Following the Costa Concordia disaster last year, the Cruise Line International Organization (CLIA) announced 10 new safety proposals that all of the cruise lines were suppose to follow.
One proposal was that cruise lines would no longer load crew members in the lifeboats during safety drills. Instead, cruise lines were suppose to lower the lifeboats into the water first, load the crew members in next, and then practice motoring the lifeboat around. The proposal envisions only a few crew aboard during the lowering of the lifeboat, and they must be essential to the operation.
Today we learn that at least 8 crew members were in a lifeboat during a drill on the Thomson Majesty cruise ship, apparently in violation of the new CLIA safety proposal, when the lifeboat plunged 60 feet into the water. The lifeboat landed upside down. 5 of the crew are dead. 3 are injured.
The cruise ship was docked at the pier of Santa Cruz port in La Palma, in the Canary Islands. Thomson Cruises is owned by the large German travel company TUI. The cruise ship is operated by Louis Cruises.
A local newspaper says that the nationality of the dead victims are three Indonesians, a Ghanian and a Filipino. The injured involve two Greek crew members in serious condition and a Filipino in what is being described as in less serious condition.
There is a saying that most lifeboats drills injure or kill more crew than save lives. Lifeboats can fall suddenly due to operator error or suffer malfunctions of the moving parts or failure of the cables and hardware. The accident appears to have happened while the lifeboat was being raised. No one needs to be aboard the lifeboat when it is raised. A cable snapped on one side. A photograph on our Facebook page shows a frayed cable.
You can see a dramatic lifeboat accident in a video here. Although it did not involve a cruise ship, you can see how things can go terribly wrong.
It's a shame that the lifeboat had crew members aboard while it was being lowered and raised in violation of the CLIA safety proposals. Why have 8 crewmembers in the boat while it is being raised anyway? The safety proposals are just that - proposals. It seems that at the end of the day, the cruise lines do whatever they want to do.
"Alan Graveson, Senior International Secretary of Nautilus the U.K.-based seafarers' union, said: "I issued instructions seven years ago that preferably nobody should be in the lifeboat during a safety drill, and if that's not possible then there should be a maximum of two people.
"Lifeboats are meant to go one way -- and that's down -- I don't know why there were eight people onboard when they were winching it back up."
Photo credit: AP via Huffington Post. Video credit: BBC News.
A retired U.S. Coast Guard official called me last week about issues of cruise ship safety. We had an interesting hour and one-half discussion about whether modern cruise ships are designed to safely evacuate passengers and crew members in times of emergencies like fires or sinkings.
Our conversation began with Royal Caribbean's biggest cruise ships in the world, the Oasis of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas.
Royal Caribbean touts these news ships as technological marvels of the world. But the evacuation procedures are strictly old-school.
Some aspects of the emergency abandon ship systems are flat-out dangerous.
The cruise line's press releases mentions that the cruise ship has 18 lifeboats each with a 370 passenger capacity. It says that "lifeboats on Oasis of the Seas have been entirely redesigned and approved as part of a holistic evacuation concept."
But the truth of the matter is that Royal Caribbean had a major problem when it designed the largest cruise ships on the planet. There is a regulation stating that the maximum number of people permitted aboard a lifeboat is 150. There is no way that the cruise line could build a ship with over 55 lifeboats carrying 150 people each. So in order to cram enough people into lifeboats, the cruise line obtained a waiver to increase the maximum lifeboat capacity up to 370 people.
Royal Caribbean not only has the largest cruise ships in the world, but it has the largest lifeboats in the world.
But does it have enough?
18 lifeboats with a capacity of 370 equals only 6,660 people. Oasis has a total maximum population of around 8,500 when you count its capacity of around 6,300 passengers and 2,200 crew members. That means that there are around 1,850 people without the lifeboats which Royal Caribbean raves about.
Royal Caribbean's press statement makes no mention of it, but those who are not assigned or cannot fit into the limited number of lifeboats must use "emergency evacuation chutes." The term used on the Royal Caribbean ships is "Viking Dual Evacuation Chute." What is this you may ask? You won't find Royal Caribbean talking much about the chute system.
If you look at photographs of the Oasis (or the Allure), along the side of the ship at deck 4 you will see three large lifeboats in-a-line leading from the stern. Then you will see a row of canisters (others may call then cylinders), looking like old depth charges, positioned one on top of the other on deck 4.
