May 18, 2012 7:16 pm

Alarm delay ‘critical’ says Concordia probe

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capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia©AP

The “main problem” investigators into the sinking of the Costa Concordia in January have found was that it took more than an hour after the cruise ship hit rocks for the ship’s emergency alarm to sound, officials involved said on Friday.

The delay to the alarm’s sounding meant passengers started heading for their muster stations only 10 minutes before the giant cruise ship, with 4,229 people on board, came to rest on the seabed off the island of Giglio, investigators from the Italian Maritime Investigative Body said on Friday. This raises the possibility that many of the 32 lives lost in the accident, much the worst on a cruise ship in recent decades, could have been saved if the alarm had been sounded immediately.

The investigators were presenting at the International Maritime Organisation in London the first results of their investigation into the grounding and capsizing of the vessel off Giglio on the night of January 13 this year.

Elisa Giangrasso, an Italian coastguard officer, described to gasps from the audience how the vessel set a course to pass close to Giglio, strayed half a mile off course and then ran at speed into a shoal of rocks.

The presentation came on the same day that salvage contractors outlined plans to start work this month on the “unprecedented” task of refloating the Concordia and removing its wreck.

Ms Giangrasso called it the “critical point” of the investigation why, after the ship hit the rocks at 9.45pm, it took until 10.48pm for the captain to sound the alarm warning passengers to head towards lifeboat muster stations.

The delay in sounding the alarm meant, according to Ms Giangrasso’s presentation, that far more of the ship was flooded by the time passengers started heading for the lifeboats than would have been the case earlier. The vessel remained stable as long as only two of its watertight compartments were flooded, she said. But, by 19 minutes after the grounding, there was water in four of the compartments and the ship was doomed.

“The main problem that’s emerging from the investigation so far is linked to the delayed general emergency signal and the too short time between it and the abandon ship order,” Ms Giangrasso said.

The abandon ship order was given only “a couple of minutes” after the general alarm’s sounding and the first lifeboat was launched at 10.55.

The investigators – who have not yet had access to either members of the ship’s bridge team or the voyage data recorder recording events on board – offered no explanation for the delay. But they confirmed that Francesco Schettino, the captain, issued no immediate orders when informed 10 minutes after the grounding that two compartments in the hull had filled with water.

“The ship’s master was informed directly about the flooding,” Ms Giangrasso said. “He gave no orders.”

Costa Cruises, the arm of the US’s Carnival Corporation that operated the Concordia, Titan, a Florida-based salvage specialist, and Micoperi, an Italian marine contractor, said in a joint statement that work to remove the wreck would take about 12 months. The hull would be refloated and removed in one piece to minimise the work’s environmental impact, they said.

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