How safe are our cities of the sea?

Ships are twice as big as when evacuation rules were last assessed

How safe are our cities of the sea?

Max Rossi/Reuters

With 4,200 people scattered throughout the ship’s dining halls, stores and cabins, the crash of the Costa Concordia has confirmed the fears of cruise-industry critics—the ever-expanding size of these floating cities has outstripped the capacity of their crews to get so many people off the ships fast enough.

And the ships are only getting bigger. Carnival Corporation’s latest addition to its Miami-based fleet is five times larger and holds 2,784 more guests than the 1972 version. The biggest cruise ship in the world, Royal Caribbean International’s Allure of the Seas, is almost 1,200 feet long and can accommodate 6,630 people.

After the Titanic went down, international standards were tightened to make sure crews on passenger liners could evacuate everyone on board within 30 minutes of a call to abandon ship. That standard was last assessed in the ’70s, when ships carried about 2,000 people. Critics argue the clock should start ticking the minute the ship runs into trouble, not 30 minutes after the call to abandon.

In the case of the Costa Concordia, after it hit a reef near the small Tuscan island of Giglio, 70 minutes elapsed before the evacuation order. Professor Ross Klein of Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., says that as late as 2000 some in the industry were warning that larger ships wouldn’t be able to be evacuated within the time frame. “Knowingly they went forward with these larger ships without thinking seriously about the issue of evacuation.”

Though 39 people are dead or missing, the saving grace with the Costa Concordia is that when the captain veered off course to salute the head waiter’s homeland, the ship sunk in shallow waters. Now it remains to be seen why Capt. Francesco Schettino abandoned ship before his guests.

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