Costa Concordia: The Survivors
By Andrea Vogt, Giglio
8:00AM GMT 06 Jan 2013
- At left, Josef (piano) and Jeno (double bass) who played in the Bianco Trio with violinist Sandor Feher, who died in the Costa Concordia shipwreck. At right, Sandor’s mother Terez and brother Robert.
This time last year, Jeno Csanya was a successful musician with the world at his feet. Now he has lost almost everything.
The 43-year-old Hungarian was part of “Bianco Trio,” a group of three instrumentalists playing on the Costa Concordia, the giant cruise ship that capsized on January 13 last year.
He lost his beloved double bass in the carnage, smashed his back and ripped his ankle ligaments, leaving him unable to work and now facing imminent eviction from his flat.
He also lost his friend – Sándor Fehér. Mr Fehér, 38, the ship’s talented violinist, was last helping people into lifeboats as the disabled vessel tilted into the Italian sea.
“Our lives are in ruins because of this,” Mr Csanya said. “It shook me to the bone. To this day I have nightmares about Sándor. I can’t get him out of my head.”
Mr Fehér was a technically brilliant and passionate musician about to give up cruise gigs to pursue a dream of teaching violin and playing orchestra in the U.S. He, Mr Csanya, and a pianist had been performing as “Bianco Trio” and were on a break when the ship smashed into rocks. The lights went out. In minutes, the ship was fatally disabled and beginning to sink. Emergency lights flickered on and off. Mr Csanya and Mr Fehér knew the announcements coming over the intercom in multiple languages saying there was just a technical problem that was being fixed couldn’t be the the truth.
In actual fact, a massive hole had been ripped in the hull, and within minute water had flooded several compartments and blown out the electrical panel, leaving the ship to drift helplessly in a 15-knot wind, its power gone and rudders locked at 25 degrees starboard. The musicians, who occupy the staff quarters at the bottom of the ship, went up to their muster stations, only to find chaos taking hold as passengers began taking matters into their own hands. A group of panicked parents asked them for lifejackets. Mr Fehér went away, and came back with an armful. “Then he had to put them on the kids, because the parents were so terrified that they couldn’t do it,” Mr Csanya recalled. “I had to put my hands on my ears because I just couldn’t take in all that crying of the children anymore, so I told him that we should go to the bow of the ship where our colleague must be looking for us. As the ship listed more, some lifeboats became undeployable. Passengers unable to get into lifeboats on the port side made their way down slippery corridors to the starboard side. When all the lifeboats there were launched, they had to go down to deck 3 to get into boats coming back and forth. The emergency alarm was sounded an hour after impact – by that time lifeboats had become unusable. In the panicked struggle to cross the ship’s flooded, tilted corridors and find a way off, the trio was separated.
Mr Fehér was later identified as among the 32 dead, some of whom jumped and perished in the sea or were sucked into or under the ship as water rushed in, or trapped as horizontal corridors turned into deadly vertical well-like shafts that fill with water as the ship turned over.
The captain of the ship, Francesco Schettino, will face trial this spring, with prosecutors asking for a 20-year prison sentence. The 50,000-page case file is one of largest criminal investigations ever in Italy. The ship owners, Costa Cruises, and its parent company, the dually-listed UK-US company Carnival Cruises, also face a series of law suits.
Among those suing are Sándor Fehér’s mother, Teréz, who had heard about the shipwreck on the news in Budapest and held out hope for days that her son was alive, only to be called to identify him at the morgue in nearby Grosseto.
“I didn’t think for a moment that he wouldn’t be among the survivors,” said Mrs Fehér. “He was a great swimmer, knew the area, and he had his 10 years of experience with ships. I still don’t understand how this could have happened.”
Hundreds still suffer post traumatic stress and are coping with new phobias – of water, narrow spaces, crowds and heights. Some lost hair and weight. One woman went into early menopause. Neighbours make jokes about the Titanic, but for many, life after the Costa Concordia is no laughing matter.
