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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Italian Cruise Ship Operator Knew of Crisis

0125costaROME—Costa Crociere, operator of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia, learned the vessel was flooding from a collision off the coast of Tuscany within minutes of the accident and more than an hour before passengers were instructed to evacuate the ship, according to testimony the company delivered to the Italian Senate on Wednesday.
This picture taken on Friday, Jan. 13, 2012 and made available Wednesday, shows passengers on lifeboats evacuating the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia after it ran aground off the coast of Italy.
The testimony by Pier Luigi Foschi, chief executive of Costa Crociere, a unit of Carnival Corp., marked the company's first public acknowledgment that captain Francesco Schettino kept the company updated on the crisis as it spiraled out of control.
The account also raised more questions about why Mr. Schettino and Costa Crociere waited until 10:58 p.m. to sound the ship's evacuation alarm, more than an hour after the ship hit the rock on Jan. 13, causing at least 16 confirmed deaths and leaving 19 people still missing.
Mr. Foschi didn't say whether Costa Crociere's head of marine operations, Roberto Ferrarini, made attempts to contact the Coast Guard. A Costa Crociere spokesman declined to comment on the matter.
"Either one of them should have called the Coast Guard," said Bill Doherty, an experienced ship master with the maritime-safety consultancy Nexus. If a ship strikes a rock, standard operating procedure for ship commanders is to immediately alert the coast guard and ships in the area and get passengers into position for a possible evacuation, he said.
ITALSHIPPassengers evacuate the shipwrecked Costa Concordia on Jan. 13.
Mr. Foschi's testimony was based on a memorandum prepared by Mr. Ferrarini, who fielded at least six calls from Mr. Schettino in the 73-minute gap between the ship's collision and the sounding of its evacuation alarm, Mr. Foschi said. In his first four calls—between 9:57 and 10:33—the captain described how water was spreading through the hull, making it harder for the ship to stay upright and afloat, Mr. Foschi said. That account appears to undercut Mr. Foschi's assertion on Jan. 16 that Mr. Schettino first warned the cruise line of an "unidentified" emergency at 10:06.
Mr. Ferrarini "didn't understand that the situation was taking such an extreme form," Mr. Foschi said. Mr. Ferrarini and a lawyer for Mr. Schettino—who is under house arrest on preliminary charges of multiple manslaughter and abandonment of ship—didn't respond to a written request for comment on Mr. Foschi's testimony.
The comments come at a delicate time. Italian prosecutors have so far focused their investigation on Mr. Schettino's conduct. They are also probing the phone calls to understand whether the ship operator's reaction exacerbated the crisis, said people familiar with the matter.
While the captain and Mr. Ferrarini were on the phone, the Italian Coast Guard received complaints from passengers, prompting the Coast Guard to radio the ship's bridge at 10:14. They were told the ship was only suffering a blackout, delaying the rescue effort. The Coast Guard eventually sent rescuers anyway.
Photographs taken by passengers on the shipwrecked Costa Concordia show people in life vests evacuating the ship Jan. 13.
ITALSHIP_SUB2Mr. Schettino, in closed-door testimony to an Italian judge last week, said he didn't immediately alert passengers because he didn't want to stir panic, said people with knowledge of his testimony. Instead, Mr. Schettino said he focused his efforts on trying to ensure the ship made it closer to shore, enabling a safer evacuation, these people said.
Mr. Foschi on Wednesday said the design of the ship's hull—divided into several watertight compartments— allows a section of the hull to flood without sinking the entire ship. As many as two compartments can fill with water without putting the ship at risk, he said. If water breaches a third compartment, "the situation becomes very critical. Beyond that the ship can't float," Mr. Foschi said.
"At 9:57, Schettino said he had a huge problem onboard, that a blackout was in course, that there wasn't any electrical current. He told Ferrarini that he hit a rock," Mr. Foschi said.
"In that first call, the commander said that only one compartment was flooded," he csaid. In a second call, at 10:06, the captain reported the flooding of a second compartment but said the ship's ability to float "wasn't compromised," Mr. Foschi said.
At 10:16, Mr. Ferrarini and the captain began a 10-minute discussion on "the size of the breach," Mr. Foschi said, adding that Mr. Schettino gave him assurances that the situation was "under control."
At 10:33, Mr. Schettino told Mr. Ferrarini the boat was listing and that he was now in contact with Italian authorities. Two minutes later, he called back to say he planned to abandon ship.

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