
Lindsey Truman
Rachel Lyon
Otto Burnham
Andy Ward
Lisa Murphy-O'Reilly
George Perry
Tessa Worgan
David Ross
Grace Brassington
ABC News
A+E Networks UK
Alpha TV
AP Archive
BFI National Archive
The Conus Archive
History Channel
Getty Images
ITN Source
ITN Source/Reuters
Rex Features
South African Broadcasting Association
Sky TG24 Italy
Videoplugger Ltd.
Ben Bolin
Michael Kazek
California Maritime Academy
University of Michigan Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering Department
Marine Simulation Institute, Rhode Island
Italian Coast Guard
Italian National Fire Service
Royal Navy/MOD
Resolve Maritime Academy, Florida
Stuart Carter
Robert Strange
Jeremy Dear
Kirstie McLure
Peter Dunkerley
yU + co.
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.
Ray Loring
Rob Morsberger
Spencer Gentry
The Caption Center
Karen Laverty
Eileen Campion
Victoria Louie
Kate Becker
Kristen Sommerhalter
Linda Callahan
Sarah Erlandson
Scott Kardel, Esq.
Janice Flood
Susan Rosen
Rachel Connolly
Kristine Allington
Lauren Aguirre
Patrick Carey
Rebecca Nieto
Nathan Gunner
Linzy Emery
Elizabeth Benjes
Pamela Rosenstein
David Condon
Lisa Mirowitz
Laurie Cahalane
Evan Hadingham
Melanie Wallace
Alan Ritsko
Paula S. Apsell
Produced by Pioneer Productions for NOVA/WGBH in association with Channel 4
© 2012 Pioneer Film and Television Productions Limited and WGBH Educational Foundation.
All rights reserved


© Pier Paolo Cito/Associated Press


Michael Bruno
Stevens Institute of Technology
Captain Rick Comeau, MNI
Maritime Simulation Institute
Ed Galea
University of Greenwich
Allan Graveson
Senior National Secretary, Nautilus UK
Moss Hills
Oceanos Survivor
Tracy Hills
Oceanos Survivor
Mario Lofaro
Costa Concordia Survivor
Nancy Lofaro
Costa Concordia Survivor
Paul Louden-Brown
White Star Line Historian
Megan Mauri
Costa Concordia Survivor
Robert Mauri
Costa Concordia Survivor
Michael Strange
California Maritime Academy
Jim Walker
Maritime Attorney
Steven Zalek
Marine Hydrodynamics Lab


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