Protection Civile et Operations d'Aide Humanitaire Européennes

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A newfound appreciation for the Costa Concordia rescue operation.

On 13 January in the evening, a Cruiser ship 290 metres long and with more than 4 200 people on board ran aground some metres away from the very touristy island of Giglio, Toscany, Italy. This leisure cruise quickly became a nightmare for all involved. Firstly forthe passengers and crew who were forced to evacuate following, as best they could, the emergency procedures for a listing and unstable ship. And secondly for the local authorities, that were not prepared to take care of so many people at once who were both physically and psychologically affected.

Unfortunately, in spite of a swift and efficient response from the emergency services (Coast Guards, Fire Brigade, Guardia di Finanza, Carabinieri, Navy, Police), 17 people have been confirmed dead and 15 are still missing.

The operations on site are still running. On 24 January, the Italian Civil Protection Department offered the European Commission’s  Emergency Response Unit the opportunity to send an observation mission through the European Civil Protection Mechansim. The idea behind this mission was to give the European Civil Protection community the chance to share, on site, the experience and the lessons from this unexpected situation and to try to take some lessons away from this tragedy.

The selection of the team of experts selected for this observation mission was done according to the regular procedures followed after any natural disaster where one State requests assistance from others. In this case once the Italian Civil Protection Department sent out the invitation for an observer team, the European Commission’s Emergency Response Unit (ERU) responded to acknowledge the request. Then the ERU notified all 31 of the Civil Protection authority members across Europe through a network called CECIS (Common Emergency Communication and Information System). Following this offers of individual experts from national Civil Protection authorities were made to the Monitoring and Information Center (MIC), the operational heart of the Emergency Response Unit, located in Brussels. The MIC’s job was then to  select  the following team of experts for the mission :

  • Frédéric Monard from France (Emergency Manager)
  • Emanuel Mallia from Malta (Maritime Rescue Expert)
  • Silje Berger from Normay (Marine Pollution and Environmental Expert)
  • Giuseppe Russo from the European Maritime Safety Agency
  • René Nijenhuis from the Joint UNEP-OCHA Environmental Unit (Environment Expert)
  • …and myself, Laurent de Pierrefeu (MIC Liaison Officer)

When we arrived on site on Friday (26 January), we had the opportunity to meet all the actors involved. Quickly we could see what has made the Costa Concordia  situation so complex; there is a combination of overlapping operations all of which need to be coordinated: search and rescue,intelligence gathering to locate the missing people, collection of forensic evidence, provision of psychological support and consular assistance, prevention of oil and waste pollution through the extraction of the oil and waste from the tanks on board, monitoring of the millimetric movement of the ship to secure the safety of the rescue divers.

Just to begin to imagine the challenge faced by the rescuers one needs to picture the difficulty of exploring  a 290-metre long building partially submerged, tilted at a 45° angle. . In the  part of the ship still above water, special cave exploring  techniques were used to perform the searchs and to secure the rescuers. In the submerged part, the divers were confronted with a very dangerous situation:

  • zero visibility: in places, even with powerful lights divers could see nothingbecause of how the sea water that came into the ship mixed with  detergents and others products.
  • obstacles everywhere: floating objects and furniture, carpets and curtains that are deadly traps for divers …and remember that the divers  couold not see anything only feel their way around.
  • getting lost: if a diver gets disorientated it can be impossible to find their way back to the surface  in such a maze of rooms and corridors.

The team stayed on site for two full days. The purpose of their mission is to prepare a report for the benefit of the  EU Members States that will give an overview on how such a large scale disaster management exercise might be anticipated.

As of 31 January, the search for survivors was terminated for security reasons as the ship became unstable due to bad weather. From now, the focus is to be given to the risks to the environment the ship may pose. The biggest three remaining challenges for the authorities are:

  • how to pump out the oil (2800 tons) from the wreck causing as little pollution as possible
  • how to manage all the other types of  waste from the ship
  • how to manage the removal of the ship itself.

Experts are already making plans for these three operations.

This unique catastrophe is full of lessons to be learned. Our condoleances go to the families and relatives of the victims, but our gratitude go to our colleagues in the Italian Civil protection Department that gave Civil Protection authorities across Europe the possibility to be better prepared for afuture disaster of a similar nature.

 By Laurent de Pierrefeu
European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), Giglio, Italy