MILAN (Reuters) - The doomed Italian liner which capsized off the coast of Italy was less a ship than a seaborne version of a Las Vegas hotel and most of the 1,023-strong crew were there to run the bars, swimming pools, theatres and casino.
A mixed group of around 40 nationalities with Filipino and Peruvian waiters, English dancers and Spanish musicians, at least two thirds of the crew were aboard to entertain and take care of the passengers, heavily outnumbering qualified seamen.
On a normal quiet cruise around the Mediterranean, that may not be a problem, but it seems to have added to the chaos when the huge Costa Concordia ran aground off the island of Giglio.
“It seems from all the indications that the vast majority of the crew were the equivalent of hotel staff and not sufficiently trained in seamanship skills,” said John Dalby, chief executive with specialists Marine Risk Management (MRM).
When a loud bang was heard as passengers sat down to dinner on Friday night and the multi-storey super-liner began to list heavily, panic erupted and a babble of different languages among the multinational passengers and crew made the rescue more difficult.
“There was total confusion and then mounting panic as the ship tipped further on to its side,” said Mario Pellegrini, the deputy mayor of Giglio, who went out on a small boat to offer advice on the best way to get people on to the island.
“I found no officers on board, not only the captain but also no officers, and the rest of the personnel were all Asian and spoke no Italian and also very little English,” he said.
“They were very willing to help but also very agitated. It was very disorganized and left me with an awful impression.”
Passengers have complained that they were left for hours waiting in lifeboats, stairwells and assembly points with no information before the order to evacuate was given.
“We asked for information and all they said was, don’t worry, don’t worry, everything is under control,” Concordia passenger Patrizia Perilli said.
“We could hear the Italian personnel talking in code on the interphone but the staff around us didn’t speak any Italian,”
Many praised individual crew members, who tried their best to reassure frightened passengers but said there was a clear lack of direction from the ship’s officers.
“It was quite surreal, the contrast between the smiles and jokes of the miniclub (playgroup) staff and the ghastly look in the eyes of the children,” said Luciano Castro, 48, as he recounted the efforts of child minders in red clown noses to keep infants calm.
Francesco Schettino, the captain of the ship, is in jail, accused of running the ship aground by going far too close to shore. He faces charges of manslaughter and abandoning ship, leaving the evacuation to the rest of the crew.
An Italian newspaper published what it said was an audio recording of a coast guard trying, and failing, to persuade Schettino to go back on to the ship and help passengers.
Many individual crew members however insist that they prevented a much worse disaster.
“If we hadn’t been trained and if we weren’t ready or capable, there would have been a thousand dead,” said Sergio Iurio, 39, an officer on the ship’s electrical systems.
“We heard passengers complaining that the cooks were manning the lifeboats. Well, the kitchen crew and the waiters were trained to run the lifeboats. They were doing their duty.”
Costa Crociere, the Italian unit of Carnival Corp, the world’s largest cruiseship operator, says errors by the captain appear to have been the cause of the accident but the group’s head said the rest of the crew behaved “like heroes.”
“Our own judgment, in this particular case is that the crew performed very, very well and we have to thank them again. They were able to evacuate in two hours’ time 4,200 people under very severe circumstances,” Foschi said.
The changing face of the global cruise-liner industry has led to the introduction of liners with ever more space, comfort and entertainment to create scale economies.
But as the economic crisis has bitten, operators have had to slash costs, with fares for a one week cruise on the Costa Concordia as low as 500 euros and growing pressure to make up for costs in other areas, including staff.
“In a ship like the Costa Concordia, the maritime staff number 40-50 people, not more. A lot of the services onboard - cooking, laundry, cleaning, waiters - are outsourced to external staff recruited through specialized agencies, although they also have to receive safety training,” said a senior Italian shipping company official who asked not to be named.
Whether this had any impact on the disaster is unclear and there has been some support for the company’s argument that despite the confusion and delay, the highly difficult nightime evacuation was achieved with relatively little loss of life.
“It’s actually a great result to evacuate 4,000 people and save practically all of them, with the ship listing heavily at night after such a delay in issuing orders,” said Marco Mandirola, President of the IBLA, an association representing tugboat operators and harbor pilots.
“I wouldn’t blame the crew. I think they behaved as professionally as possible. Onboard personnel that aren’t part of the ship’s crew do a series of courses but they’re not sailors,” he said.
International Maritime Organisation rules require that “from the point of view of safety of life at sea, all ships shall be sufficiently and efficiently manned.”
In terms of numbers of staff the rules require that companies “make an assessment of numbers and grades/capacities in the ship’s complement required for its safe operation.”
Massimo Maccheroni, a spokesman for Italy’s Coastguard, said the ship’s safety documentation was up to date.
Even the service personnel have training in basic safety procedures and are supposed to have at least basic English to allow them to communicate with passengers during an emergency, demonstrate safety equipment and help during evacuations.
“English is the basic language and requested by all operators. The problem here was probably panic,” said Andrea Francescato, sales manager at on-line cruise agency Crocierissime.
“If there had been real problems with communication or training there’d have been a lot more deaths,” he said.
Costa says personnel did evacuation drills on their ships every two weeks, and says all members of the crew have a basic safety training certificate.
A spokesman for the company said the crew is divided into teams with specific duties in the event of an evacuation and all shipboard personnel attend theoretical and practical training sessions throughout the year.
But as cruise ships become ever bigger and more sophisticated technology has become more important with computerized systems taking over much of the safety burden and crews dependent on what the equipment tells them.
Passengers themselves receive safety briefings and all passengers are required to follow a computerized emergency drill course by swiping magnetic cards. If they do not follow the course they are contacted within 24 hours, Foschi said.
However, passengers on the Concordia who boarded the ship at the Italian port of Civitavecchia on the day of the accident said they were not due to receive training until the next day.
Foschi has said evacuation procedures were reviewed in November by an outside firm and the port authorities and no faults were found, but the accident will inevitably return the focus to the quality and training of the crew on giant liners.
“In the immediate future aftermath if there is a higher emphasis on the inspection of cruise ships, that may be focused towards the training and qualifications of the navigating crew and the crew that is assisting with emergency responses,” said Ted Thompson, from the Cruise Lines International Association.
Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi and Emilio Parodi, Gavin Jones in Giglio and Steve Scherer in Grosseto; Writing By James Mackenzie; Editing by Barry Moody