Mourners gathered Sunday on a tiny Italian island to remember 32 lives lost in a disaster that, until a year ago, seemed unimaginable a century after the Titanic.
But the massive ship still resting on its side off Giglio’s coast serves as a stark reminder of the Jan. 13 wreck. An unprecedented effort is under way to refloat and remove the Costa Concordia, with the latest estimates calling for completion by summer’s end.
Capt. Francesco Schettino, accused of causing the wreck by steering the ship too close to the island, is in limbo after a pretrial investigation. And lawsuits are mounting, both in the U.S. and Italy.
The staggering human toll of the disaster prompted the cruise industry to scrutinize safety practices at sea, a review that prompted the adoption of several new measures across companies aimed at preventing some of the mistakes blamed for the accident — and making sure passengers and crew members would be better prepared and protected in case the unthinkable happened again.
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Coming at the beginning of the busy booking period called “wave season,” the shipwreck also slammed Florida’s $6.7 billion cruise industry just as it was recovering from the recession. Future bookings plummeted across the industry, especially for Costa Cruises, an Italian brand owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp.
Cruise companies, after yanking marketing and advertising campaigns out of sensitivity for the victims, failed to generate the kind of business usually seen in the first quarter. More normal levels returned only after operators cut prices to spur demand. Economic instability in Europe kept prices low in the region.
“It’s definitely been a stumbling block on the cruise industry’s path to recovery since the recession of 2009, which hit the industry very hard,” said Douglas Quinby, senior director of research for travel industry research firm PhoCusWright. “But the industry will recover. Consumers will get back on cruise ships.”
In large part, they already have. While Costa is not expected to return to normal pricing for a few years, the world’s major cruise companies still reported hefty profits and optimism for 2013.
Although the year is still young, cruise operators and travel agents say they see strong passenger demand so far — and encouragement from cruise lines in the form of incentives such as discounted fares, onboard credits and upgrades.
For agents with the Cruise Planners — American Express Travel network, bookings for 2013 far surpass the volume at the same time in 2012 even before the shipwreck, said CEO Michelle Fee. The travel agent franchise network has more than 800 owners around the country
“If everything pans out, we’re going to have a tremendous year,” she said.
Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises (USA), said that while some European markets continue to struggle because of the weak economy, North American business is strong.
“We’re very optimistic that we see a trend, for months now, that consumers in North America are behaving how we’d like to see them behave,” he said, meaning customers are filling ships at fair prices.
A promotion from Celebrity Cruises featuring perks including a free beverage package is getting strong response from customers, said Simon Duvall, a home-based agent in Plantation. He said the past week has been busy, although the fourth quarter was full of price-driven shoppers.
For Ralph Santisteban, a CruiseOne franchise owner in Kendall, business picked up in September and hasn’t slowed.
“It’s almost like we never entered ‘a wave’ because we’ve been riding one,” he said.
Santisteban said he didn’t see a drop in business due to the Concordia accident but heard from customers who were shocked that such a thing could have happened.
“That accident was so preventable that a lot of people didn’t worry,” he said.
But even seasoned veterans who realized the accident was an aberration were left with questions.
“I know things can go wrong,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of the website CruiseCritic.com, referring to emergencies such as ship fires. “But if you looked at the way the cruise lines handled them, the crews were trained, the crews were responsive. In this case, how did things go so wrong so fast?”
Another unknown: how many would-be cruisers were discouraged from taking their first cruise.
“It was more of a hit than [cruise companies] had anticipated, especially on the first-time business,” said Mike Driscoll, editor of the weekly trade publication Cruise Week, which is aimed at travel agents.
Frequent cruiser Richard Armas said his reaction to the images a year ago were: “Somebody messed up really bad.”
Armas, 57, of Miami, said the wreck didn’t make him think twice about the safety of cruising.
“I live in Miami; I have a motorcycle. My chances of something happening are increased daily just living where I live,” he said. “I feel safer on a ship or an airplane than I do on land.”
The Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group representing major cruise operators around the world, has sought to reinforce the safety message over the past year. The association launched a review that resulted in 10 safety policies that have been adopted by all members. The policies touch on a range of practices including emergency drills, bridge procedures, lifeboat operation and lifejacket storage.
The International Maritime Organization changed its International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea to require that passengers participate in emergency drills before a ship ever leaves port, rather than within the first 24 hours. Some passengers aboard Concordia had not yet taken a safety drill.
“It was a strong view that we not wait until the investigation was completed, but that the industry begin work immediately to identify areas where we could find best practices, many of which a lot of our members already had in place but that went above and beyond the legal requirements,” said Christine Duffy, CLIA’s president and CEO.
The legal wrangling over the ordeal is far from over. A judge is expected to announce soon where there is enough evidence for a trial. And no civil lawsuits have reached a trial phase. Meanwhile, Costa has reached settlements with 70 percent of the more than 3,000 passengers who were not physically injured. They also have reached agreements with 60 percent of injured passengers and families of those who died.
Some survivors recently faced another jarring piece of news: They were told in a letter from Costa that they were not invited to attend Sunday’s ceremonies on Giglio, The Associated Press reported, because the day was focused on the dead, not the 4,200 passengers and crew who survived.
“We are sure that you will understand both the logistical impossibility of accommodating all of you on the island, as well as the desire for privacy expressed by the families at this sorrowful time,” Costa chief executive Michael Thamm wrote in the letter obtained by The Associated Press.
Sunday’s commemorations were organized by the Giglio municipal government with Costa’s support. The rock that pierced the Concordia’s hull and remained embedded in its steel was returned to the reef, along with a plaque.
The local bishop celebrated a Mass in the island’s tiny church where many survivors spent the night, and rescue teams were honored. A memorial in honor of the 32 dead was unveiled and after an evening concert, a minute of silence marked the exact moment, 9:45 p.m., when the Concordia ran aground.
In South Florida, Jesus “Jay” Garcia planned to spend the day with family occupied by activities to keep his mind off the night he cannot forget. But he also planned to watch a television special about the disaster that forced him and thousands of others to flee for their lives.
“I’ve been thinking about the kids screaming and everybody screaming and going crazy,” he said. “Ever since we turned the new year, I’ve been thinking about the accident.”
His lawyer, Glenn Holzberg, said that Italian partners filed claims against Costa on behalf of Garcia and 21 other clients in Italy this week. Holzberg said he hopes to reach settlements with the cruise operator later this year.
“Right now I want to close this chapter,” Garcia said. “I want to move on with my life.”
This article, which was supplemented with information from The Associated Press, includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with The Miami Herald. Sign up by going to MiamiHerald.com/ Insight.