A US Senate investigation into the sinking of Italian ship Costa Concordia is bringing an industry accused of under-regulation into the spotlight. REBECCA DAVIS takes a look at the world of cruise ships.
There’s a kind of poetic irony in the fact that 2012, the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, has already seen two high profile cruise disasters in its first three months. The sinking of Italian luxury liner, the Costa Concordia, on 13 January was followed by its sister ship, the Costa Allegra, losing power in the Indian Ocean in February after a fire and having to be towed to safety in the Seychelles.
In 1912, 1,517 people died in the sinking of the Titanic, an event which has become a byword for hubris and is still the worst maritime disaster involving a passenger ship in history. The capsizing of the Costa Concordia, which saw at least 32 people die, is by no means the worst cruise-ship disaster since the Titanic. That distinction goes to the SS Morro Castle, built to sail between New York City and Havana, Cuba. The ship caught fire on 8 September 1934, while approaching New York, killing 134 passengers and crew members in scenes of chaos. That sinking prompted new requirements for onboard fire safety – the SS Morro Castle had veneered wooden interiors.
The reason why the Concordia disaster has attracted so much attention is partly to do with the accusations of inadequate response levelled against the captain and crew: human error or cowardice is a more compelling story than natural mishap. Hardly a day passes without some new revelation emerging about the misconduct of Captain Francesco Schettino, reportedly one of the most hated men in Italy now, who left the ship within the first hour of a six-hour evacuation. Schettino was entertaining a woman, Schettino had taken cocaine, Schettino was not wearing his glasses – these are some of the claims which have circulated about the ship’s captain recently. There are also reports of other crew members shirking responsibility, and most egregiously, selling off places in lifeboats.
But the safety of passengers in emergency situations is not the only concern circling around the cruise ship industry. In his testimony to the US Senate last week, Professor Ross Klein, an expert on the industry, called attention to the high levels of sexual assault reported on cruise ships in recent years. The most recent available figures, covering the period from 1 October 2007 to 30 September 2008, show that on certain cruise lines, the rate of sexual assault on the ships is “50% higher than the rate for sexual assault in Canada”, Klein claimed. He also cited two reports completed for the Royal Caribbean cruise line in 1999 by consultants, which found that “improper activity occurs frequently aboard cruise ships, but goes unreported and/or unpunished”, and that “crew members generally understand that if they commit an offence and are caught they are most likely going to lose their job and be returned home, but not spend time in jail”.
The reason why people who commit crimes on board cruise ships would be less likely to face jail time is twofold. Firstly, Klein suggests, shipboard security services are unlikely to be as competent or neutral as land-based police. Secondly, there is the fact that if a crime is committed in the territorial waters of another country, its investigation and prosecution falls to that country’s justice system. If a crime is committed in international waters, the jurisdiction of the crime is the responsibility of the country in which the cruise ship is registered – often small Caribbean countries, for tax purposes. Americans are better off in this regard: as of 2010, if a crime happens to an American citizen at sea, the FBI will investigate, but if a non-American is involved, they will not, even if it happens aboard an American-based ship.
This is the issue that Mike and Ann Coriam have been struggling with for almost a year. On 22 March 2011, their daughter Rebecca went missing from the Disney Wonder cruise ship, travelling between Los Angeles and Mexico. Rebecca, a 24-year-old from Chester in England, was employed in the ship’s youth activities programme: a job she had been undertaking for nine months and reportedly loved. Just before dawn on 22 March, Rebecca was captured on CCTV using the phone in the crew quarters. On the phone she appeared upset. Putting the handset down, she walked out of the camera view – and disappeared.
After Coriam didn’t report for work at 09:00, the crew issued an intercom call for her. The ship was then searched, with no success, and then the Mexican coastguard was alerted. They failed to find any trace of her in the water. Because the Disney Wonder ship was registered in the Bahamas, a police officer from Nassau was flown in to the ship to investigate – for less than two days, according to Coriam’s parents. They told the Guardian last November that passengers on board the ship were not questioned, and neither were many crewmembers. Disney said they had no footage of Coriam going overboard, and the recording of her last phone call was not released.
So what happened to Rebecca Coriam? The two most likely possibilities seem to be that she slipped or tripped and fell overboard – despite very high railings – or that she committed suicide by jumping off the ship. Coriam’s family maintain a website where they ask “Have You Seen Rebecca?”, but almost a year after her disappearance, chances of her still being alive seem low. “We are no further forward as to what happened to Rebecca,” Mike Coriam told the Daily Maverick.
The family is steadfast in their belief that the investigation was not pursued as it should have been, however. “Cruise ships don’t like the bad publicity these incidents can generate,” Coriam said, suggesting that the practice of registering their ships in small countries means that they can circumvent high profile, exhaustive investigations.
Coriam’s case is not isolated: people go missing on board cruise ships every year. When this happens, they are assumed to have gone overboard. Last year 22 of these incidents were recorded, and so far in 2012 the tally is at five, according to the record kept by Ross Klein on his website. Most recently, last Friday the US Coast Guard suspended its search for a 47-year-old Canadian woman reported missing from the Bahamas Celebration ship between the Bahamas and Florida.
