Titanic Tales: The Costa Concordia

Photo: An oil removal ship is seen next to the Costa Concordia cruise ship as it ran aground off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island, January 16, 2012. Over-reliance on electronic navigation systems and a failure of judgement by the captain are seen as possible reasons for one of the worst cruise liner disasters of all time, maritime specialists say. (REUTERS/ Max Rossi)

When I read hastily the headlines on Jan 14—a shipwreck in Italy, seventy missing, three known dead—I immediately thought: it must be the Africans again. The refugees, the clandestine, the invisible, the nameless, the unwanted… Those "less-than-human" people coming from all over the world to the Italian coast, looking for a safe haven from dictatorships, from hunger.

My Somali Italian friend Suad, who works with her community In Italy now, urges her people in Somalia NOT to take that dangerous ride: even if you survive the trip, what waits for you in Italy can be fatal. Italy is in deep economic crisis today, on the verge of bankruptcy and social disorder. The new government struggling to remain a G8 power while the euro and United Europe are at stake. Italy also struggles to overcome a big moral value crisis after twenty years of Berlusconi's reign of sexism, racism, indolence and corruption.

But I was wrong about the Africans. It was a fancy cruise ship full of wealthy foreigners that wrecked unexpectedly near the island of Giglio.

The splendid Costa Concordia was 290 meters long, and had thirteen decks. The ship featured thirteen bars, five restaurants, four swimming pools and five hundred balconied staterooms.

One woman survivor testified: "It was horrible! The foreign crew was screaming in their language in panic. We broke the glass and then we fought each other to get the lifejackets."

"While we were eating dinner, the first course, the plates started to flow, the glasses all of a sudden to run and then the lights went off. Then we fell on top of each other. People were stampeding while the ship was turning upside down. Now I am trying to find a friend I lost. Her cell phone is ringing but she is not answering."

A young Serbian girl who worked in the ship's gift shop recalled:

"We had to unleash the lifeboats ourselves: the instructors who had taught us how to do that jumped into the boats. There were no signs of ship officers to calm the passengers. Eighty-year-old people in a panic were shoving children, and mothers with babies in arms, in order to save themselves..."

When passing the isle of Giglio, cruise ships often greet the inhabitants of the island with a honk of the ship's horn. They say the habit dates back to an old Italian ship captain who was from Giglio and was bidding his home goodbye. From the land, the illuminated ship looks beautiful, and from the ship it's romantic to see the dark shape of an island speckled with lights. But for the Costa Concordia, everything went wrong.

Every tragedy becomes romantic if it's the last day of your life. All ships that sink carry the aura of the Titanic. All big disasters reveal the good and bad in people tested by adversity: people transform into heroes or cowards, and you never know who lurks within your own self at that ghastly hour.

A son of two elderly parents on the ship -- they had never left their home since their honeymoon years before -- personally came with his whole family to rescue them. He managed to save his mother, but for his father, it was too late.

A quiet Korean honeymoon couple was found alive after two days of fear, hunger and cold.

An Italian actress, also a survivor, said: "I was like an idiot, completely lost! When this ship tipped over on its side I tried to stop it with my feet!" In a further irony, this actress had once starred in a film about the famous sinking of the Andrea Doria.

There were four thousand people on that cruise ship: mostly Italian and French, but also tourists from many other nations. Students on a training course, hairdressers who had won a competition excursion worth 100 000 euros, many retired people, handicapped people and children. A floating Babel of different languages and cultures: a ghost nation.

Once the Costa Concordia showed her bad karma, of course it was recalled that on the day of her launch, the bottle of champagne smashed against her bow did not break.

A bad omen.

The captain of the ship was arrested and accused of manslaughter. He was charged with abandoning his position of command by cravenly saving himself, reaching the coast where he was found on a rock while his passengers fought for their lives.

The captain, in his distress, claims that his maps did not show the "Ghost Rock" on which his ship foundered: but his crew tells a different story. A deliberate decision to cruise far too close to the coast, to the bella isola di Giglio...to whistle a fond goodbye!

Naturally the Italian social networks spread their wisecracks: That's what happens when you hit the rock of Italy, the sinking country!

Other tourist cities in Italy like Venice are changing the security rules for cruise ships. A potential ecological disaster lingers: the fuel tanks in the carcass of the Costa Concordia might rupture.

My dear friend, Maja Mitic, an actress and activist from Belgrade, was aboard the Costa Concordia. She was there on her honeymoon, and to celebrate Serbian New Years. She wrote this on her Facebook profile:

"Dear friends, Ljuba and I are finally home.... after cruising seven days on Costa Concordia where we spend our last night, Friday the 13th of January, like on the movie Titanic... thank you all for your messages... What does not kill you, make you stronger!"


  1. “We had to unleash the lifeboats ourselves: the instructors who had taught us how to do that jumped into the boats. There were no signs of ship officers to calm the passengers.”

