Cruise tragedy conjures memories of doomed Titanic
Orlando: The first interviews of survivors — and the first impressions of people across the world — of the ill-fated Costa Concordia cruise liner that ran aground and tipped over in Italy are yielding predictable comparisons to another tragedy.
"Have you seen `Titanic`? That`s exactly what it was," said Valeria Ananias, a 31-year-old Los Angeles schoolteacher aboard the ship who crawled along nearly vertical hallways and stairwells in a desperate attempt to reach rescue boats.
Are such comparisons to a 100-year-old tragedy fair? Accurate? It seems that the world views the Concordia through a prism of fact, myth and fantasy that surrounds the Titanic, largely because of the popular movie that came out in 1997 and is being re-released in 3D this year.
Just ask the handful of people visiting "Titanic the Experience," a tour through recovered artifacts and replicas of the famed ship in Orlando.
"When I saw the Concordia on the news this morning, this is what I thought about," said Tom Keill, a Pennsylvania tourist who took the Titanic tour Sunday morning. He and his family shuffled past rooms that recreated first-class cabins, past the lavish replica staircase, past an actual deck chair that once sat on the vessel. (The restrooms in the museum are described by staff as being "through the gift shop, behind the wall and past the iceberg.")
Keill, like virtually everyone who has seen the movie, has thought about what they would have done during such a disaster — and now the Concordia allows us to update and refresh those thoughts. The vessel hit a reef or rock just off the coast of Italy, leaving five people dead and sending hundreds more searching for a way to escape as the boat tipped. Authorities said 15 people remain unaccounted for.
"It looked like it was sheer panic on the Concordia," said Keill, whose two young sons are "really into" Titanic history, which is why the family visited the exhibit while on vacation.
His son, 6-year-old Tyler Keill, was a bit more philosophical after walking past a piece of the Titanic`s hull and a large piece of white frost meant to replicate the iceberg that the Titanic struck.
"It`s really sad that the Titanic is history," Tyler said to his mom while in the gift shop that sells Titanic replica china, jewelry and 100th anniversary mugs. "But life goes on and we learn from our past."
But have we?
The Titanic and the Concordia have many similarities.
The Titanic was the biggest ship built to date in England at that time — and the Concordia was the biggest ship built so far in Italy. One crashed into an iceberg, the other, a reef or rock.
Christened in 2006, the Concordia was the largest and most luxurious in the Costa cruise fleet, boasting bars, restaurants, a gym, large spa and several lavish suites.
In its day, the Titanic had similar amenities — although there were more severe class differences on the Titanic, and the chasm between first- and third-class passengers was enforced by class-only eating, sitting and mingling areas. In today`s cruising world, the passengers in the $199 cabins on the weekend cruises out of Miami can, and do, sun themselves alongside the folks in the $3,000 suites.
The Concordia was slightly larger (952 feet to the Titanic`s 883 feet) and both had a top speed of 23 knots. Ominously, both had issues with their christening, and believers in superstition may attribute the ships` tragedies to it.
Before a ship`s maiden voyage, it`s common for a dignitary to "christen" the vessel by breaking a bottle of champagne on the hull for good luck.
The Titanic was never christened. The Concordia was christened during a ceremony when the ship came online, but the champagne bottle never broke. After each tragedy, people wondered whether the lack of a proper christening was a bad omen.
But then there are the differences. The Titanic had 2,207 people on board; the Concordia about 4,200. The Titanic was much smaller: 46,328 tons compared with the Concordia`s 114,500 tons.
And of course, there were the safety measures developed over a century to ensure safety.
Safety standards for large passenger ships grew out of a convention in 1914, two years after the Titanic disaster — which means that all modern-day cruise ships, including the Concordia, should have benefited from the lessons learned from the Titanic. The rules eventually were adopted by the International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations.
Ships are required to have public address systems for announcements to passengers, and lifeboats must be at least partially enclosed. They also must hold weekly "abandon ship" and fire drills. More recently, the safety group had determined that the greatest safety threat to passengers was the evacuation of large ships.
Lifeboats also are required to be capable of being loaded, launched and maneuvered away from the ship within 30 minutes of the Master`s signal to abandon ship.
As was detailed during the hour-long tour of "Titanic: The Experience" in Orlando — complete with a guide dressed in a Victorian-looking peacoat and hat — the radio operators aboard the ship didn`t relay what they thought were non-essential messages about icebergs to the ship`s officers. Meanwhile, people aboard the ship didn`t panic because the ship listed only a few degrees. There weren`t enough lifeboats for all of the passengers aboard and some lifeboats left without being full.
And that`s one comparison between the Concordia and Titanic that appears to be correct: Both were disasters affected by human error.
"It`s amazing that 100 years later, we`re still arguing about how many lifeboats are needed, what kind of training the crew had and what the evacuation procedures were," said Bob Jarvis, a maritime law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"One-hundred years later, we still don`t do a good job getting passengers ready for a disaster."
Many passengers aboard the Concordia have complained the crew didn`t give them good directions on evacuating and waited so long to lower the lifeboats that many couldn`t be released because the ship was listing so heavily.
Ananias, the L.A. schoolteacher, said they were forced to shimmy along a rope down the exposed side of the ship to a waiting rescue boat below.
Some passengers also have complained that the Concordia`s captain, Francesco Verusio, abandoned the cruise liner before all his passengers had escaped. The Titanic`s captain, Edward Smith, died the night the ship sank. Some historians say he went down with the boat.
Authorities are holding the Italian captain for investigation of suspected manslaughter and abandoning his ship, among other possible charges. According to the Italian navigation code, a captain who abandons a ship in danger can face up to 12 years in prison.
A century ago, people thought the Titanic was unsinkable because it was so large and mighty. Today, people marvel that a ship like the Concordia could have run aground while sailing a routine course.
"To see a ship like this in 2012, with all the sophisticated navigation equipment, doing something that it does every week, you don`t expect that today," Jarvis said. "And we all think we know about the Titanic because of the 1997 film. Now we have something to compare it to."
Stories like the Concordia make people like Cindy and Terry Carroll think long and hard about taking a cruise. The married couple from Hamilton, Ontario, are longtime Titanic buffs and made sure to stop by the museum — which also features a Titanic-themed dinner theater in the evenings — during their weeklong Orlando vacation. Neither has ever been on a cruise, though, in part reluctant because of what they know of the Titanic. It was a fear Cindy Carroll had overcome — at least until now.
"A friend had finally talked me into going," Cindy Carroll said with a laugh. "Now, probably not."
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