The issue of people going missing on cruise ships has already been discussed at five previous congressional hearings. Last week it was raised again by Klein, whose written testimony to the Senate said: “While the cruise industry tends to view these incidents as comprising accidents and suicides, this is not supported by the 177 incidents recorded since 2000”. Some of the cases are clearly intentional suicides – for instance, when a note is later discovered in the individual’s cabin – and some are clearly accidents – for instance, when severely drunk individuals lean over railings to vomit and then fall in – but there have been a number of mysterious incidents. To quote Klein: “It is the mysterious incidents that raise the most concern. These are people who have given no sign of being suicidal, are happy and enjoying the cruise (often with family members along), and then go missing”.
One case previously brought up before a congressional hearing was that of Merrian Carver, a 40-year-old businesswoman who took a Royal Caribbean cruise from Seattle in 2004. Carver was last seen on the second night of her cruise, when she ordered food from room service. The cabin steward allegedly reported her missing the day afterwards, but nobody did anything. When the boat docked in Vancouver, the company did not report her missing, and donated her belongings to charity. It was only three weeks later, when Carver’s father traced the boat she would have been on and contacted Royal Caribbean, that they investigated the disappearance.
Royal Caribbean defended their actions – or non-actions – by saying that it was impossible for them to monitor passengers’ comings and goings (Merriam Carver could have been sleeping in another passenger’s room) and that if a passenger is set on committing suicide, there is not much they can do to prevent that.
Carver’s father Kendal now runs a group called International Cruise Victims, which “represents victims of crime on cruise ships, their families and friends, and individuals concerned about the problems of victimisation and disappearances on cruise ships”. It was this group which successfully lobbied for the passing in the USA of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, which among other things requires cruise ships to maintain CCTV surveillance and provide these records to law enforcement officials during investigations, and requires the operator of the vessel to contact law enforcement personnel as soon as possible after a disappearance or criminal occurrence. “Clearly, there needs to be legislation to start to control this industry,” Carver told the Daily Maverick.
Passenger security was just one of the issues raised at last week’s hearings on the cruise industry in the US Senate. Another major bugbear is the issue of taxation on the cruise corporations. The Costa Concordia was owned by the Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise ship operator, with 11 individual cruise line brands – among them the Cunard Line (famous for its now-retired ship the QEII), P&O Cruises and the Carnival Cruise Line in the US. Altogether these lines control 49.2% of the word’s cruise market, as of 2011. The Carnival Corporation recorded a tidy profit of $11,3-billion over the past five years, and paid an average of only 1.1% tax in the US on this.
Industry representatives defend this practice as being inevitable because their ships call in multiple different jurisdictions where passengers spend money, so it’s impossible to develop a fair system of standardised taxation. Some politicians disagree: Virginia Democrat Senator Jay Rockefeller blasted Carnival Corporations last week as being “a world unto yourself”. But at the same hearing, the cruise industry received passionate support from two Florida senators, with Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio both praising the industry’s contributions to jobs and economic activity.
Senator Rockefeller also raised the issue of environmental damage caused by the cruise industry, citing the allegedly widespread habit of cruise ships dumping waste, and denouncing the environmental practices of the industry as “unconscionable”. Between the early 1990s and 2002, several cruise lines were fined up to $30-million for illegally discharging oil and chemicals into US and Alaskan waters (Ross Klein stressed to the Daily Maverick in this regard that while there is “a need for clear regulations that protect the environment and that these regulations be enforced… it is important to note that the standards followed in South African waters are quite different than those in the US, Canada and Europe”). There are also concerns about the amount of untreated sewage released by cruise ships.
Defending the cruise industry at last week’s hearing, the CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, Christine Duffy, said with regards to environmental concerns that “our industry has a vested interest in protecting the environment, not only because it is the socially responsible thing to do, but because the very nature of our product depends on a healthy natural environment: clean oceans and beaches are essential to the cruise experience”. Duffy said action is being taken to reduce the environmental impact of cruising, and pointed to advancements like the development of treatment systems which can turn waste-water into drinking water-quality liquid when discharged.
Despite recent negative PR, however, the truth is that cruising is bigger than ever. Figures just released by the Cruise Line International Association report that in 2011, over 16.3-million people took cruises last year – an increase of 1.5-million from the previous year. The Daily Maverick asked Ross Klein if he thought the two recent Costa disasters would dent the public appetite for cruises. “I think the two incidents will certainly hurt Costa as a brand name,” Klein said, “however, I don’t think it will have a long-term impact on bookings generally. My view is that some people will put off booking a cruise vacation – especially those who are contemplating their first cruise – but as these events become more distant, they will be forgotten”. DM
Photo: The oil tanker Elba (R) and oil recovery sea platform Meloria (C) are seen near the capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the west coast of Italy, at Giglio island. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito.
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