|A maritime expert testifies on the Hill while the world watches by streaming video. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
As Sameer and Divya Sharma, a married couple who survived the Costa Concordia accident on Jan. 13, told their first-hand account of that night to members of a U.S. House of Representative hearing in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, the world watched via “live” streaming video on a government Web site.
After the cruise ship struck rocks off the coast of Giglio, Italy, Divya Sharma described “violent shaking” and crashing dishes and an atmosphere in which no one seemed to be in charge. Both husband and wife said they never even knew the ship had hit rocks until they were at the U.S. Embassy.
“We feel very betrayed, very much lied to,” Sameer Sharma said, noting that he and his wife trusted the crew with their lives and “they were not honest with us at any given point.”
The American couple had booked a Mediterranean cruise onboard Costa Concordia’s Jan. 13 sailing to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. They had unpacked and were at the dining room for dinner when they felt a “violent shaking,” and then a tilt, with the furniture in their room clearly moving. The power outage plunged the room into darkness, some people screamed and finally the emergency lights came on.
The couple said the announcements made on the PA system told them to remain calm, that it was an electrical issue and nothing to worry about. Divya Sharma said, "all the announcements were made on behalf of the captain and never once did we hear the captain speak."
The couple hadn’t had a lifeboat drill, but Divya Sharma said she knew where the lifejackets were as she had unpacked and saw them in the closet. Also, they had both taken a previous cruise.
But they weren't sure where their muster station was, so they went into the hallway and asked their stateroom steward what to do and where to go but were told "in an irritated tone" to go back inside. The Sharmas said they could not get a straight answer, but persisted and finally the steward told them the lifeboats were on Deck 4.
On deck, they were again told to go back to their staterooms, but the Sharmas opted to stay on deck. As the crowd turned angry due to lack of direction, people began pushing their way onto a lifeboat.
The Sharmas got onboard one boat but it was overweight, stuck for a time, and finally dropped into the sea. But the boat did not move normally for what seemed 10 minutes and the tilting ship loomed above them.
Sameer Sharma thought they would have to jump, tried to lift the lifeboat's tarp, but couldn't, and finally, the boat began to move away from underneath the listing ship. Eventually, the couple reached shore near a lighthouse and "we do thank the coast guard" who the Sharmas said were trying to help; the coast guard personnel told them if they only were able to reach the offshore rocks near that lighthouse, they'd be rescued.
According to Sameer Sharma, trust bcame an issue; he said no one from Costa Concordia at any time mentioned that there was anything wrong other than an “electrical issue.” Only at the U.S. Embassy in Rome did they learn the ship had hit rocks.
While the duo were respectful and relatively calm in describing the difficult experience, when asked if they would take a cruise again, Divya Sharma replied quickly, “Not in the near future, no.” Chairman John Mica (R-FL), the chairman of the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led the Congressional hearing along with Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ). Congressman Mica called the Sharmas testimony "compelling."
“Taking a cruise is a safe and enjoyable option for travel and recreation, affordable to more Americans today than ever before, but recent incidents serve as a warning signal for U.S. officials and industry,” Mica said. With the increase in the number of cruise ships and millions of Americans embarking on cruises every year, "we must ensure that passengers can continue to enjoy cruising without worrying about their safety," he said.
That said, he also said cruising creates jobs and $37 billion in annual economic activity in the U.S. During the hearing, Representative Corrine Brown (D-FL), a former travel agent who represents the Jacksonville area which has one of the state’s largest port operations, stressed: “We can’t vilify the entire industry because of the reckless actions of one rogue employee," a reference to Captain Francesco Schettino, now under house arrest in Naples and charged with numerous criminal offenses including manslaughter.
Congressional representatives said Congress must be certain that the nation’s safety laws are adequate given the state of the industry today. “A century after the Titanic tragedy and the establishment of international ship safety standards, we must now heed this new warning, assure safety standards are being followed and enforced, and avoid another preventable tragedy,” Mica emphasized.
During today’s hearing, Mica noted his sorrow for the “great personal loss of some families” in Costa Concordia. He said there are issues that likely need further review and discussion such as the way lifeboats work, what larger ships might require in terms of safety regulations, and how a ship’s tilt hinders lowering of lifeboats.
He said once the Costa Concordia investigation is complete he’d like to explore the possibility of holding a future roundtable discussion with the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as representatives of the cruise industry, labor and other stakeholders to determine what, if any, laws and regulations may need to be updated to improve cruise vessel safety.
