16 January 2012

From Titanic to Costa Concordia: a Century of Improved Maritime Safety

I previously decided I would not comment on the subject of the Costa Concordia sinking. Other blogs and websites have done an excellent job in conveying information about the disaster and I have felt it is unnescessary for me to waste my time in writing about the subject. But there is something about how people are interpretating this disaster I cannot ignore.

No more than 22 of the 4 211 people on the Costa Concordia perished in the accident. Photo of the Costa Concordia leaving La Goulette on 27 May 2009. More from the same day here.
Many have compared the Costa Concordia sinking into the Titanic disaster. Which is perhaps natural, as the Titanic is hugely well-known and we are in the year of the ship's 100th anniversary. But the Concordia sinking is not "just like the Titanic". Both were ships, both sank. That's about where the similarities end. People are also voicing the opinion that we have learned nothing about the Titanic. But let's look at the numbers of both disasters:

The sinking of the Titanic started the process of ever-improving safety regulations and we see the fruits of those in the Costa Concordia accident. Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons, author unknown.
When the Titanic sank, she was carrying 2 224 passengers and crew, of whom 1 514 perished. In other words, the fatality rate of the accident was 68,1%. (Numbers from Wikipedia).

The current figures for the Costa Concordia are that she was carrying 4 211 people, of whom six are known to have died and 16 are missing. With the confirmed deaths this gives a fatality rate of 0,1%. If all the missing people are found dead, the fatality rate rises to 0,5%.

From 68 % dead to 0,5% dead in a hundred years is not "learning nothing". That's one hell of an improvement. Now I admit that the conditions on the icy North Atlantic in 1912 were quite different from the sunny Mediterranean in 2012. I'm also not saying that 0,5% is an acceptable rate of loss. Even one death is too much. Never the less, to say that we have learned nothing is hardly fair. That said, there is room for improvement, and the Costa Concordia's crew could have done better.

A very similar accident happened in 2007 to the Sea Diamond (ex-Birka Princess) near Santorini, Greece (and incident almost everyone seems to have forgotten in just five years). The Sea Diamond hit an uncharted reef and sank. There were 1195 passengers and circa 400 crew onboard (sadly I could not find the exact crew figures). Two people perished. By the earlier math, that gives a fatality rate of 0,1%. In other words, no improvement from the Sea Diamond to the Costa Concordia. And bear in mind that the Sea Diamond was built in 1986, 21 years old at the time of the accident, contra the five years of Costa Concordia. The Concordia should have done better and there is clearly still room for improvement in SOLAS regulations. Not to mention in the common sense of Italian ship captains.

I apologise for the poor quality of the image, this is my only photo of the Birka Princess, to-be-Sea Diamond (that doesn't feature my fingers), taken in Stockholm in the mid-90s. The ships forward and aft superstructure were later quite radically rebuilt.
But getting back to the point of this text: maritime safety has improved by leaps and bound in the last century. We still have accidents (mostly due to human error) and we will probably always have accidents. But in 1912 over half of the passengers perished. In 2012 one in two hundred perished. That is progress.

[Edit 17. 1. 2012:] Number of people missing from the Costa Concordia is now given as 29 as opposed to the 16 at the time of writing. With the confirmed deaths plus 29 missing, the current highest possible fatality rate is now 0,8%. Which is still low, but notably worse than on the Sea Diamond.


  1. You make a good point... I don't see the reasons to believe cruising is generally dangerous or as you mentioned things haven't changed since Titanic, but seriously that can't be the only point.