    I have been avoiding stories about this ship because I know it’s just another example of paying attention to the bad things that happen to the shiny rich while ignoring all the bad that happens everyday to the rest of us. But this quote makes this story worth it. Something was rotten here from the captain (or above him) on down.

    1. Here’s another story you might either find interesting (or wish to avoid reading): Rebecca Coriam: lost at sea, from the Guardian. It’s about a 24-year-old British woman who worked on a cruise ship, who simply disappeared from the ship. Not a lot was done to investigate. A sad story.

      1. Yes, I did read that a while back. That and the link below revealed an area of legal nothingness that is shocking and overlooked.

        1. When I read the last story in the second link, about the woman being seen in the middle of the night climbing over her balcony railing before going into the water, I was reminded of the stories my cousin told me about taking Ambien.  Perhaps in at least some cases people are sleepwalking to their deaths?

  2. The last time I remember a cruise ship in trouble, the captain and crew also bugged out, saving themselves without helping the passengers. I wonder what the NTSB would say about this failure mode?

  3. If you speak Italian, the recording of the phone call between the captain of the ship and the captain of the port authority (starts about 30 s in) is just awful.

    Basically, the port demands to know why the captain abandoned ship and orders him to go back and start taking charge — or at least taking part — of the rescue. The captain keeps blubbering that its dark and that he’s “organizing things from the shore.” The port authority captain (who sounds amazing, btw, really taking charge under stress) states that, as the captain abandoned ship, he’s taking command of the ship and that disobeying his orders is illegal, and repeatedly demands that the captain go back and do his duty. Mostly, though, it sounds like an angry teacher shouting at a disobedient and petulant child.

    Accidents do happen, but how you react after them is what makes a person a hero or a villain. This captain was no Captain Sully, and I hope he goes straight to jail.

    1. In the case of this particular shitstain, the accident was entirely the result of his irresponsibility and dereliction of duty. His behavior after the wreck is just the cherry on the shit sundae he made.

    2. One of my favorite lines from the recording, on re-listening to it, was “Listen, you may have saved yourself from the sea, but I am going to bring you into a world of hurt. Now get back aboard! Fuck!


      PORT AUTHORITY: Concordia, we ask you if all is ok there.

      CAPTAIN SOLO: Everything’s under control. Situation normal.

      PORT AUTHORITY: What happened?

      CAPTAIN SOLO: We had a slight electrical malfunction.  But, uh, everything’s perfectly alright now.  We’re fine… we’re all fine here, except for the people we can’t account for after we abandoned ship.

      PORT AUTHORITY: You abandoned ship?

      CAPTAIN SOLO: But most of us are fine. There is a man going around taking Starbucks orders.  Did you want anything?

      PORT AUTHORITY: We’re sending the Coast Guard.

      CAPTAIN SOLO: Negative, negative, we’re all fine here.  We’re just sitting around on the shore and enjoying some time on land.  If you send the Coast Guard it’s just going to complicate the coffee orders.  Have you tried taking drink orders for 2,000 people AND the Coast Guard?

      PORT AUTHORITY: Who is this? I want to speak to the Captain of the MS Costa Concordia!

      CAPTAIN SOLO: [dropping radio into ocean] Boring conversation anyway.

    4. The phone conversation is amazing: De Falco, the coastguard commander, is practically incandescent with rage, and Schettino, the cruise ship captain, is just mumbling excuses. It also illustrates a phenomenon I’ve noticed before: no matter how angry Italians are with each other, they use the polite forms. De Falco uses ‘lei’ rather than ‘tu’ throughout, and even his imperatives use the formal variant; he does let slip one ‘cazzo’ and a heartfelt ‘cristo’, though.

      There are a lot of approving tweets from Italians with the hashtag #defalco currently, and even more condemning #schettino. My favorite is from the Twitter user who says that he’s planning to use the recorded phrase “Get on board, goddammit!” as his new ringtone. (“goddammit” is not the literal translation of “cazzo”, which literally means ‘prick’, but it conveys the sense in this particular context).

      1. Incandescent with rage but also brimming with iron professionalism. He’s understood at this point that the only way to move forward is to grab this petulant child by the ear and force him to do his duty. His anger stems from his incredulity that any captain would be so shameful as to be abandoning his post and his duty at this time.
        De Falco sounds like a real hero. I think he commanded the entire rescue that night, and probably can be credited with saving hundreds of lives. Actually, I’ve been listening to this recording on repeat today. As editorials in Italy are saying, De Falco sounds like he comes from another era, or from the movies — the heroic commander taking charge.

  4. According to Wikipedia, MS Costa Concordia had 17 decks, not 13.  Likewise, according to the cached page of the vessel at costacruise.com, the Costa Concordia had 17 decks, 14 of which were for guests. 

    It did have 13 bars, including a “Cognac & Cigar” bar and a “Coffee & Chocolate” bar.

  5. The treatment of the crew on these ships, including Costa and Royal Caribbean, is abominable. It would be considered slave labor if it weren’t for the efforts of lawyers from these companies influencing the courts of port countries, and the fact that most are registered in another country entirely. Royal, for instance, is technically a “Liberian company.”

