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Congress hears testimony on cruise ship accident

By Jim Barnett, CNN
updated 6:16 PM EST, Wed February 29, 2012
The crippled cruise liner Costa Concordia lies aground near the coast of Italy after striking a reef in January.
The crippled cruise liner Costa Concordia lies aground near the coast of Italy after striking a reef in January.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Twenty-five people were killed in the Costa Concordia accident
  • Captain accused of abandoning ship and is facing charges
  • A House committee may look at tougher cruise regulations

Washington (CNN) -- Survivors of the Costa Concordia cruise ship accident off the coast of Italy recounted in riveting testimony before Congress on Wednesday that they feared for their lives after the ship hit a reef last month.

"We were at our dinner table on Deck 3 and were in the process of ordering our food, and we had just ordered our appetizers," said Divya Sharma, who was celebrating her fifth wedding anniversary with her husband on the ship. "At that moment, there was a violent shaking of the ship, followed by loud crash noises as the plates and glasses broke due to the listing of the ship towards the starboard side. Lights went out immediately, but there was no announcement as to what had happened. It was pitch dark with no visibility. Everyone nearby started to scream, and a few minutes into the ordeal the emergency lights came on, and we observed that the ship is now listing on the port side. This is when the first announcement came on telling us it was nothing but an electrical failure, and that everything is under control."

There were 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew members aboard the Costa Concordia when it set sail January 13.

Sharma told a House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Committee hearing that "crew members urged the passengers to remain calm and seated. The staff started to bring out people's food, as if nothing bad had happened."

She said a half hour after the accident, she and her husband decided to leave the dining room and go back to their room to get their life jackets, climbing six levels while holding onto the guard rails in dim emergency lighting.

"As we were getting to our room there were constant announcements of the same message, 'Ladies and gentleman, everything is under control at this point, and it seems to be a generator failure. Please stay calm and wait for further instructions and be cooperative.' What caught our attention was that all the announcements were made on behalf of the captain, and never once did we hear the captain speak," Sharma said.

"No one seemed to have any clear idea as to why they had to, what they had to do in this situation, or where they were supposed to send us," she added.

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Her husband, Sameer Sharma, told committee members "there was not one instance where crew members or anybody had mentioned that there was anything wrong other than the electrical issue. So we felt very betrayed, very much lied to at that point."

Despite being urged to stay in their rooms, the Sharmas headed to a lifeboat.

"People started to panic and getting frustrated as the ship is tilting more by the minute. We were getting frustrated, aggravated, and the crowd was pushing and shoving against each other," Divya Sharma said.

"Everybody was on their good vacation, but here we were sitting on a life boat, on a life boat, staring into the eyes of death," she told CNN in an interview before the hearing began.

The number of confirmed dead in the accident is 25, with several people still missing. Dozens were injured.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, told the Sharmas, "I'm embarrassed with what happened."

Coast Guard officials said an investigation is under way to determine what lessons can be learned from the incident and what regulations should be strengthened to protect passengers. One part of the probe includes whether watertight doors were closed after the ship struck the reef. The investigation will also look at crew training procedures, language and ship inspections.

"From that, we hope to develop a picture of what happened on board and the human factors in the unfolding of that tragedy," said Vice Admiral Brian Salerno, commandant for operations with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Salerno pointed out that the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic was drawing near, on April 14, and the "Costa Concordia reminds us that our new technology cannot be taken for granted. We're only as good as the human systems that operate them."

One immediate change is the cruise industry's decision to conduct muster drill exercises prior to a ship's departure from port, something Salerno called a "positive development."

There are some 170 passenger ships that operate from U.S. ports each year. The Transportation Committee said in 2010 more than 10 million U.S. residents took a cruise, generating more than $37 billion for the U.S. economy and creating 330,000 American jobs.

Representatives of the cruise line industry told lawmakers it is reviewing procedures in the wake of the accident.

"The cruise industry remains one of the safest recreational travel options," said Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association. She said the industry is "proactive and transparent" when it comes to safety.

The captain of the Costa Concordia reportedly abandoned the ship well before most of the passengers evacuated and refused to return when ordered to do so by the Italian Coast Guard. He faces several criminal charges in connection with the accident.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who holds a captain's license, said pointedly, "Nothing's wrong with the ship. It's a captain who forgot he was a captain." Young cautioned against "casting aspersions" on the American cruise line industry and its "good safety record."

"We want to avoid collateral damage to the cruise industry," added Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland. "This is truly a teachable moment."

But when Cummings asked Divya Sharma whether she would ever take a cruise again, she said, "Not in the near future."

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