Last updated: August 24. 2013 7:18PM - 85 Views

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Since the Jan. 13 sinking of the Costa Concordia, disturbing questions have arisen that demand a closer look into this incident and the rules governing passenger safety on the high seas. Whether the rules themselves are at fault, or whether they were disregarded by a careless ship captain, much more needs to be known to allay the public's concerns.The cruise industry enjoys an enviable safety record. Yet something went badly awry in the sinking of the Concordia.Could it really come down to just one person? In spite of the abuse heaped on Captain Francesco Schettino for abandoning the ship before the rescue was complete, it hardly seems safe when a huge passenger ship can go down because of actions — or lack of action — by a single individual. Even if he's the captain. And even if his behavior is irresponsible.Where were the rest of the officers, and what were they doing while the captain was reportedly finishing dinner with a female companion after the first alarm was sounded?All but 32 people of some 4,200 passengers and crew members on board were saved, but only amid chaos that suggests a lack of attention to safety drills and damage control by the crew. Had the ship gone down in cold waters, off Alaska, say, or in the remote North Atlantic, the tragedy would have been much greater.The International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency that oversees compliance with the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), should examine whether existing safety rules are adequate in view of the much larger ships that have recently been launched. Typical cruise ships carry fewer than 3,000 passengers, but the newest members of the fleet have a capacity of twice as many.Can these ships still meet the SOLAS goal of launching lifeboats within 30 minutes of the signal to abandon ship?Apparently, the Concordia failed to meet that standard.Among the many factors that remain unclear is the "sail-by salute" that allowed the captain to deviate from the pre-set voyage plan in order to steer the ship closer to the shoreline of the island of Giglio for the purported benefit of the tourists. That's why the ship ran aground.Costa Cruises has denied the captain's allegation that his managers allowed or authorized this maneuver.However, Costa Cruises Chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi has suggested in testimony before an Italian inquiry that such deviations from the course are allowed occasionally. It's not clear to what extent international rules allow this to take place.Ultimately, rules and regulations can't guard against dereliction by one rogue captain. This one, by most accounts, should have been weeded out long ago. It's surely worth knowing why he wasn't.Passengers boarding cruise ships in U.S. ports like Miami must wonder whether something like this could happen closer to home. That question will be the focus of hearings tentatively set for late February by U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.The panel should examine whether there's anything about U.S. safety rules and procedures, above and beyond the international safety code, that require an update to prevent an incident like the Costa Concordia from happening here.

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