The Sharmas were asked about language and the role having multiple languages onboard meant during an accident. “The language was another barrier there,” said Divya Sharma, adding that it was frustrating to wait for translations and not knowing if the information – once passed from person to person – was accurate. That too caused confusion.
Safety is the Top Priority
Christine Duffy, president and CEO, Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org) spoke, as did Vice Admiral Brian Salerno, deputy commandant for operations, U.S. Coast Guard. Duffy, Salerno and several cruise executives did a comprehensive job of describing the overall safe record of the cruise industry over the past decade.
They also told Congressional officials about the Coast Guard regulations and processes for assuring safety, the steps taken by CLIA members proactively since Costa Concordia’s accident and the industry’s commitment to continuing to seek the highest level of safety at sea.
Others speaking were Captain Evans Hoyt of Norwegian Cruise Line and NCL America; George Wright, senior vice president of marine operations for Princess Cruises, and Brian W. Schoeneman, legislative director of the Seafarers International Union.
Agents who wish to review the written testimony of witnesses, or the three-hour video of the hearing should go here: http://transportation.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?newsid=1532.
CLIA also put out a press release detailing Duffy’s written testimony and the key points she would make. The link to our story is here: http://www.travelagentcentral.com/government-regulations/clia-ceo-testifies-cruise-industry-33878.
Duffy told the committee members that earlier in the month CLIA's member lines collectively committed to holding muster drills on every ship prior to sailing. That’s a stronger requirement than what current International Maritime Organization (IMO) rules requires, which is that the emergency drill must occur within 24 hours of sailing.
She also told the Congressional representatives that the industry has undertaken a thorough evaluation of all safety processes and procedures. Duffy stressed that the entire cruise industry is fully committed to identifying what lessons can be learned from Costa Concordia and “if it becomes clear that corrective measures are necessary, we will work as an industry with governments and regulators to ensure recommended measures are adopted.”
In addition, Duffy said that within CLIA, there are at least 25 standing committees that meet on a regular business throughout the year and focus on safety, security, environmental and other aspects of cruising: “This is a process of continual improvement all the time.”
From 2002 through 2011, there were 28 fatalities on cruise ships due to operational causes; that’s out of more than 153 million guests who sailed safely during that period. Duffy emphasized that safety is the industry’s "number one priority."
Vice Admiral Salerno said that the Italian authorities will fully investigate the Costa Concordia accident, but while he wouldn't discuss potential causes, he did say this about Captain Schettino: “I don’t know of any professional mariner who is willing to step up and defend … the apparent lack of leadership that clearly occurred on this ship.”
He also talked about the IMO's well-defined requirements for training, the U.S. Coast Guard's requirements and inspections, and noted: “we enforce those regulations vigorously.”
He did bring up a point many others haven’t – which is how so much flooding occurred inside the ship? Vice Admiral Salerno asked, "Should it have listed over as far as it did?” He said it was unknown if watertight doors were closed properly and that those types of questions will be uncovered as the Italian investigation proceeds.
Salerno confirmed that the U.S. Coast Guard is interviewing all American survivors and that it's also requested to be a party to the Italian government investigation. That's included as part of IMO rules, and allowed when casualties of foreign citizens are concerned; a Minnesota couple is missing and presumed dead in the accident. He said the request has been approved by the Italian government.
Finally, Admiral Salerno stressed: “The results are in the numbers. The cruise ship industry in the United States has a very good safety record.” But he says some regulations may need to be strengthened and “there will be something to be learned" from the accident.
Several committee members praised the industry's proactive initiative on changing their timing for the muster drill. But Schoeneman, representing the seafarer's union, questioned whether U.S. flagged vessels and foreign-flagged vessels have different levels of safety competency for crew.
“Costa Concordia has highlighted the need for well-qualified mariners and crew members,” Schoeneman emphasized. He said he was "less confident" that the training and qualifications are up to the standards of crew members on U.S. flagged ships.
The U.S. house members also delved into procedures followed for ships sailing from U.S. ports, a new law related to reporting of sexual crimes on ships, whether maritime regulations created decades ago have kept up with technology and whether compensation for cruise ship victims is covered under antiquated and inadequate laws.
Yet to Come
Congresswoman Brown said she personally believes the industry is safe and said, “I’d send my mother on a cruise ship. Another representative also said it was important "to be fair" to the cruise industry.
But Rep. Mica left the door open for more discussion and the potential for additional hearings.
Separately, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which is chaired by Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) will hold its own hearing today at 10 EST.
Keep visiting www.travelagentcentral.com for further updates on this developing story.