When these canisters are opened (see video bottom), a life-raft inflates in the water below. (We are talking about life-rafts - not lifeboats). These life-rafts are connected to a series of chutes running up to deck 4. The passengers and/or crew evacuate the cruise ships by jumping into the entrance to this emergency evacuation apparatus on deck 4. They then rapidly slide / fall down a steep, vertical drop into the inflated life-raft below.
These type of devices are dangerous. There have been a significant number of people killed or seriously injured while trying to evacuate 4 or 5 stories down steep chutes like this.
In November, I wrote an article about 20 crew members seriously injured in a drill using this type of system who suffered broken bones, sprained ankles, and friction burns during the steep descent. Further injuries were avoided only when other crew members refused to jump. A union representative characterized the evacuation system as "unsuitable and dangerous."
PBS aired a documentary on behalf of "Inside Nova" which looked at the Oasis of the Seas' evacuation procedures. PBS videotaped the operation of the chutes. In the video below you can see crew members tugging on the chute when suddenly a crew member comes flying out - landing violently on his buttocks. After catching his breath, he exclaims "I got stuck!"
Now the first reaction to the video may be that it seems funny. But if you think about it for a second, it is actually terrifying. The placard on the cruise ship shows families with little kids and infants who are lining up to jump. The drawing on the ship actually show a mother clinging to her infant sailing down the chute a few feet above another passenger while a large man is jumping into the chute above her. I cannot imagine a more dangerous scenario.
Can you imagine what would happen if a 235 lb man lands on a 130 lb woman holding on to her 25 lb infant at the bottom of the chute? Serious injury would occur. Serious head injuries are likely if multiple people and children are in the chute at the same time. Far fetched? Hardly. This scenario is actually depicted in the instructional drawings on the Oasis itself.
Royal Caribbean may say that only crew members are suppose to use this system. That's mentioned on the PBS video where you can see photographs of the chute system. That does not say much for the cruise line's consideration of the safety of its own crew.
But why do the drawings of the chute system depict passengers with children and mothers clinging onto their infants descending the chutes? These images are directly from Royal Caribbean's cruise ships. And if in fact only crew members are assigned to the chutes, why should they be subject to such dangers on a cruise ship which its owners tout as the safest ship in the world?
The other issue to consider, of course, is what happens if the Oasis suffers a Costa Concordia type of accident where the cruise ship lifts heavily to one side? As we know from the Concordia, the lifeboats could not be deployed once the ship listed to 22 degrees. Half of the Concordia lifeboats, on the port side of the vessel, were useless once the ship listed to the starboard side. If anything like this happens on the Oasis, there will be a riot where passengers and crew fight to get into the remaining lifeboats and the rest will be left to take their chances jumping down the chutes hoping to land in a raft many stories below.
Then there are the wind and sea conditions. All of the drills for the Oasis or Allure take place on sunny days in the calm waters of the Caribbean. Take a look here for an example. Around and around the lifeboats drive in the protected waters of a beautiful lagoon in the Caribbean. What fun.
But what happens when these ships are re-positioned to Europe, Indonesia or Australia where there are high seas and unpredictable weather? After all, Royal Caribbean is ordering more Oasis class monster ships right now. Trying to evacuate thousands of people down chutes into life-rafts in high waves and winds could be a disaster. There is also the risk of the tether ropes breaking, the chutes twisting, or the life-rafts ripping away from the chutes.
I for one would hate to think of anyone's spouse, or kids, or parents, whether they are crew or passengers, having to jump into an evacuation chute and fall 50 feet into a raft in rough seas.
A chute and a raft are hardly a "holistic" approach to survival. It's a disappointing and antiquated way of trying to save lives on the supposedly most sophisticated cruise ship in the world.
Don't forget to watch the video of the chute system below:
A newspaper in Finland is reporting that twenty crew members received injuries during a lifeboat drill aboard the Findlandia cruise ship operated by Eckerö Line in Tallinn.
The newspaper states that crew members suffered broken bones and sprained ankles, as well as friction burns caused by trying to slow their descent during the steep drop into a life raft.