    For example, if a stateroom attendant needs a sick day, it’s not only that they don’t get sick pay, they actually have to PAY someone to take the shift for them. They rarely provide even the most meager safety equipment, forcing employees to buy it if they want (gloves, for example.)

    These cruise companies should be held to international labor law, but aren’t. I hope this story brings their crimes to light.

    1. The pay the cruise companies offer seems mighty fine when viewed from some country like Serbia, so there are plenty of people who will gladly put up with such work conditions. They seem to think they wouldn’t be treated much better back home working a similar job they are qualified for. And they woul definitely be paid much less.

  6. Just came to say that the picture at the top of this story is so eerie and unreal that it totally looks ‘shopped.

    1.  Ya, what does that even mean? Is it possible there is a negation missing, that would make more sense. “If it’s not the last day of your life”

      My guess is tragedy becomes blind terror if it is the last day of your life.

  7. It’s fashionable to characterize these cruise passengers as rich (implying some kind of comeuppance when it all goes so very wrong?), but I’ll bet you they’re mostly middle-class. This is not a country club on the sea, but the floating equivalent of a mid-range beach resort crossed with a package bus tour. The kind of place ordinary families go for a small taste of luxury, not the kind of place the 1% or even the 10% go to get away from the great unwashed. (Those kinds of cruise ships do exist, but they’re more like oversized yachts with capacities in the hundreds, not the thousands.)

    I took a similar cruise once. Never will again — just so much wrong with the whole thing — but the impression of ultra-luxury hyped by cruise lines and media is way overblown. A trip that can be had for as little as $300 is not exactly an activity for the truly rich, is it?

    As for what’s wrong even when it all goes right: massive quantities of wastewater generated, a kind of “travel” that produces sightseeing opportunities and little else, a tendency to attract an “ugly tourist” kind of clientele, mediocre food (and lots of it — great if you like the sight of a stereotypical American with a plate piled to overflowing with fried chicken), cheesy entertainment, gaudy decor, relentless nickle-and-diming… 

    It’s crass and wasteful all right, but it’s the kind of crass wastefulness that huge numbers of people can afford, and much the same kind that the average American indulges in on any vacation, if not every day.

  8. Usually I appreciate Ms. Tesanovic’s articles, but this one didn’t seem to be much more than a retweet of all the breathless headlines we see all over the place. 

    I liked the beginning – there is a stark contrast between the sheer number of African migrants who die in the Mediterranean every year and the few poor souls who died on this vacation ship.  I know, the big ship is spectacular, and it is easier for most of us to imagine ourselves as one of the passengers in this kind of disaster than it is to see ourselves on a midnight overloaded migrant smuggling boat.  But seriously.

    The captain will almost certainly go to jail, perhaps for a long time.  He should be the second last person out of the ship, as a global rule (the last being the chief engineer).  And he (or whomever was deck officer at the time) should be reading the charts carefully. 

    It’s a tragedy, but my interest in the breathless analysis across all media forms is pretty much at an end.  Luckily for me there won’t be more than a couple of days before Lindsay Lohan or some other ego does something stupid and the cruise ship is utterly forgotten by everyone but those involved.

    1. BBC has run roughly fifty articles on this incident, some of them consisting of a mother commenting on a twenty-word phone call with her daughter and how they all feel about everything. They ran a phone call with a survivor where the BBC reporter keeps countering factual comments by the survivor with ghoulish questions like, “Was there panic? Did you have a sense of panic?” But the cherry on the exploitation sundae was a photo of the ship in one of the articles with a caption saying that a BBC journalist thought that the experience must have been terrifying. Lindsay Lohan can take a number. They won’t need to float that ship out of there because the BBC is planning to squeeze it dry.

  9. you are right, i feel i must go to the bottom of this story especially now that this mud about the company and captain foul play is coming out, la machina del fango!

  10. It is decidedly not a tradition to maneuver the ship close by the island. The captain took a completely different route just the week  prior. The difference during this trip was that he made a promise to the Maitre D’ on board to move the ship close to the island so he could wave to his sister on the island.
    The list and numbers of nationalities on board is wrong.
    Please define ‘wealthy’.
    Also, WTF have the waters in front of Tuscany to do with Africans? Africans usually come to the southern most spot in Italy, Sicily, which is 450 miles south from Giglio.

    Hard to believe that a pundit manages to piss on a disaster such as this while 29 are still missing.

    1. It was a great feat for a 72-year-old woman, but I agree with her assessment of it. I would hope that the bar for “heroism” would be higher than saving your own skin, as laudable as it may be for someone to do that.

    2. She looks like a pretty healthy 72 year old,  I’d be more concerned about her being smothered by those microphones than failing to swim 100m in calm, fairly warm water.

  11. Schettino… Schettino… after all bodies have been recovered, I think we need to hold a contest to determine what Schettino actually means. It worked wonders for Rick Santorum.

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