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Jane Archer: Will this sink the cruise industry?

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A view shows the Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground off the west coast of Italy, at Giglio island January 15, 2012.Teams were painstakingly checking thousands of rooms on the cruise ship for nearly 40 people still missing, more than a day after the huge vessel foundered and keeled over with more than 4,000 on board, killing at least three people and injuring 70. REUTERS/Max Rossi (ITALY - Tags: DISASTER MARITIME TRANSPORT)

A view shows the Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground off the west coast of Italy, at Giglio island January 15, 2012.Teams were painstakingly checking thousands of rooms on the cruise ship for nearly 40 people still missing, more than a day after the huge vessel foundered and keeled over with more than 4,000 on board, killing at least three people and injuring 70. REUTERS/Max Rossi (ITALY - Tags: DISASTER MARITIME TRANSPORT)

A view shows the Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground off the west coast of Italy, at Giglio island January 15, 2012.Teams were painstakingly checking thousands of rooms on the cruise ship for nearly 40 people still missing, more than a day after the huge vessel foundered and keeled over with more than 4,000 on board, killing at least three people and injuring 70. REUTERS/Max Rossi (ITALY - Tags: DISASTER MARITIME TRANSPORT)

Until this weekend, the name Costa Concordia would have meant very little to anyone outside Italy. Many Italians would have known of it; it was, after all, one of the flagships of their largest cruise line, Costa Cruises. But in the space of a couple of hours late on Friday, when the ship hit rocks off the island of Giglio, all that changed. By the early hours of Saturday morning, it was being compared to the Titanic.

True, the disaster was on a different scale -- while there are at least six dead and 16 missing from Costa Concordia out of the 4,234 passengers and crew, more than 1,500 died when the Titanic sank. And the Costa Concordia was never hailed as unsinkable; no one was going to make that mistake again.

But there was a general understanding that over the past century lessons had been learnt about safety at sea; that modern vessels, equipped with the latest navigational and satellite equipment, would be safe from hidden rocks -- certainly in waters around the Italian coast, where numerous cruise ships like Costa Concordia sail throughout the year.

If, as initial reports suggest, the accident was not due to a fault with the ship -- an important concern, because there are other Costa vessels built to a similar design -- but rather a serious error on the part of the captain, the cruise industry will be breathing a collective sigh of relief. But only temporarily, because the incident raises many other questions.

Why did Costa Concordia keel over, given that water-tight bulkheads in the hull were supposed to keep the vessel upright? Why did it take so long for the captain to give the order to abandon ship when he must have had reports about the full extent of the damage from his officers? And why did the emergency evacuation procedure descend into chaos?

I can speculate about the first two. Maybe too many bulkheads were flooded for the system to work; or more likely, by bringing the ship so close to land, thinking it would help the evacuation, the captain actually upset the stability and caused it to tip over. Keels are built to float, not balance on land. And if he thought the evacuation would be easier close to land, that would explain the delay in ordering passengers to abandon ship. It is a decision that may be shown to have cost lives.

The last question is easy to answer. I know from many years reporting from cruise ships that passengers, in particular those who have cruised before, don't take any notice of what is being said during the emergency drill held at the start of each cruise.

On my last cruise with Costa, the safety announcement was made in nine languages; the British woman next to me joked that in the event of an emergency, the ship would have sunk by the time they finished talking.

So I've no doubt the chaos on Concordia was caused because passengers didn't know what they were doing -- Costa is one of a few lines that allows people to board at various ports on an itinerary; worryingly, initial reports say there was no safety drill for those who embarked at Civitavecchia. It was dark, which will have added to the panic, and witnesses say many lifeboats couldn't be lowered due to the angle of the ship. I suspect also that there were communication problems between the crew and the many different nationalities on board, and that their training would have been carried out in daytime, in good weather and not while surrounded by frightened people.

During the safety drill, passengers are instructed to go to their cabins to fetch their life jackets -- a crazy system, especially on big ships such as the Costa Concordia. Many passengers can't find their cabin at sea in calm waters and with the sun shining, so how are they supposed to find it when the electricity has failed and they are panicking?

Royal Caribbean International abandoned that system in 2009 when it launched Oasis of the Seas, the world's biggest cruise ship, which holds almost 6,300 passengers. Now, people are instructed to go to the muster station in an emergency, and if necessary life jackets will be issued there. I suspect other cruise lines will now change their procedures, especially given the alarming reports that passengers on Concordia couldn't get into or out of their cabins because there was no power.

Inevitably, the size of modern cruise ships is now under scrutiny. If things can go so wrong on Costa Concordia, what about Oasis of the Seas and its sister ship, Allure of the Seas? Factor in the crew on those two vessels and you have a small town of almost 8,500 people; getting that many people off safely in an emergency would be a daunting task.

But all that said, we need to put this accident in context. Cruising, whether on a cruise ship or a liner -- liners have the deeper draught, a pointed bow and are faster -- is the safest form of travel there is. That's not to say there haven't been some accidents involving cruise ships in the 100 years since the Titanic sank. But Concordia is the worst. It has taken a century for it to happen.

Although there does seem to be some bravado involved in building ever bigger ships, I suspect Oasis and Allure will remain the world's largest for many years, mainly because of the sheer practical difficulties of managing 4,000-plus people.

But there will certainly be many more new ships built -- another seven are being added this year alone -- to cater for a phenomenal increase in the number of people taking cruises over the past 15 years. More than 21 million took an ocean cruise last year, and all the signs indicate that numbers will continue to rise.

But after last weekend, many people -- in particular first-timers who might have been tempted to cruise because it is such good value -- will think again. For how long remains to be seen. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Jane Archer is a travel writer specialising in cruises

Irish Independent