Saturday, 21 January 2012

Costa Concordia: How Could it Happen?

We are a hundred years away from the Titanic disaster and you'd think that the maritime industry would have learned lessons from that tragedy and all of the other since, to be able to make a truly safe ship, but last week's sinking of the Costa Concordia shows that even with modern technology the sea can claim lives.

However as with most disasters, its probably not just one thing that causes the eventual tragedy, but a chain of normally unrelated issues that join up to form an eventual catastrophic conclusion. The Captain of the ship has lots to answer for starting the chain of events, but others such as the designers of the ship must also bear the responsibility of not providing a break in the chain of catastrophe.

EUReferendum hosts this video by John Konrad showing the last moments of the Costa Concordia. Last week I also looked at the AIS data form the ship and was amazed at what I saw. To bring such a huge ship into such close proximity to the shore is a best risky and at worst dangerous. I live in Portsmouth and I regularly see the huge liners heading out into the channel from Southampton. However there is a very clear route they must take in order to stay within safe, deep water. In such close proximity to the shore its imperative for masters of large ships to be situationally aware at all times, otherwise groundings can occur. Even the QE2 went aground here in the Solent, but luckily we only have mud and sand, not rocks.

So, we know its relatively easy to be distracted and start the chain of events. But what of the ship itself and it's ability to survive a grounding? Its quite easy to see from John Konrad's video how the Costa Concordia was probably holed on both sides of her hull first from the initial strike on the rocks, creating the damage now visible in the side of the hull on the port side, but also the second strike as she finally runs aground holing the starboard side.

This of course still doesn't answer the issue of the capsize, as damage even this bad should be survivable given the amount of compartmentalisation that should be built into such ships.

However, there may be several flaws in her design and flaws in her operation that combined to doom the ship. First, her compartmentalisation may have been compromised by not securing watertight doors: she was just hours out of port and the necessary procedures to close watertight doors may have not been taken, allowing water to enter a larger area of the ship than you would expect. Another possible black mark for the Captain and his Officers in not making sure safety procedures are followed. Such things have happened before though, for instance when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized, the bow doors were left open as the ship sailed out to sea.

Next, the power blackout may have been due to saltwater getting into areas containing the generators or motors. More than likely an area of the ship containing high current electricity, which tripped the breakers and rendered the ship powerless and therefore unable to use pumps to remove some of the inrushing water. I'm not sure where the machinery is located on the Costa Concordia, but the power blackout and the subsequent loss of important systems seems to indicate that water got to those vital systems. Its possible machinery was located very low down in the ship in order to reduce the transmission of noise to the cabins, thus making it vulnerable to problems due to flooding. Its possible the designers mitigated the risk caused by machinery and seawater mixing by the assuming proper compartmentalisation would be in place all the time.

So, just to pause here and reflect, we have a ship with over 4000 people on board, run aground by its Captain, possibly holed on both side, without power and most likely without adequate compartmentalisation or pumps to deal with the flooding. Is the ship doomed? Well, possibly, but even if that's the case, the ship should take a while to sink. Unless of course other factors come into play to increase the rate of flooding.

And that's what I believe is the next step in the chain of the disaster, where further design errors contributed to the disaster.

On the website study these pictures of Costa Concordia's sister ship, the Costa Serena. Look closely at the stern of the ship. You can see that pretty low down to the waterline there is an open deck used for mooring. Note especially how much lower than the lifeboat deck it is. Now look at the picture on this BBC page showing the Costa Concordia listing. The lifeboat deck is close to the water already and its easy to see the open deck must by this time be under water. If the compartmentalisation hasn't been carried out, it's also not much of a step to assume that the doors to that mooring deck are still open and allowing more water into the ship, possibly in new areas that the initial flooding hadn't affected, but certainly increasing the rate of water inflow.

In the liners of old, the stern was at the same height as the bow, making it harder for water to get aboard, but also making it harder to haul ropes aboard for mooring. I just wonder if the convenience of a lower mooring deck cost the ship dearly.

However, by now we know that all these issues combined to doom the ship and a number of it's passengers.

The lack of an organised evacuation may also have caused confusion and loss of life, such as the people who perished, still grouped at the muster station below decks, or the Korean couple rescued alive still in their cabin.

The whole maritime industry must look a the Costa Concordia incident and learn the lessons. The sea is a hostile environment  and safety at sea should not be taken for granted, nor should we become complacent about it.


Looking at yet more photos of the stricken cruise liner, the gash in the hull appears to be in the hull right below the funnel. This would be where all the machinery would be and in fact there is one close-up photo of the torn hull in which you can see white-painted machinery through the wide gash. Another interesting feature of the hull is it looks to be incredibly thin steel plate for so low down in the hull and only single-skinned.

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