Since then, Mr Csanya hasn’t had the heart to play music, has no double bass, and still needs surgery to repair his back and leg. Two weeks after coming home, he received €458 (£370). Since then his life has continued to unravel, like many of the low-paid immigrant staff on the ship from southeast Asia and eastern Europe.“We haven’t received our wages; they paid nothing for our lost gear and instruments,” he said. “Even if we were able to work, we still couldn’t do anything without our musical instruments. We put all our eggs in that basket. And suddenly it snapped.”Unable to pay his mortgage, he now faces eviction from his home in Budapest.
A spokesman for Costa Cruises told The Sunday Telegraph
: “Almost 93 per cent of Costa Concordia crew have accepted the offered compensation. About 80 per cent of crew members have already been re-embarked on other vessels of the Costa fleet.”But Mr Csanya will not return to sea. Unlike most of the passengers and of those working on the ship, he refused an early payout offered in exchange for promising not to sue. Most passengers were offered €11,000 (£8,900), while amounts offered to crew and staff differed.Instead he and nine other Hungarian passengers and entertainers signed on with a Hungarian-American personal injury law firm now suing in New York state for several hundred million dollars.
“We obviously intend to prove that the captain was negligent,” said Holly Ostrov Ronai, a New York lawyer representing the Hungarians. “But we are also intending to prove that the cruise company was grossly negligent in that they did not train the crew members properly. No one died in the actual collision – it was the aftermath that people died in.”Many of the British passengers and crew, as well as around a dozen other passengers from across the world, are being represented by British law firm Irwin Mitchell.Amandeep Dhillon, a travel lawyer for the firm, said: “Some of our clients saw some horrific things. That sort of trauma can have a lasting effect. Ultimately the whole event has left them with scars which have not yet healed.
“We believe that the initial impact could have been avoided and that this was compounded by the failure of the crew, the captain, and the carrier to exercise proper evacuation processes. Had they been carried out lives may have been saved.” Costa Cruises is one of the 11 brands owned by Carnival Corporation & plc, a colossal British-American dually-listed owned company with headquarters at Carnival House in Southampton and Carnival Place in a Florida. With 48% share of the total worldwide cruise industry, Carnival is a $36.2 billion business and growing every year. Though bookings fell after the disaster financial results were ahead of analysts’ expectations, and business is expected to grow 4.5% in 2013. Because the Costa Concordia sailed under an Italian flag and capsized in Italian waters, the criminal and civil jurisdiction lies there. But American lawyers have also filed suit in various US states, arguing that it is at Carnival headquarters that corporate decisions about safety, ship design and legal responsibility are made.They cite the fact that attempts to negotiate with Costa Cruises, for example, almost always resulted in referral to American attorneys for its parent company, a cruise giant with 48 per cent share of the lucrative global industry.“While all roads may lead to Rome, all Carnival ships lead to Miami and all decisions are made in Miami,” said American class action attorney John Arthur Eaves, Jr.
Jurisdiction in shipwreck cases can be tricky due to the antiquated laws governing the world’s waters. Many large American or UK-owned cruise ships sail under the flags of Bahamas or Panama, making it difficult for victims to pursue justice. That has been the case for Jan Harsem, who survived, with his toddler son, Halvor, the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster off the coast of Denmark in 1990.
His pregnant wife Kristine perished in the accident along with 158 others. Since then he’s dedicated his life to sea safety, founding the Norwegian Skagerrak Foundation, which lobbies for stricter sea safety regulations. ‘When I heard about the Costa Concordia I remembered the anxiety of how it is to be on a ship and feel trapped,” said Mr Harsem in the foundation’s small Oslo office. “And in the days after I got more and more shocked by the focus by the media and the shipping company and their advisors on one single person’s actions – the captain, while there was a missing focus on the company’s responsibility for safety culture and routines on the ship. The Captain is crucial, but he is not alone.”
The official court report about the accident paints a damning portrait of the Costa Concordia shipwreck as a perfect storm of blunders.It faults both the captain and the company, noting neither ordered an immediate evacuation.
