Costa Concordia: Did the captain break any law in abandoning ship?

Costa Concordia Captain Francesco Schettino has been widely criticized for leaving the ship before ensuring the safety of his passengers. Here are four questions about how a captain should act in a crisis.

Paul Hanna/REUTERS
A firefighter helicopter flies over the Costa Concordia cruise ship after it ran aground off the west coast of Italy at Giglio island January 19. No deadline has been set for ending the search for missing people on the wreck of the Italian cruise liner that capsized off the Tuscan island, the chief spokesman of the firefighters said on Thursday.

1. Did the captain follow international maritime standards?

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is one of the most important international treaties concerning the safety of ships. It governs ships engaged in international commerce, which includes cruise boats, and was first adopted in 1914 following the Titanic disaster. The most recent version was adopted in 1974, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations regulatory agency.

SOLAS outlines shipbuilding standards as well as minimum safety requirements, such as the number of lifeboats kept on board or fire-safety provisions.  The convention also covers navigational safety regulations, which obligate shipmasters, or captains, to assist passengers and crew members in times of distress. "A master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance," states SOLAS chapter five, regulation 33.

Another international convention is the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).  This was one of the original conventions to create international safety standards and procedures, and came into force in 1984.  The document is used to train most aspiring sailors and captains worldwide, and demonstrated competency in the standards is required before one can obtain a maritime license or certificate.

Overseeing an evacuation is part of a captain’s duties. The responsibilities of the captain and crew in the event of an emergency are laid out and approved by the country under whose flag the boat flies.

These regulations are more functional than legislative, however, says Anthony Palmiotti, professor of marine transportation at SUNY Maritime College in New York.

Regardless of the boat’s approved safety plan, the captain is at the helm, says Mr. Palmiotti. “You’re communicating with the outside world from [the command and control center] and internally through telephones and radios,” Palmiotti says. “If there’s no command, there’s no control.  [The captain] has a position on board that’s responsible for coordinating everything, but … I can’t think of a [legally binding] law that enforces that.”

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