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Outside editorial: Costa Concordia's tragedy needs to be kept in perspective

Posted: January 19, 2012 - 12:22am  |  Updated: January 19, 2012 - 1:11am

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald:

The harrowing stories told by the survivors of the Costa Concordia tragedy strike a deep chord around South Florida, home to America’s cruise industry and headquarters for Carnival Cruise Lines, the parent company of the ship’s operator. The ship’s 3,200 passengers faced a nightmare at sea that threatens to turn into an environmental disaster if fuel leaks into the waters off the coast of Tuscany.

What makes this incident so dramatic are the striking photos of the capsized ship, the large number of passengers whose lives were at risk — and the relatively rare nature of accidents of this magnitude on a cruise liner. On the latter point, there should be no misunderstanding.

With more than 13 million passengers cruising each year, no one has a greater interest in promoting passenger safety than the cruise industry. It enjoys one of the best safety records, if not the best, among major passenger carriers of all kinds. Since 1998, compliance with the safety code of the International Maritime Organization, the U.N.’s watchdog agency, has been mandatory for cruise ships.

In this particular incident, the Italian operator’s chairman, Luigi Foschi, has declared that “human error” attributed to Capt. Francesco Schettino was at least partly to blame. For reasons not clear thus far, he deviated from the safe route that was set electronically before the ship set sail from Civitavecchia near Rome.

Whether the captain should have been piloting the ship is something investigators will have to examine. They should also determine why some passengers — the relative few who boarded at Civitavecchia — had not undergone the same safety drill that had been practiced by passengers already onboard.

Perhaps the industry should mandate a safety drill for new passengers coming aboard before a ship sets sail. And perhaps ship captains should undergo additional scrutiny as an extra precaution. But it would be far worse, from the perspective of passengers, had the accident been the result of a structural defect on the ship or an inherently bad industry practice.

That was not the case on the Costa Concordia, which should come as a relief to cruise passengers in general.

Whether the crew was prepared for the emergency it faced is another question requiring deeper investigation. But despite the profusion of languages spoken by the international clientele on the ship, nearly 4,200 passengers and crew members were evacuated and made it to safety.

None of this detracts from the profoundly tragic nature of this incident. Nor will it provide much comfort to the survivors or to the families of those who remain missing or have already been declared dead. But anyone contemplating the possibility of making a first cruise, or former passengers planning another, should keep the incident in perspective.

Some cruise lines have come under deserved criticism over the years for incidents aboard ship that have resulted in crimes ranging from theft to assaults on passengers, particularly women. Some cruise lines are notoriously slow and legalistic in responding to passenger complaints involving losses aboard ship or cancellations by passengers for reasons beyond their control.

But this type of incident is relatively rare and should not constitute a reason to abandon cruising for pleasure on large passenger ships. It will take a public information campaign to overcome unsubstantiated fears. When it comes to safety, the industry always practices cruise control.

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