Hearing offers reassuring testimony on North American cruise ship industry

Glasses and wine bottles crashed to the floor in pieces, the lights went dark, passengers screamed and the Costa Concordia began to list against the rock into which it had plowed. Then emergency lights came on, waiters began serving dinner plates and people were told everything was under control — it was no more than a simple generator failure.

The surreal last hours aboard the doomed Italian cruise ship — a swirl of confusion, bad information, clueless and panicking crew members — were described in detail Wednesday by a Massachusetts couple who survived the ordeal.

Through it all, from the jarring crash that disrupted their dinner until their lifeboat narrowly escaped, Divya and Sameer Sharma said they never heard a word from the ship’s captain, received helpful instructions from any crew member or were told the truth about what had happened.

Theirs was a vivid description of the Jan. 13 accident in which a showboating captain ran his 952-foot ship onto the rocks 300 yards off the coast of an Italian island and left an inept crew and bewildered passengers to fend for themselves in the dark as the vessel began to roll onto its side.

Twenty-five people died and seven remain missing.

The hearing before the House maritime subcommittee was primarily geared toward reassuring testimony that the $35 billion North American cruise ship industry is the safest on earth.

“There was nothing wrong with the ship. This was a very good ship. There is nothing wrong with our ships,” said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), a former tugboat captain on the Yukon River.

Committee members and most of the testimony laid the blame squarely on the captain, Francesco Schettino, who took the ship five miles off course and abandoned it before all the passengers and crew had escaped.

Testimony from a U.S. Coast Guard admiral, cruise industry lobbyists, a maritime union, a cruise ship captain and cruise line officials all agreed that cruise ships of all nations operating out of U.S. ports are better inspected, that crews are better trained and that much more rigid guidelines prepare passengers for emergencies that may require them to abandon ship.

“We have the most rigorous examination process in the world,” said Coast Guard Vice Adm. Brian M. Salerno. “This is a safe industry, objectively speaking.”

Committee members and industry officials said the sinking of the Costa Concordia, owned by a subsidiary of Miami-based cruise operator Carnival, has prompted a review and upgrading of cruise line safety programs. But even as lawmakers heard testimony, another ship owned by Costa Cruises, the Costa Allegra, was being towed to port in the Indian Ocean after suffering a fire and losing power this week.

The Sharmas told the committee that they received no safety instructions when they boarded and that they stumbled upon their life jackets by accident when hanging up clothes in their cabin locker before heading to dinner.

“As we had just ordered our appetizers, there was a violent shaking of the ship followed by loud crash noises as the plates and glasses broke due to the listing of the ship,” Divya Sharma said. The lights went out and “everyone nearby started to scream.”

When emergency lights came on, there was an announcement that everything was under control, she said, “and the staff began bringing out everyone’s food as if nothing bad had happened.”

When the Sharmas saw some dining room crew begin to panic and cry, they returned to their cabin and stumbled around in the darkness to get their life jackets. Divya Sharma does not know how to swim.

Another announcement urged calm, said the problem was under control and to await instructions, but “there was a sense of panic in the announcer’s voice,” Divya Sharma said. “The reason that the announcements were made on ‘behalf’ of the captain is because the captain wasn’t there.”

A state room attendant snapped at them to stay in their cabin, but they made their way to the lifeboat deck. Although it was almost an hour after the accident, they were ordered back to their cabin.

“People started to panic and get frustrated as the ship was tilting more,” Divya Sharma said.

They said that they rushed into a lifeboat and then were ordered out because it was overcrowded but that they held their places. When the boat reached the water, its engine belched blue smoke and ran in circles. As it puttered ineffectively, the listing ship appeared about to topple and crush them.

People began to panic, but finally the lifeboat inched clear.

“We trusted the crew members and this captain with our lives,” Divya Sharma said. “No one deserves to die on their vacation.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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