Cruise disaster a 'wake-up call' for Alaska, says safety adviser

Local pilots, shipboard drills and safety gear make Concordia-type wreck unlikely, he says.

Anchorage Daily NewsJanuary 18, 2012 

For days, images of the cruise ship Costa Concordia helplessly capsized in Mediterranean waters have dominated news media around the world.

Eleven people have been confirmed dead, with more than two dozen still missing.

In a state that expects to see more than 400 cruise-ship sailings with nearly a million passengers this summer, it's difficult to look at the images of the Costa Concordia and not wonder: Could it happen in Alaska?

"It kind of gives us a little wake-up call," said Rick Janelle, a civilian U.S. Coast Guard employee based in Juneau who acts as an adviser on cruise ship safety.

"HUMAN ERROR"

The Costa Concordia's sinking unfolded with nightmarish speed and no clear leadership after the captain apparently abandoned ship before all passengers had been evacuated, Janelle said.

"Consequently there was chaos," he said.

An incident like that is unlikely to happen in Alaska because of government-mandated safeguards, drills and preparedness plans, Janelle said.

There have been questions as to whether the Italian ship conducted adequate safety briefings, required by law, for passengers.

It's a sobering look at a worst-case scenario, Janelle said.

"I think it's going to put more emphasis on the importance of preparing," he said. "Not only for major cruise ships but for the ports that cruise ships pass by."

The Italian owners of the ship have said "human error" caused the captain, Francesco Schettino, to strike an underwater rock off the coast of Italy just a few hours into the voyage. He had deviated from the planned route in order to take the ship closer to an island, according to news reports.

In Alaska, cruise ship captains are required by state law to have a local navigational pilot onboard, said Janelle. It's unclear whether a local pilot was onboard the Costa Concordia because it was traveling between ports.

Onboard pilots are "one huge safety factor," he said.

Maritime pilots are experts on local navigational routes, currents and hazards that help to maneuver ships through waterways that are narrow, treacherous, congested -- or all three.

Plenty of those exist in Alaska, where extreme tides and waterways littered with underwater hazards are the norm, said Capt. Richard Gurry, a maritime pilot and the president of the Southeast Alaska Pilots' Association.

The accident in Italy would have been "highly unlikely to near impossible" if a local navigational pilot had been aboard the Costa Concordia, said Gurry.

In a statement Tuesday, Carnival said all ships operated by the company -- which dominates the cruise-ship market in Alaska with its Princess and Holland America subsidiaries-- undergo frequent inspections and hold passenger lifeboat drills.

"We are still awaiting further information from the investigation to understand the cause of the accident," said Vance Gulliksen of the Miami-based company. "As we find out more, we will apply lessons learned and update our procedures accordingly."

Response plans and cooperation could also help prevent the loss of life seen in the Costa Concordia, said Janelle.

In case of a major incident, the U.S. Coast Guard would partner with local communities to respond, Janelle said.

Seward, Kodiak, Juneau, Ketchikan, Homer and Whittier have port-specific response plans in case a cruise ship sinks. Similar plans are being developed for Sitka, Skagway, Anchorage, Valdez and other areas, he said.

Each year before the cruise season begins, industry reps, emergency personnel, the Coast Guard and others meet to "align expectations of who does what, when and how," he said.

CARNIVAL'S REACH

Some 48 percent of all visitors to Alaska in the summer of 2010 came on a cruise ship, according to the state's Division of Economic Development.

Carnival Cruise Lines, an industry giant which owns the Costa Concordia, has a single ship that sails under its name in Alaska, the Carnival Spirit. But Carnival and its subsidiary brands Holland America and Princess represent about 60 percent of the market in the state, according to the Alaska Cruise Association.

The economic fallout of the Costa Concordia may take months or years to measure.

Industry experts have said the time between January and March is considered prime for cruise bookings, and the Costa Concordia incident may have a lasting impact on the psyches of would-be cruisers, leading to a drop in reservations.

So far, dire predications have yet to materialize.

Alaska expects 947,000 cruise ship visitors for the summer of 2012, said John Binkley, the president of the Alaska Cruise Association.

That's the highest volume since 2008 or 2009, he said.

Buckwheat Donahue, the director of the Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau and a 30-year resident of the Inside Passage town, isn't worried. People understand that the Italy case was due to a rogue captain who "screwed up," he said.

Alaska's cruise industry has a good safety record in part because of the onboard local pilots, Donahue said.

So far, the state's maritime disasters have been of a different sort.

"It's not like we have an Exxon Valdez kind of thing happening up here with cruise ships," he said.


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

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