Unlike most lifeboat systems in which the crew will board the lifeboat and then descend into the water, the system on the Findlandia involves a chute which drops straight down to the life rafts in the water. It does not look much different than chutes which construction crews use in dumping construction debris from upper floors into a dumpster on the street below.
You can see the system in the photograph to the left. It looks very dangerous.
The drill was suspended only when the Eckerö crew members refused to follow their colleagues down the chute.
”The exercise should have been called off as soon as the injuries came,” said a representative of a Finnish Transport Safety Agency Trafi.
A representative of the Finnish Seamen’s Union stated that the evacuation system used is "unsuitable and dangerous," although it was approved in the European Union.
The cruise industry trade organization, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), announced with great fanfare a new lifeboat training policy. This is a result of what CLIA is calling the cruise industry's "operational safety review" after the Costa Concordia disaster.
Every six months, the CLIA cruise ships will conduct lifeboat drills. The lifeboats will be lowered into the water either empty or with only a skeleton crew (probably one or two crew members) necessary to operate the life boat.
The lifeboat itself will otherwise be empty. As USA TODAY explains:
"The training will involve lowering a lifeboat into the water, filling it to capacity with crew members and then maneuvering it in the water to familiarize the crew to lifeboat operations. The crew will not practice lowering a fully loaded lifeboat."
The new policy is suppose ensure the public that the crew knows how to safely lower the lifeboats. But let's be clear what this "new" policy is and is not about.
It is only after the lifeboat is lowered will it then be filled up with crew members (this is actually the same IMO policy which has existed for the past 4 years). The lifeboat operator will then practice driving the loaded boat around for a while. The crew will eventually get out. Then the lifeboat will be raised back to the cruise ship empty.
This means that there will be no training whatsoever in loading and then lowering a fully loaded lifeboat safely into the water. So when the next disaster strikes, that means that there is a 100% certainty that whoever is lowering your life boat has never practiced it while it is loaded.
It is hard to understand why the emphasis in the "new policy" is practicing driving the lifeboats around. Watch the Royal Caribbean video below of life boats from the Serenade of the Seas driving around and around. The video has wonderful music. Its a beautiful day in Pointe Seraphine, Castries, St. Lucia. The water is completely calm. What fun!
You will never see a real emergency in pleasant conditions like this. The last person overboard from the Serenade of the Seas occurred last week (largely ignored by the U.S. press and Royal Caribbean is staying mum). A crew member went overboard in the Adriatic early in the morning in high seas with winds gusting up to 100 kilometers. The ship didn't even try and lower a lifeboat in those conditions.
The problem with the Costa Concordia disaster was that the captain delayed ordering the passengers off the ship until the cruise ship listed to an angle where it was impossible to lower the lifeboat. There was chaos trying to round up and organize over 3,000 passenger into their designated muster stations, especially because there was no muster drill in the first place.
The "new" CLIA lifeboat drills don't mention crowd control issues, language issues or anything that might reasonably address the deadly confusion which took place on the Concordia.
There are no recommendations for simulation drills or intense training, while encountering a wide variety of emergencies and diverse simulated weather conditions.
Think if a cruise ship as large as the Oasis or Allure of the Seas needs to be evacuated, The Oasis has 18 lifeboats which can carry 370 passengers in each one. Getting that many people into the lifeboat in a timely manner and then lowering the boat safely into the water takes practice - something the "new" CLIA policy guarantees won't ever happen.
The truth of the matter is that some cruise lines have essentially discontinued lifeboats drills (actually lowering the lifeboats) because of the numerous injuries and some deaths during the drills. 10 years ago Royal Caribbean experienced a disastrous accident where numerous crew members sustained serious injuries.
There is a saying that most lifeboats injure or kill more passengers and crew than save lives. Lifeboats can fall suddenly, get caught on the side of the ship or suffer malfunctions or failure of the cables and hardware. Consider the incident in the video at the bottom which, although not involving a cruise ship, is similar to others incidents where cruse employees were injured.
Maritime & admiralty lawyer & attorney James M. Walker of Walker & O'Neill Law Firm, offering services related to injuries, sexual assaults, fires, negligence, rapes & disappearances on cruise ships, pirate & terrorist attacks, missing passengers, shore excursions, wrongful death and the Jones Act, serving cruise passengers, crew members, cabin attendants, utility workers, waiters, bar tenders, ship doctors and cleaners on cruise ships worldwide.
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