Better muster drills, evacuation strategies would save lives in cruise disasters, experts say

A rescue crew works around the Costa Concordia on Monday at Giglio Porto, Italy. Seas turned rough during the day, hampering the rescue operation. At least six people were killed after the cruise liner ran aground with more than 4,000 people aboard.

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A rescue crew works around the Costa Concordia on Monday at Giglio Porto, Italy. Seas turned rough during the day, hampering the rescue operation. At least six people were killed after the cruise liner ran aground with more than 4,000 people aboard.

For most cruisers, the muster drill is one of the first orders of business on their high-seas vacation.

The purpose of the mass assembly is to make sure that passengers know the distress signal, where to meet in case of an emergency, how to put on their life jackets and the location of their assigned lifeboat. I've been through several muster drills, but in the wake of Friday's Costa Concordia disaster off the coast of Italy, I am not sure I would have known what to do. Survivors have described Titanic-like challenges to getting off the ship safely, and nothing really prepares you for that.

Still, the muster drills have made me feel like evacuations are orderly and calm, that perhaps the ship will just gently sink upright or that a fire will be quickly contained, and there will be plenty of time to leisurely stroll to the lifeboats.

"These ships have been marketed as floating resorts, and the fact they are on the ocean is incidental," said Christopher Elliott of Orlando, the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. "People seem so surprised that a ship could sink."

Elliott said that on some ships, the muster drills are often chaotic exercises that are seen as a nuisance. Like many cruisers, Elliott has lost his way around the behemoth megaships, and he notes the challenge of finding your lifeboat if you were starting out from somewhere other than your stateroom, which is how the drills are structured.

"I can only imagine how difficult it would be (to evacuate) if the ship was at a 90-degree angle and the lights were off. Up becomes down; left becomes right," he said.

The Concordia hadn't yet conducted the emergency drill required by international maritime law when it hit a reef and capsized during the evening dinner service. Carrying 4,200 passengers, the Concordia set sail from busy Civitavecchia, the cruise industry's gateway to Rome. The drill was scheduled for the second day of the cruise.

"Imagine if they'd had that drill before they pushed off," said John Deiner, managing editor of cruisecritic.com, the leading Internet cruising site with about 800,000 members. The procedures would have been fresh in people's minds.

As of Monday night, at least six people were dead and another 29 still missing, including a retired couple from Minnesota. Preliminary investigations have blamed "human error" for the accident, and there are now concerns that rough water will hamper rescue efforts and cause 500,000 gallons of fuel to leak into the sea.

Cruise ships must conduct safety drills within 24 hours of sailing, according to U.S. Coast Guard rules and regulations issued by the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency. While cruise lines say the drills are mandatory — and most passengers do attend — there are no repercussions for those who don't.

Still, there are some possibilities that aren't discussed at the drill. Like, for instance, that the boat may tip and passengers will need to crawl on hands and knees to the stairs that lead to the lifeboat deck. Or that people will panic, and their screaming will be unsettling. Or that glasses and dishes, or even furniture, could slam into walls, blocking aisles and making escape routes more hazardous.

I've always thought the muster drill was sort of a strange procedure. Sometimes you're required to bring your life jacket; other times you are told to leave it in your stateroom. "I don't find that very helpful," Deiner said. "It's easy to get tangled up in your life jacket, so it's good to try it on at least once. The passengers on the Concordia might not have even known where their preservers were."

For the drills, passengers are often gathered in a place that doesn't have enough seats, so there tends to be a lot of shifting around and general impatience. That makes it difficult to listen. "I've seen plenty of people with champagne glasses," Elliott said. "And the crew tries to make it entertaining by telling jokes. Like it's a stand-up act."

On a Mediterranean cruise last fall on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas, the emergency drill was held on an outside deck. We were lined up about five rows deep, then continually asked to squeeze together so that we were nearly touching elbows with the person next to us.

It was warm, and for those of us in the middle of the pack, quite uncomfortable. I remember thinking that someone was going to faint. The instructions were broadcast in several languages because, like the Concordia, the Brilliance had an international passenger manifest. This practice creates confusion and lengthens the entire procedure, plus there are passengers who don't know any of the chosen languages well.

Deiner says he believes that the cruise lines do their best to provide information and to train crew members for emergencies. But I think there is an inherent conflict of interest for the industry. If people fully knew what they might experience if the ship capsized or otherwise became disabled, they might not cruise, and that would cost the industry money.

Deiner said the most significant outcome of the Concordia disaster might be a re-evaluation of emergency drill procedures. Perhaps all ships will be required to have the drills before they set sail, he said.

"Imagine the first-time cruisers on the Costa ship," Deiner said. "They wouldn't have had a clue."

I think other changes could include multiple smaller assemblies over the course of the first few hours after passengers get on aboard. This would allow people to ask questions. Divide passengers by language so that they are hearing the information in words they understand. Provide easy-to-use wallet-size ship maps (some already do) so that passengers can easily find their way around. Make sure there are indicators in the rugs and on the walls pointing to the front and the back of the ship. Have better signs toward the lifeboats.

Passengers should take the drills seriously, Elliott said, but know that the reality of a ship disaster is likely far worse than you think — more like the movies than the company video.

Information from USA Today and the Associated Press was used in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

Carnival stock falls

Carnival Corp. fell the most in more than 11 years in London trading Monday after saying the grounding of the Costa Concordia will cost the company as much as $95 million. Carnival dropped 16 percent. The insurance loss could be $500 million to $1 billion, exceeding the Exxon Valdez disaster, said Joy Ferneyhough, an insurance analyst at Espirito Santo Investment Bank.

Captain accused of changing course

The Italian cruise operator said Capt. Francesco Schettino, left, intentionally strayed from the ship's authorized course. The detour was apparently made as a favor to the chief waiter who is from Giglio, local media reported. A judge will decide today whether Schettino will remain jailed.

29 still missing

Italian authorities Monday raised to 29 the number of people missing: 25 passengers and four crew members. Among them were an American couple, Jerry Heil, 69, and his wife, Barbara, 70, from White Bear Lake, Minn.

Fuel raises concern

Rough seas raised fears that 500,000 gallons of fuel might leak into a marine sanctuary. One of the world's leading salvagers, Smit of the Netherlands, was enlisted to remove the ship and extract the fuel safely.

Better muster drills, evacuation strategies would save lives in cruise disasters, experts say 01/16/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 16, 2012 11:52pm]

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