    The important question is: How can safety standards keep up with the ever growing size of the ships, instead of applying known rules and regulations for smaller ships in the same way for way bigger ones only. What does a well trained crew or profound fire fighting system help (as if that was ever perfectly true..) if the means to abandon ships (i.e. lifeboats and liferafts) hardly face innovation? When ships are so huge that you might not manage to get there, for whatever reason? It's also much about reducing the possibility of capsizing in general. Maybe it is time to think more about some kind of inflatable safety sponsons, double hulls and whatever else... A cruise ship carrying 4000 people should today be really what the Titanic was meant to be - (almost) unsinkable. The Economies of Scale effects on the cost side of these ships should leave enough room for a lot more spenditure on safety compared to smaller sized ships, but of course it is and always will be a tradeoff, which will never be won by safety unless something serious has happend often enough or fatal enough. The loss of lives on the one hand and the loss of a 500 million Dollar asset on the other, plus all the redemptions, image problems and all other factors influencing Carnivals balance might help to fuel innovation on ship safety, as it has always and ever been with everything human beings have done...

    I guess we just need disasters like this in order to realize what can really happen and where the actual problems are.

    I somehow remember we were once talking about the matter on one of our trips and as horrible as it is, this is the now no more missing example John was back then talking about (I think), at least proving that it's not completely hopeless to evacuate a ship of that size.. but thinking about this happening far away on open sea in bad conditions does not feel very good still.

  2. Good to see you here Mathias!

    We've talked about so many things on our trips (particularly when John is around) that I don't remember the exact conversation.

    When talking about this I think it should be remembered that there are always two issues to safety: the technical and the human side. In this case I think more people could have been saved if the crew had been doing a better job and the evacuation had started sooner.

    But, then again, because there is always the human element present - and let's face it people ARE stupid - as you say, the technical safety should be improved. The inflatable safety sponson is a very good idea. Disasters tend to lead to an emphasis on safety for the next few years, with a slight dropback afterwards. I would presume that if new ships are ordered within the next few years they will show all kinds of new safety improvements (and as possible these will be retrofitted to older ships). The most impractical of these will be forgotten and eventually we'll reach an equilibrium with safety in a somewhat higher level than today.

  3. Wonderful report Kalle, I coudn't agree more, unfortunately we live in a world controlled by the media and as such the 100th anniversary of the TITANIC is now news all over the world again for the wrong reasons of course, also a lot of comparisons are made with the TITANIC movie, similar experiences for the passengers on board CONCORDIA, definately SOLAS should spend more time dedicated with the training of the crews instead of wanting to get rid of older ships, just to favour the new cruise mammoths, the same principle applies here after 100 years, ARROGANCE

  4. Mikko Laaksonen18 January, 2012 13:33

    Kalle, unfortunately you are comparing apples and oranges here. If Titanic would have hit an island in good weather, and capsized and sunk by it, the majority of its passengers would have survived, even in 1912.

    The casualty rate even in modern time can be very high if the circumstances are bad enough and the evacuation fails as the disaster unfolds very rapidly, as we quite well remember from the MV Estonia sinking in september 1994. Also, the basic reason for that sinking was a technological breakdown.

    Of course, a more appropriate comparison for the Costa Concordia sinking is the sinking of Sally Albatross in 1994 roughly similar circumstances, even though the grounding was there caused by an involuntary navigational error in ice conditions. In this case, the more appropriate response by the crew - and more time before the sinking - resulted in no fatalies.

  5. Mikko, absolutely true that the comparison between the Concordia and Titanic far from accurate. Although, with the attitudes back in 1912 I think the death toll still wouldn't have been as small as on the Concordia, even had the Titanic accident taken place in similar condition as the Concordia.

    Also bear in mind that the Titanic's sister Britannic sunk in the Mediterrean in 1916. Admittedly this was during wartime and the Britannic was hit by a torpedo and not an underwater rock, but the ensuing situation was very similar (including the attempt the run the ship close to land and a delayed evacuation), and on the Britannic 30-70 people (depending on the source) lost their lives.

    I am in no way disputing the fact that the Sally Albatross rescue operation was handled much better than that of the Concordia. Had the captain and crew of the Concordia acted in a similar manner than on the Sally Albatross, there probably would have been no lost lives.