Lack of a common language and poor training also played a role.The Hungarian crew members spoke no English, but told their lawyers that they passed the company’s language test with flying colours because they were given the answers in advance.The Indonesian helmsman and Captain Schettino had multiple misunderstandings as the helmsman tried to follow the captain’s heavily-accented English orders to navigate around the rocks.John Arthur Eaves Jr., a class action lawyer from Mississippi, who represents 150 Costa Concordia clients from 10 countries including Britain, said the language barriers, the sheer size of ships and ship design are all serious problems.
“They created a design to keep you shopping on board, to keep you gambling on board, to keep you entertained and using the inside of the vessel and so it becomes a labyrinth in an accident. These ships become a trap.”
To force Costa to the bargaining table, lawyers in France and the US secured court orders threatening to have their other ships seized in the port of Marseille and the Gulf of Mexico.In the US, after a day of negotiations, Carnival agreed to post a $10 million bond, Mr Eaves said, part of which will help to pay legal costs for a man who lost his mother on the ship.In France, Costa Cruises agreed to pay €8,000, plus €1,000 in legal costs, to more than 200 French passengers in a French-run Concordia survivors’ group, without waiving their right to future compensation.That group, known as SOS Concordia, was founded by a Frenchwoman, Anne Decré, who took the cruise with her younger sister and elderly parents as a distraction from months of grief after her brother unexpectedly died from brain cancer.
- Anne Decre aboard the Costa Concordia
After a treacherous trek up, down and across the listing ship, they escaped on a lifeboat.
- Anne Decre takes down email addresses of French survivors in the Giglio school gymnasium
Safely on land, Miss Decré became so infuriated by Costa representatives doing nothing that she took over, gathered all the French nationals together and began taking down emails and phone numbers.Eventually Miss Decré would be appointed president of the SOS Concordia bargaining collective for French nationals. They requested a formal investigation by the French government, which it undertook, systematically interviewing all 462 surviving French passengers. Medical and psychological assessments were gathered for each, creating a huge body of evidence.“A number of passengers saw people die after jumping into the sea from the fifth or sixth deck and coming up as lifeless bodies,” said Bertrand Courtois, a lawyer who represents 241 of the French.“There were those who were blocked in lifts or in corridors. A number of survivors heard people scream as they died. These situations cause post traumatic stress that is very strong.”Joseph Strible, one of the ship’s dancers, is also taking legal action against Concordia’s owners. He could not get a place on a lifeboat. The 20-year-old from Maidstone, Kent, had to jump from the ship and swim to shore in the darkness and freezing water.He said: “I remember looking down at the water and thinking I was going to drown. There were no lifeboats we could use and the water was climbing higher and higher up the boat.“I just told myself I was going to die unless I jumped. Then I remember just swimming in the freezing cold water for land.“There were people all around me in the water. I looked back and the ship looked like something out of Titanic. It was towering over me and I could hear it creaking over the sound of people screaming.”The disaster had “changed everything”, Mr Stribley said. “I’m paranoid and panicky now. Every little alarm sets me off.”The compensation offered was “barely enough to cover my possessions”, he said.Costa representatives have told SOS Concordia that 90 per cent of passengers have accepted a payout, but negotiations with the company have been tense at times.Several were angered by an offer last month of €100 to attend a mass in Paris, instead of paying for them to go to Giglio for next weekend’s anniversary commemorations.A year later, Miss Decré said, she and many of the other French passengers live their daily lives in a constant state of alert.“You’re always in survival mode,” she said. “When you are in a closed place, you look for the emergency exits. Those who were in the restaurant jump when they hear dishes clanking. Some could not speak for weeks.“Some can no longer drive, fear water or cannot stand to hear children crying. Everyone is different.” In fact there are also those who chose to simply put the whole ordeal behind them. It was the first and last cruise for Belgian Yvonne Pols and her Dutch husband Roger, of Freiburg, Germany, who were separated and injured during the chaotic evacuation. They decided to take the 11,000 Euro payout offered immediately after the accident by Costa Cruises. “We had to decide in that moment to take compensation or not. You cannot put a price on the enormous anger and trauma we experienced. I was concerned that it would drag on and on. So one thinks ‘okay, I get only so much,’ but at least there is closure.” Jan Mosander and his wife, both Swedish journalists who were on board, remain incredulous about the repeated messages saying the problem was just an electrical fault that was being repaired, an announcement he was immediately skeptical about. “This message was repeated over and over again, exactly the same thing in five or six different languages and finished every time with: ‘everything is under control’. But I’ve been sailing a bit myself in the Baltic archipelago, so in my opinion I don’t think they did have everything under control. That was a lie.”
