Costa Concordia disaster: Evacuating a cruise ship

The Costa Serena cruise ship (background) passes the wreck of its sister ship, the Costa Concordia, off Giglio, Italy, 18 January The Costa Serena cruise ship (background) passed the wreck of its sister ship, the Costa Concordia, on Wednesday

The sister ship of the Costa Concordia, the Costa Serena, has been making its first cruise since the tragedy off the coast of Tuscany. The BBC's Tom Burridge went on board to see at first hand the emergency drill, which passengers on the Costa Concordia say did not happen before the ship hit rocks.

We had been in our cabin a matter of minutes when the announcement sounded. First in Italian, then in seven other languages. The last two were Russian and Japanese.

In short, we were told that the emergency drill on board the ship would start soon.

And no sooner had the voice in Japanese gone quiet than we heard several short beeps, signalling that the emergency exercise had begun. The ship had not even left port.

Life jackets

The BBC had made a formal request to Costa Cruises for us to travel, as journalists, to film the ship's safety procedures on board.

That request was denied, so my colleague Daniela and I were posing as tourists instead.

Tom Burridge arrives on the Costa Serena and attends a safety drill

We had to take the two credit card-sized emergency red drill cards on our bed, grab a life jacket each from the wardrobe in the cabin and head out into the long, seemingly never-ending corridor.

Other passengers had already emerged from their cabins. An elderly Italian couple struggled slowly down the stair well.

Members of the Costa Serena's crew guided Daniela and me down the stairs behind our fellow Italian passengers.

Metres later we were at a meeting point with hundreds of other passengers, all wearing their bright orange life jackets.

Soon we were ushered into lines of four. Men were placed at the back, with women at the front of each row.

'No difference'

An elderly man from Corsica stood beside me. I asked him how many times he had been on a cruise.

"Eight," he responded. "Twice on the Costa Concordia."

I did not have to prompt him for the conversation to move on to the Serena's sister ship, that lay capsized a short distance away down the Italian coast.

"Was there a drill both times you were on board the Concordia?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied. "But this doesn't make a difference.

"Look at the number of people. If there was an emergency, everyone would panic and getting down to the life rafts would take a long time."

Our fellow, more experienced, cruise passenger was not worried, nor was anyone that we spoke to while on board.

The general feeling was that the tragedy of the Costa Concordia was a one-off. Most people believed it was easily explained by "human error".

Boxed in

We had boarded the Costa Serena in Savona but some people had started the cruise on the previous day at Civitavecchia, the same starting-point as the Costa Concordia.

During the emergency drill, Daniela had spoken to an Italian lady.

She said that, as on the Concordia, there had been no drill on the first day of this cruise.

However the ship was still conforming to the regulations of the International Maritime Organisation, that there must be an emergency drill within the first 24 hours of a cruise.

After we heard some safety instructions, again in several different languages, we started to file out of the corridor and back into the carpeted corridors, back into the heart of the ship.

It was at this point that you got a sense of the sheer number of people on board. And when so many people need to move in the same direction, they dawdle slowly as a crowd, boxed in by the insufficient space.

Of course the drill was over and everyone was joking and looking forward to a two-week cruise that lay ahead.

But in a real emergency, like the nightmare that unfolded on the Costa Concordia, there would have been panic and it is easy to see how chaos would naturally ensue.

Sheer size

We only spent a day aboard the Costa Serena. We left the cruise early, in Barcelona, before it headed on to Casablanca, in Morocco.

Everyone said it was identical to the Costa Concordia and in Italy they call them gemelas, or twins.

When it sits in port, you cannot fail to notice it.

But when you are walking the long corridors, or standing on the top deck, way above the sea, its size feels more real.

What I mean is that it takes a while to learn your way around this floating entertainment zone of restaurants, bars, swimming pools and lifts.

And when I wandered up to the deck at night, it was easy to imagine how frightened the passengers on board the Costa Concordia would have been when the boat first hit ground and then started to tip over in the dark.

Inside, passengers must have been tossed around as water poured in.

Before we joined the cruise, the Costa Serena had sailed past its sunken sister.

A member of the Serena's crew told us of his sadness at seeing their sister ship lying on its side in the water.

The cruise industry has many very loyal customers that we met on board.

They are people who keep coming back for the same experience on these supersized boats.

But it is impossible to think that the sinking of the Costa Concordia will not lead to some changes to the culture of safety on board.

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