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Costa Concordia survivors tell Congress they felt ‘betrayed’

“There was a violent shaking of the ship followed by loud crash noises as the plates and glasses broke,” Divya Sharma said at a House subcommittee on maritime transportation hearing Wednesday. “Everyone nearby started screaming.”

After emergency lights came on, the Massachusetts couple celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary climbed six flights of stairs to their room. Despite a lack of emergency training since boarding the ship that day near Rome, Divya Sharma knew they had life jackets in their closet where she had put her husband’s jacket.

But she says crewmembers wouldn’t say why the ship was listing badly to port just off the Italian coast. The problem was explained as an electrical malfunction, although the couple would later learn the ship had struck rocks that gashed a 160-foot hole in the ship’s side.

An overcrowded lifeboat, which had trouble in the current moving away from the towering ship, eventually carried the couple safely to shore, though others among the 4,200 people on the disastrous cruise weren’t as lucky.

“We felt very betrayed, very much lied to,” Sameer Sharma said. “We trusted these people with our lives and they took that for granted. They were not honest with us at any given point.”

The Capitol Hill hearing was called to explore the Costa Concordia shipwreck that killed 25 people, with seven still missing, off the Italian island of Giglio and to determine whether cruise ships are safe, and cruise lines and their crews are properly equipped to deal with emergencies at sea.

It comes as one of the Concordia’s sister ships, the Costa Allegra, is disabled near the Seychelles and is being towed to port. It is expected to arrive Thursday — three days after it lost power and began drifting in the Indian Ocean with more than 1,000 passengers and crew aboard.

Lawmakers and a top U.S. Coast Guard official repeatedly stressed that cruise ships are safe and placed blame on Concordia’s Capt. Francesco Schettino, who has acknowledged steering the ship too close to shore and leaving the ship before all passengers were evacuated. He is under house arrest as Italian authorities investigate the accident.

“We had a captain that forgot he was a captain,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, himself a licensed captain.

“I don’t know of any professional mariner who is willing to step up and defend the apparent lack of leadership that occurred on that ship,” said Coast Guard Vice Adm. Brian Salerno, deputy commandant for operations.

Salerno said the Coast Guard has conducted 36 drills of large-passenger ships. But he said the investigation should offer lessons for dealing with emergencies on such large ships, including how much water got into the ship.

The cruise industry agreed voluntarily to begin safety briefings for passengers when they board, rather than sometime during the first 24 hours of a cruise, as is current law.

“Safety is this industry’s No. 1 priority,” said Christine Duffy, president of Cruise Lines International Association. “As an industry, we are wholly committed to examining what happened and to identifying lessons that can be learned.”

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who is chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he would schedule a roundtable with the Coast Guard to develop new laws for cruise lines.

In particular, Mica talked about improving evacuation equipment because lifeboats don’t work on a badly tilting ship. He expressed worries about what would have happened if the ship had sunk entirely in deeper water.

“If it had sunk, the number of deaths would have been incredible,” Mica said.

Still, the accident was scary enough for passengers. Asked if she would ever cruise again, Divya Sharma said, “Not in the near future, no.”

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