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Passenger ship safety: Maritime casualties spur safety initatives.

By BCShippingNews 30 September 2016
By David K. Jones, Bernard LLP

Safety and security are often emphasized as the top priority of passenger ships, indeed all ships — and all over the world, passenger ships sail safely without incident. A significant factor in passenger ship safety is the regime of international safety conventions, implemented in flag state legislation, setting out safety regulations and standards to guide the design, construction and operation of the ships.

The beginning of the modern era of safety regulation for passenger ships can be traced to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Since the topic is broad and complex, this article can only touch on some of the significant marine casualties that have occurred since the Titanic, to demonstrate how safety issues have been highlighted, or made the subject of regulatory change in the never-ending goal to improve safety and avoid casualties in the future.

The Titanic continues to be viewed as one of the most significant marine disasters of all time. In response to the casualty, the U.K. government proposed an international conference to develop international regulations specifically focussed on safety at sea. The conference, with 13 countries participating, introduced new international ship safety requirements, including the following:

  • watertight and fire-resistant bulkheads;
  • life-saving appliances;
  • fire prevention and fire-fighting appliances on passenger ships;
  • carriage of radio equipment for ships carrying more than 50 persons;
  • North Atlantic ice patrol.

Following from that conference, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was adopted in 1914 and entered into force in 1915. The SOLAS Convention is generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of ships. Subsequent versions of SOLAS were adopted in 1929, 1948, 1960 and 1974.

The 1960 SOLAS Convention was the first major task for the International Maritime Organization (IMO) after their creation, and it is recognized as a considerable step forward in modernizing regulations to keep up with technical developments in the shipping industry. The 1974 SOLAS Convention has been amended since that year, but the 1974 version included a provision for entry into force on a specific date absent objections, hence the SOLAS Convention is often referred to as SOLAS, 1974, as amended.

The sinking of the CPR ocean liner Empress of Ireland on May 29, 2014 in the St. Lawrence River is less well-known than Titanic, but was of a similar tragic scale, resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 passengers and crew. The ship sank very quickly following a collision with the collier Storstad. After this casualty, the design of ships’ bows were altered to increase the rake, with the prow forward, to reduce the amount of collision damage below the waterline at the bow. Other factors in the rapid sinking were the existence of longitudinal bulkheads which caused the ship to list faster as the incoming water was trapped on one side of the ship, and open portholes that increased flooding as the ship heeled.

The grounding and sinking of the CPR steamship Princess Sophia in 1918 near Juneau is well-known locally, particularly the iconic photograph of the ship stranded upright on Vanderbilt Reef, where she remained for over a day and a half before washing off the reef and sinking with the loss of all aboard, over 300 passengers and crew. Difficult weather and sea conditions were significant factors in hampering evacuation efforts, but the failure, or the inability to evacuate was controversial because of the length of time between the grounding and sinking.

In the 1930s and 1940s, fire safety issues were highlighted with the Morro Castle in 1934, and the Noronic in 1949. The Morro Castle was on a voyage from Havana to New York when she caught fire off New Jersey, eventually grounding and resulting in the deaths of 137 passengers and crew. The Morro Castle focused attention on ship construction issues such as the use of fire-retardant materials and fire doors, and the need for fire drills and effective fire alarms.

The Noronic was a Great Lakes passenger ship moored at Toronto when she caught fire in the early morning hours of September 15, 1949. The fire spread rapidly and resulted in over 100 deaths. An inquiry following the disaster found the crew were not properly trained to deal with fires; there were inoperable fire hoses onboard; and there was no evacuation plan. The use of wooden materials in the construction of the ship was a factor in the fire spreading rapidly throughout the vessel.

In 1971, a local B.C. tragedy was the passenger ship Meteor catching fire in the Strait of Georgia, causing the deaths of 32 crew. In the 1980s and 1990s, fires occurred on a number of ships including the Prisendam in 1980, the Emerald Seas in 1986, the Scandinavia Star in 1990, the Achille Lauro in 1994 and the Regent Star in 1995. Subsequent initiatives to improve safety on passenger ships included the requirements for smoke detectors and smoke alarms to be installed in passenger cabins and public spaces, low-level lighting to define escape routes, bridge control of fire doors, and emergency alarms audible in passenger cabins.

Another class of casualties has arisen from the unique design and construction of ro-ro ferries. The open lower decks enable efficient loading and discharge of motor vehicles, but the same feature has resulted in well-known casualties, such as the capsize of the ro-ro ferry Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge in 1987, and the capsize and sinking of the ro-ro ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The Herald of Free Enterprise capsize occurred after water flooded through an open bow door. The Estonia capsized and sank after the bow door was damaged in a storm and flooding occurred, with the loss of over 850 lives. Some of the factors identified in these casualties were the lack of internal bulkheads; the weakness of bow and stern doors; stability issues arising from the loading of cargo or from the movement of cargo on the vehicle deck; the sudden inrush of water following damage or failure of watertight doors; low freeboard from cargo doors located close to the waterline; the difficulty in launching lifesaving appliances from the high sides of ro-ro ships; and crew training.

The IMO responded to both of these ro-ro disasters with a number of amendments to SOLAS, including requirements for the construction of bow doors, effective monitoring of doors and ro-ro spaces, emergency lighting, and stability requirements for damaged ships. One of the most significant changes in the 1990s was to make the International Safety Management (ISM) Code mandatory, requiring a safety management system to be established to ensure compliance with mandatory regulations and to take into account IMO recommendations on codes, guidelines and standards.

Finally, the more recent dramatic grounding and capsize of the Costa Concordia, like the Titanic 100 years before, highlighted the issue of the safe evacuation of passengers. Other areas of concern identified in that casualty include lifeboats, muster drills, rescue drills and the stability of damaged ships. Since the Titanic, passenger ships have increased in size and complexity. As these ships have evolved, so has the regulatory framework evolved and continues to evolve to address safety issues and attempt to avoid maritime casualties like those historical examples referred to above.

David K. Jones is a lawyer with Bernard LLP. He can be reached at Jones@bernardllp.ca.