Search-and-rescue personnel were placed in a tough position off the Italian coast on Friday after captain Francesco Schettino ran the Costa Concordia cruise liner close to the rocky shore, crashing the massive vessel into rocks and tilting it on its side, partially submerging the lodged liner and killing at least 11 of the more than 4,000 on board in the process.
While authorities decided how to hold Schettino and what charges to bring against him, details also emerged that Italian Coast Guard officials ordered him back on board to help coordinate the search and rescue efforts. Whether an uncooperative captain or a tilted cruise ship with thousands of survivors and an untold number of trapped passengers, efforts to secure the wreckage and search for possible survivors was suspended today as the liner started to shift in the water.
NewsFeed discussed strategy with Commander Kenneth “Max” Moser, chief of search and rescue policy for the U.S. Coast Guard, and talked law with Jack Barcelo, Cornell University law professor and expert on maritime law. Moser, who notes that each individual search and rescue strategy gets formed by the coordinator in charge, says simply knowing how many people remain on board presents the biggest challenge for any rescuer. Barcelo says having a captain apparently abandon ship is a first for him.
The Legal Hurdles
What is protocol for a ship’s captain when the vessel runs aground?
Barcelo: It is almost common sense. The captain is supposed to be responsible for the passengers and help assist them to safety. If he just leaves the ship, that is clearly irresponsible on his part. Who knows why, but there is no question that it is not proper.
Who has authority when a ship runs aground close to the shore?
Barcelo: Territorial waters are within about 12 miles off the coast, so the coastal state, in this case Italy, has jurisdiction, which is fairly complete. Italian authorities really are the only ones in authority and they control activities in that area.
Authorities have placed the captain under arrest. What might happen next?
Barcelo: If the actions of the captain show serious negligence that caused deaths, the state on the coast could bring what amounts to negligent homicide in U.S. terminology. If it was on the high seas when this happened, you would look to the flag of the vessel, which was also Italy. So, Italy has criminal jurisdiction on two grounds.
What culpability might the cruise liner owners face?
Barcelo: That is where things get complicated. Admiralty law applies throughout the world and there is a fair amount of uniformity wordwide. How exactly a country will interpret will depend on what court the claim is brought within. There will be questions on the limit of liability.
Is there a log list of cowardly captains?
Barcelo: This is really quite extraordinary. I’ve never heard of a case like this where a captain seemed to have abandoned ship immediately. Maybe he has an explanation, but the Italians have arrested him, so they think there is a real problem with how he behaved. The captain is ultimately responsible.
Our conversation with Commander Moser begins on the next page.