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Titanic tragedy led to changes at sea, but legacy of human error remains

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TORONTO - They're 100 years apart but key moments are remarkably similar — a ship taking on water, passengers fleeing their cabins in a panic, widespread confusion over how to best evacuate a vessel in crisis.

One ship hit an iceberg, the other rammed into a rocky reef. Both drew collective disbelief at the loss of life at the time.

More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic sank in 1912. A century later, 32 were killed when a luxury cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, was shipwrecked off the Tuscan coast in January. The number of victims in the 2012 incident pales in comparison, but it was a wakeup call for many who believed large-scale ocean disasters were a phenomenon of the past.

Looking back at a century of marine innovation since the Titanic, observers agree that while what's arguably the most famous ocean disaster triggered many changes at sea, the prevalence of human error is one of its most lasting legacies.

"It's not a question of building better ships or building better technology. The fact is people make mistakes," says Joe Scanlon, who has been researching disasters for years and directs the emergency communications research unit at Carleton University in Ottawa.

For the Titanic, those mistakes included not slowing the ship in icy water, not having enough lifeboats and not having wireless radio operators at their stations around the clock.

Those particular errors triggered a series of changes. Ships now have lifeboats that can accommodate every occupant, radio stations are staffed at all times and shipping lanes avoid ice-routes with the help of the International Ice Patrol, founded after the Titanic went down.

Additionally, two years after the Titanic sank, the world’s maritime nations also adopted an international convention for Safety of Life at Sea – or SOLAS – which is still in effect today.

What hasn't changed, however, is the role people play when things go wrong.

Some who have studied the Titanic point in particular to the ship's captain, Edward Smith.

"I don't think he should have ever been appointed captain," says Scanlon, adding that the Titanic’s maiden voyage was meant to be Smith’s last before retirement. "This was a guy who was banging into things in his career."

Ten decades later, many are scrutinizing the Costa Concordia’s captain, who is being investigated for alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship during the evacuation. He has denied wrongdoing and claimed the reef that ripped a hole in his ship wasn't marked on charts.

In hindsight, however, alleging a ship’s captain is the key person at fault is all too convenient, warns one Titanic enthusiast.

"The only truth has gone down with the ship,” said Norm Lewis, president and founder of the Canadian Titanic Society. "As far as I'm concerned the (Titanic’s) captain did everything he could."

Overconfidence in a ship’s mechanical prowess hasn't changed though, said Lewis.

"With this Costa Concordia I think what they're doing in a way is making the same mistake they made back in 1912. They're thinking that because of modern technology they can do this, they can do that."

While the Titanic has lived on in the public’s memory after being immortalized in various books and films, it was by no means the worst ocean disaster. Similarly, the recent wreck of the Costa Concordia had far fewer casualties than some incidents in the developing world. More than 1,000 people died in 2006 when an Egyptian ferry sank in the Red Sea, and even more recently, at least 142 perished in ferry accident in Bangladesh last month.

Many marine experts agree that the human element needs to be focused on in the future.

"As a society we have very smartly engineered out many of the risks associated with the maritime industry," says Capt. Jim Parsons, academic director of the Fisheries and Marine Institute at Newfoundland's Memorial University, who cautions against an over-reliance on technology.

"When we look at why accidents happen, if you get back to root causes it often tends to fall back to the operator, due to complacency, lack of training."

When analyzing ocean accidents, Parsons says the bottom line also often comes into play. He points to the 2007 example of the MV Explorer, which sank in the Antarctic after its occupants were evacuated into open lifeboats. Given the frigid environment, the boats ought to have been at least partially covered, he says.

"It always tends to go back to the cost cutting measures. That may be something that hasn't changed over the 100 years," he says. "We still tend sometimes to neglect safety in order to turn a bigger profit."

Representatives of the cruise industry say nothing is more important than the safety of those on their vessels.

"Safety and security standards of the cruise lines are second to none," says Donna Spalding of the North West and Canada Cruise Association. "The safety and security of the guests and the crew is their top priority."

Spalding points out that her group's sister organization — the Cruise Lines International Association — is conducting a safety practices review in the aftermath of the wreck of the Costa Concordia.

Additional security features like emergency drills taking place before a ship leaves port, safety inspections and having a pilot boat guide ships in or out of North American ports all help keep passengers and crew safe, she says.

But at least one critic says cruise lines aren't being as forthcoming as they could be.

"It's similar to what we saw 100 years ago with the Titanic. At that time the big argument was that it's unsinkable and there was this sort of arrogance," says Ross Klein, who has researched the industry for years and runs the website CruiseJunkie.com.

"Today we have that same arrogance where the industry says 'we're the safest mode of commercial transportation.' "

In addition to large-scale disasters, theft, physical assaults and even sexual assaults all can and do take place aboard even the most luxurious ocean liners, Klein says.

"It's an artificial environment," he says. "You're totally anonymous so you might behave in ways on a cruise ship that you wouldn't behave at home."

The easy spread of contagious viruses due to the close quarters on a ship is another risk.

Ultimately, Klein believes the industry needs to stay vigilant and be more honest about the risks associated with ships carrying an ever-growing number of passengers.

"We've improved in some areas quite visibly but I think overall we really haven't improved at all," he says. "You can have all kinds of rules and regulations, but if you have people who aren't being attentive running the ship, we haven't learned anything."

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