A married couple that survived the January 13 Costa Concordia shipwreck was recently interviewed during a congressional hearing. Members of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation listened intently to the first-hand account offered by Divya Sharma and her husband Sameer about the onboard chaos that surrounded the event that fateful night.
Mrs. Sharma reported that at approximately 9:15 PM that evening, as their dinner was being served, they experienced violent shaking, loud noises, broken china, and lost lights as the ship listed to port. Although announcements were made stating that “Everything is under control, it seems to be a generator failure”, the Sharmas noticed that there were crew members outside of the dining room with life jackets on.
The Sharmas had only boarded the Costa Concordia 45 minutes earlier. They received no emergency orientation after boarding, so they had no idea where life jackets would be stored near the dining room or where they should gather in this emergency. Fortunately Mrs. Sharma remembered seeing life jackets in the closet of their state room as she was hanging up her husband’s suit while they were unpacking. Around 10:00 PM the Sharmas decided to make their way back to their room to get those life jackets, although it was a slow and difficult journey. The amount of spilled water and wine on the floor of the dining room along with the tilt of the ship made it very difficult to walk, and with the loss of lighting it was also hard to locate the stairs. Once they did, the Sharmas struggled up 6 flights of stairs in the dark and now at a precarious angle to get back to their room. Grabbing their life jackets, the Sharmas then went back down to Deck #4, where they found a muster station. Although the crew members there were keeping people away from the lifeboats, the Sharmas stayed by the exit door nearest the lifeboats, waiting for the signal to board. As they stood there waiting and waiting, they identified a rock they thought they could swim to if necessary.
During all this, messages continued to come over the loudspeaker, advising that there was “no need to go anywhere, there’s no emergency.” Mrs. Sharma mentioned throughout her testimony that all of these messages were delivered by someone with a panicky voice who also stated that they were “on behalf of the Capitan”. None of the messages on the loudspeaker were delivered by the Captain himself after the impact.
Mrs. Sharma also described the lifeboat crew as “clueless”, prone to shrugging their shoulders and without any instructions for the passengers as to what to expect next or how to proceed. Eventually the crowd grew very loud and panicky, so the crew members near the lifeboats finally let the passengers board. The Sharmas described it as “a lot of panic, pushing, and absolutely no order.”
Her husband, Sameer Sharma, then addressed the Committee, explaining how passengers were being asked to get off the lifeboat because it was overcrowded. Mr. Shamir categorized this lifeboat scene as “the most scary”, because the boat was stuck to the ship and would not release from the side rail. At the same time the Costa Concordia was continuing to list more and more to port. Finally they heard a ripping noise as the lifeboat tore loose and then dropped straight down four stories, from Deck #4 to the sea. But even then they were still in danger, because the lifeboat started to circle in place endlessly rather than moving away from the Concordia, which was continuing to list toward them. Eventually the lifeboat’s engine corrected and they were able to move away from the ship, and then saw the Italian Coast Guard nearby. Mr. Shamir noted that all this happened between 9:30 PM and 10:54 PM that evening, which he knew specifically because of photographs he took that evening.
On shore the chaos continued, and Mrs. Sharma commented that she felt betrayed. “No crew members ever gave us a truthful account. How could an electrical failure have capsized the ship?” The subcommittee members asked the Sharmas exactly when they were first notified about what had really happened. “It was not until we were at the embassy the next day, 24 hours later, that we saw pictures of the Costa Concordia on the rocks and saw what had really happened.”
Committee member Representative Cummings (D-MD) asked the Sharmas what type of information they would like to have seen or heard that would better prepare them for such a situation. The Sharmas agreed that knowing where the lifejackets were kept, which lifeboat they were assigned to, and the emergency contacts for Group A and Group B, for example, would have been extremely helpful. They also mentioned that language was also an issue–they often had to wait for translation, and in such an emotional time messages were likely changed and filtered in the translation process.
The Sharmas were also asked if they’d ever cruised before. They answered “yes,” although this trip on the Costa Concordia was to be their first transatlantic cruise. They noted that their experience was very different this time. On the other cruise they’d taken previously they felt properly prepared for an emergency.
The Sharmas’ story correlates with similar complaints against the cruise line for “failure to help people in danger, putting in danger the lives of others, involuntary homicide and lack of security information.” This week another Costa Concordia passenger–a 30-yr old woman who was 4 months pregnant at the time of the cruise ship accident–filed a lawsuit for €1 million [euros] after suffering a miscarriage due to the shipwreck.