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The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 2012, with the loss of about 1,500 people, marked one of the gravest disasters in peacetime maritime history.
But while some key lessons have been learned questions still linger over the safety of cruise liners a century later.
In today’s more litigious society a disaster such as the loss of the Titanic would have led to multiple lawsuits against the owners White Star Line and the builders Harland and Wolff of Belfast.
Although the Titanic hit an iceberg there’s plenty of evidence of design flaws in the giant ship. Studies after the disaster have pointed to the failure of wrought iron rivets that fastened the hull plates to the vessel’s main structure because of brittle fracture from the impact and the low temperature of the water.
There was a further problem with the watertight compartments of the vessel. Although they were sealed off after the ship hit the iceberg, these compartments had open tops and their walls extended only a few feet above the waterline, allowing them to be breached when the ship tilted.
Instead of sinking in a matter of hours the Titanic should have taken days to go down, allowing time for a rescue operation.
Clearly White Star was culpable for the negligence that allowed the vessel to hit an iceberg in the first place. And other safety standards were compromised. The vessel only had enough lifeboats for half of the passengers on board.
We believe disasters like this have been firmly relegated to the pages of history but have they?
On Jan. 13, 2012, the cruise ship Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy with the loss of 17 lives.
As in the case of the Titanic, human error appeared to be to blame after the captain steered the vessel to close to the coastline and hit rocks.
In a subsequent article the New York Times asked how safe passengers on cruise ships really are.
In the wake of the Costa Concordia disaster the issue of safety drills was being scrutinized by cruise ship operators.
“Unlike airplane safety announcements, which take place before takeoff, cruise drills aren’t required before the ship leaves the dock. The Concordia passengers who had boarded before Civitavecchia had already been through the drill, but nearly 700 passengers who joined the ship there had not,” the New York Times reported.
Problems on cruise ships are seldom as dramatic as the Costa Concordia sinking but are a cause for concern in the industry. They include food poisoning.
In 2011 alone there were 14 outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses on 10 vessels, that ruined the vacations of hundreds of passengers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fires on board ships are another problem for the cruise ship industry. In 2011, a blaze aboard a Hurtigruten cruise ship off Norway killed two passengers, injured nine others and forced the evacuation of about half of the 262 people on the ship.
Ross Klein, a Memorial University sociologist who has written two books on the cruise industry, has pointed to a series of problems on cruise ships including serious fires, power failures, crime and deaths in which passengers have fallen overboard.
Klein said some of these cruise ships can carry as many as 4,000 passengers, making them as populous as a small town. Unlike a small town the same rules and regulations are not in place.
“People should go on cruise ships with their eyes wide open, to be aware that there can be accidents.” Klein told CTVNews.ca.
He said in 2011, 22 people fell overboard from cruise ships. Some of these incidents were accidents. Others were suicides. The vast majority were fatal, according to Klein, who compiles cruise accident data on his website http://www.cruisejunkie.com.
Jim Walker, an attorney who once represented the cruise industry but switched sides, has also questioned safety in the cruise industry.
Walker has represented a considerable number of passengers and crew members in lawsuits against cruise lines.
His clients include the family of George Smith, a passenger who vanished on a Royal Caribbean ship when he was on his honeymoon in 2005.
His family did not believe Smith had accidentally fallen overboard. They claimed Royal Caribbean had failed to properly investigate his disappearance. The family won a $1.3 million lawsuit against the cruise line.
Recently another lawsuit was filed against Royal Caribbean following the death of a passenger who fell overboard.
His mother Susan DiPiero, from Ohio, sued the cruise line for $15,000. Her son, Daniel, 21, fell overboard after a night of drinking. Surveillance cameras revealed that he had fallen over a rail in the early morning hours.
Susan DiPiero said the cruise line should have looked out more for the welfare of its passengers, claiming her son should not have been served with more alcohol at a bar because it was clear he had been drinking.
But more fundamental questions about the cruise industry were raised by the Costa Concordia issue. Britain’s Guardian newspaper questioned the increased size and stability of cruise ships in an article.
Safety standards on passenger vessels have clearly improved since the Titanic disaster. The key question is whether they have improved as much as they should have done.