Andrea Bartolucci was working on his PhD in disaster management when the Costa Concordia disaster happened. The cruise liner with 4229 souls on board ran aground off the coast of Italy, resulting in 32 deaths 193 injured, and multiple court cases. Captain Schettino, who had left the sinking ship early, was sentenced to 16 years in prison after a lengthy trial.
For Bartolucci and his colleagues Cristina Casareale and John Drury, the work was only beginning. They used court transcripts as a resource to determine how people cooperate and compete during disasters.
Their publication in Safety Science shows that during disasters, information is key. Not only for people organising relief efforts, but for the people inside as well.
Correct information was the one thing that was clearly not available for the people on board the Costa Concordia. While the ship was sinking, it was not clear at all who was in charge. The captain had left the ship before the passengers were safe and a lot of the evacuation was being organised by not just the crew, but by staff members on board: waiters, cooks and cleaners, who often did were not trained to deal with emergencies and sometimes did not even speak the language.
According to the event reconstruction, a lot of the deaths that happened during the disaster were people that were told by crewmembers to go back to their quarters or that were sent to the wrong side of the ship.
But even though the efforts to evacuate the ship were chaotic, there was no panic aboard. Bartolucci: ‘We tend to think people panic and behave irrationally when confronted with dangerous situations, but this is not the case in most disasters. Mass panics are in fact very rare. When examining these disasters, instead of panic, we prefer to make a distinction between the terms cooperative and competitive behaviour.’
The court transcripts allowed Bartolucci an opportunity to investigate how people react in these kinds of situations, and how respond to a lack of information and how they compete and cooperate.
The results are promising, people mostly behave cooperatively. Another comforting fact: experiencing a disaster together makes forges such a strong bond that total strangers start working together. ‘In disasters, everyone helps each other.’
Competitive behaviour did occur, but only at very specific moments and locations when passengers felt that there was a scarcity, like a lack of places on a lifeboat. Bartolucci: ‘There is a perception of a danger, you see a possibility of escape, and then you sense that this escape is not going to be available for long. That is what leads to competitive behaviour.’
Once passengers had made in inside the lifeboats, they started behaving cooperatively again, working together to lower the boats into the water. The perceived scarcity had passed, the need to compete was gone.
The fact that information was held back by the crew did not only delay the evacuation, but also led to more competitive behaviour. When the ship started listing heavily, there was no denying something had gone wrong. And on top of that, due to the listing, the lifeboats on one side of the Costa Concordia had become unusable, which invariably led to more competitive behaviour.
Bartolucci: ‘It is still one of the biggest misconceptions in crisis management that you have to lie to people to protect them and prevent panic. In fact, the opposite is true. People in a disaster need to know what is happening, because their decision to react is based on what they know. The best course of action is to share as much information as possible, as quickly as possible.’