Nearly an hour passed before a general emergency evacuation order was called, but by that time it was too late. The ship was listing too far, making several lifeboats undeployable and panic was starting to break out as passengers worried they might not get a spot. “At the point when we were pushed into the lifeboat, I don’t know if it was the crew or whether it was a passenger trying to take command but somebody was shouting ‘women and children first’, ‘women and children first,” recalls Mr Mosander. “It is easy to say but it didn’t work in practice because there were families there with at least three generations on board.” Anne and her sister still feel guilt over taking a lifeboat spot to stay with their terrified parents. Their mother, who lives in Brittany, once loved the beach but today cannot bear to smell the sea, or even eat an oyster. “My sister is 33. I am 42, we do not have kids. Many of the young people feel guilty, because old people died or parents or children, it is not fair. That is part of our trauma. But we either were going to all die or none of us would die, but we could not leave our parents.” For some, the most fearful moment was not on Costa Concordia, but being packed into the smaller windowless lifeboats. Mr Mosander’s lifeboat got hung up and tilted to the vertical tossing everyone inside around, before breaking free, swinging out wildly then bashing back into the side of the ship before lurching the rest of the way down. “Nobody knew where we were so when we eventually got to the pier people started applauding like when you’re on a charter flight and you land and have finally arrived. When I stepped ashore there was a crewman who I asked where we were. It turns out we were on an island called Giglio that I’d never heard of.”
AN ISLAND OF HEROES
Giglio islanders had noticed the ship in distress and began rushing down to the port. As lifeboats began unloading wet, shocked and confused passengers onto the quayside, the three men who lead Giglio city council made a plan: The muscular deputy mayor would go aboard: he climbed a Jacob’s ladder up the tilting hull and stayed until 5 a.m. pulling passengers and staff to safety with ropes from watery well-like corridors. The sea-savvy port councilor took over piloting lifeboats back and forth from swirling vortex of water around the sinking ship to the chaotic port, navigating around obstacles and people in the water. The mayor coordinated rescue efforts on land – quickly ordering the nurseries, schools, churches and private homes opened. “All the residents came down to the piazza and 10-15 persons at a time, they took them home,” recalls Giglio Mayor Sergio Ortelli. “We tried to do what we could, give hospitality, solidarity and a first comfort because they were hungry, wet. The children needed warm milk, blankets. It was a spontaneous outpouring.” The church was a natural congregation point, so island priest, Don Lorenzo Pasquotti, quickly unlocked its front doors. “They came onto land and just wondered into town wearing whatever they had on in the ship – evening dresses, uniforms, pajamas, lifejackets, tablecloths,” said Father Pasquotti. “First came the mothers and young families, then the elderly, then the adults and then finaly at the end, all the crew and staff.”
With Costa was disorganized, the officers missing and people from 60 different nationalities asking for help, confusion reigned. Pasquotti tried in Italian and broken English to explain where they were – Giglio Island – and help united couples and families who had been separated. He handed out sacred vestments to shivering Indonesian staff, who said their muslim prayers in robes embroidered with crosses and Madonna. Women in high heels and evening gowns stood in line for hours to get into the one bathroom. ”All of us have that scene in our eyes: our church, full of shipwrecked people, full of needs, and of pain. Yet it was a church full of silence. No-one yelled or complained. They were just waiting. Waiting for someone to tell them something.” On the quayside it was worse. Distraught passengers frantically paced to and fro yelling out names of friends and spouses. Swimmers drug themselves onto the rocky shoreline. Mouth to mouth rescusitation was performed as hundreds watched in horror as around 2 a.m., the first bodies were laid out on the dock and covered with sheets. Fortunately, most children were already in bed by then. Caterina Pellegrini had seen the huge brightly-lit ship pull in from her window looking out over the port. When she realized the tragedy unfolding she went to bring home families with small children.
“The ones who were the most shocked were the children, so I wanted to give them the warmth of a home, the comfort of a bed,” Pellegrini recalls. All night she went back and forth from port to home and back again. She only had two guest rooms, but ended up hosting 50. The children were dressed in she and her husband’s clothes, then put to bed, which many wet during the night. In the morning, panic again. “No-one knew they were on an island and no-one wanted to get back on board a boat,” recalls Miss Pellegrini. But ferries leaving that morning were the only way back to the mainland Tuscan port of Santo Stefano. She took the group down, hugged them all goodbye and put them on the ferry. “They blew us kisses from the ferry until it disappeared over the horizon,” said Miss Pellegrini. “And then finally, there was relief. ‘Finally, its finished, this emergency,’ we thought. But really it was just the beginning, because after that, the whole world came to Giglio.” The next wave was press, rescue personell, authorities, salvage teams. Over the months ahead, some European passengers returned to give back items they’d been lent. Letters, photos and gifts poured into the island from around the world. A Spanish family sent a silver reproduction of city cathedral with a promise of a “home for life” there. A Sardinian family sent a woven rug. Germans sent chocolates.
Clothes and shoes came back in unmarked packages. For Miss Pellegrini and the others like her, it was an experience that was “very terrible and tragic, yet also beautiful, because of the spiritual and human enrichment.”
And the Costa Concordia is still lying beached off the pristine Tuscan coast. Removing the precarious vessel from the rocks of Giglio the biggest salvage operation in nautical history, will take until the end of next summer, a prospect that has rattled island residents who want the ship gone.“We have all done what we need to do – we can be proud of ourselves – but enough is enough,” said Father Don Lorenzo Pasquotti. “Basta! The sooner it is removed the better.”For many, it is a constant reminder of how the bad behaviour of a few officers sullied the name of Italians worldwide.As lifeboats began unloading wet, shocked and confused passengers onto the quayside, the three men who lead Giglio city council made a plan. The muscular deputy mayor would go aboard: he climbed a ladder up the tilting hull and stayed until 5am, pulling passengers and staff to safety with ropes from watery corridors.A councillor helped pilot lifeboats back and forth from the swirling vortex of water around the sinking ship to the chaotic port, navigating around obstacles and people in the water. The mayor coordinated rescue efforts on land – quickly ordering schools, churches and private homes opened.“We are people of the sea. We know they should have let the passengers off first, then got off themselves. You can’t just abandon a ship,” said Caterina Pellegrini, who sheltered 50 people in her small home on the island.“It is crazy that there were people who got off the ship at 5.30am and yet many of the officers had been in the port for hours, nice and dry, folding up their sleeves to hide that they were officers.”One of the passengers that night was Heinz Schaden, the mayor of Salzburg, Austria. He wants to see the officers who abandoned ship held accountable under the law.“I gave a written deposition and I intend to give verbal testimony in court, because I want to look those officers who left us all there in the eye.”But no one wants justice more than victim’s families. Two of the 32 lanterns to be sent into the night sky above Giglio next Sunday will be for Mylene Litzler, 23 and her fiancé Mickael Blemand, 24, from Sarcelles, near Paris.“I absolutely want to see the commander and a part of his crew in prison for this,” said Alain Litzler, Mylene’s father. “It has broken a whole life – ours, as well as Mickael’s parents’ and that of Mylene’s brother.
“Justice needs to be done.”
A shorter version of this piece originally ran in the Sunday Telegraph Jan. 6, 2013, with additional reporting by Ben Leach and Josie Ensor