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Costa Concordia survivors describe 'Goliath' fight against cruise industry

Rock Center

Shortly after the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy, leaving at least 32 people dead, Costa Cruises began offering settlements to the survivors of the accident.

Nancy and Mario Lofaro of New Rochelle, N.Y., said they were offered $14,500 by the cruise line following the Jan. 13 incident. 

“Well, my first reaction was that I thought it was grossly insulting, but what upset us most is that it almost seemed like they wanted to do this very quickly and get it done so that it could all go away and that’s the part that we have a problem with,” Nancy Lofaro said.  “They promised payment within two weeks, we would have had $29,000 between us in two weeks…That’s not what it’s about.  This particular incident should not be forgotten and good should come from it somehow.”

The Lofaro family isn’t alone.  Six months after the Concordia disaster, hundreds of survivors are challenging the settlements that Costa Cruises has offered.  

Costa Cruise’s parent company, Carnival Corporation, is the world’s biggest cruise line.  Citing pending litigation, Carnival Corporation denied Rock Center’s request for an interview. No one disputes that the cruise line is acting in accordance with the terms of agreement on each passenger’s ticket.

Getting access to the terms of agreement for a cruise ticket is a difficult and complicated process, said Marc Bern, an attorney for a number of passengers that were on the Concordia when it wrecked. “When you get on a ship, you are covered by the limitations that the law of that ship wants to apply to you and you can’t even find out what those limitations are unless and until you book your trip and you’ve paid for it and you’ve already accepted those limitations,” he said.

He said the print is “extraordinarily fine” and often “buried.”

Most cruise ships are registered in foreign countries which provides enormous tax advantages to the owners and also puts the ships outside U.S. jurisdiction once they’re a few miles off shore.

Bern said that the terms of agreement should be thrown out for those involved the Concordia wreck because of the egregious actions of the ship’s captain.  In an interview this week, Captain Francesco Schettino admitted to being distracted on the phone when he navigated the ship off course, hitting the rocks near the Italian island of Giglio. Schettino could face manslaughter charges and was recently released from house arrest.

By the terms of the ticket agreement, passengers who want to challenge the $14,500 settlement offer have to do so in an Italian court.  Liability for loss of life is limited to $75,000.  That amount is incredibly low compared to what would happen in an airline accident, said Attorney John Arthur Eaves, Jr., who is representing more than a hundred Concordia survivors.

“They’ve offered the people $14,000. That would include their tickets, that would include their property and that would include all their future problems that they have received from this thing.  I think that’s disrespectful and I believe it’s horrible to the value of life.”

Families of a person lost in a plane crash, are offered between $2 and $5 million, Eaves said.

Eaves said that the value is important because the higher the cost a company pays out after an accident, the more incentive they have on the front end to train crew members and better prepare for a disaster. 

Remo Casilli / Reuters

The Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 passengers, ran aground Jan. 13 off the coast of Italy killing 32 people - including two Americans.

Those on the Concordia on January 13 recount a harrowing night of confusion where crew members seemed ill prepared to help them.  

The Lofaros have been on several cruises before and were excited to embark on their winter getaway. At the start of the cruise,  they say there was no safety drill to practice what to do in the event of an emergency. When the cruise ship first hit a rock, they were in the ship’s theater.

“We looked at each other and we said, ‘We hit something,’” Mario Lofaro said.

No alarm was sounded until more than an hour after they felt the ship shudder.

The Lofaros said that they were shocked to encounter crew members who they said had no information. At first the passengers were told the ship had an electrical problem. 

“With anything that you do in life, there are always risks.  But you don't think that a half-a-billion-dollar ship that's almost 1,000 feet long, that does this route every week, week after week-- you would never think that this could happen, even though you know anything can happen,” Nancy Lofaro said. “But what is most concerning is that you put your confidence in the professionals in anything that you do.”

When they heard six short whistles and a seventh long one, the signal to abandon ship and board life boats, the Lofaros said that it seemed the crew members didn’t know how to navigate the boats. They described the life boats bumping into one another like “bumper cars.”

They say when the life boat they were in was lowered, it got hung up on the ship.

“Everybody is thrown to the other side. We went crashing against the ship,” Mario Lofaro said. “the lifeboat released and it went into a freefall.”

Nancy Lofaro added, “That’s the time I actually felt we could die.”

Joan Fleser and Brian Aho, both veteran cruisers, were in the middle of dinner when dishes began raining from the dining tier above them.

“People were screaming.  A lot of people were getting up immediately and trying to leave, some people fell down, waiters that were carrying trays, food went flying, dishes and glasses were starting to slide off the tables,” Fleser said. Fleser, Aho and Aho’s daughter, Alana, clung to a pillar to prevent themselves from falling over as the ship began to list to the side.

Six months after the tragedy, it’s hard for the family to contemplate how people lost their lives when the ship was in relatively shallow water and so close to land.

“People died because of this for no reason.  I mean, that’s the tragic thing about this,” Fleser said.

Of the ship’s captain diverting off course, she said, “And he was allowed to do this by the cruise line, by the corporation.”

The Aho family is being represented by Eaves and is battling Costa Cruises and Carnival.

“Some people just don’t want to have anything more to do with it and I completely understand that.  All the trauma, you just want to get past it and continue on,” Fleser said.  “We on the other hand, think that it’s important to try to change something.”

The family’s attorney recently took his fight to the seas. Eaves got the federal court in Texas to send U.S. Marshals to seize the Carnival Triumph which was about to sail from the port of Galveston. The federal court accepted a suit on behalf of the family of a woman killed on the Concordia, thus compelling Carnival to post a $10 million bond before the Triumph could sail.

“We asked the court to seize Carnival Triumph, a large passenger ship, and hold that ship as collateral for the judgment.  Just much like you do with a criminal, you know, you capture him.  Then he has to post a bond for him to go free, to make sure he'll return to court. We did the same thing with the ship,” Eaves said.  “They had to post a bond to make sure that, out of that bond, when we get a verdict, we get a judgment, that they'll pay this family and help them rebuild their lives.”

Of his fight against the cruise line industry, Eaves said, “Oh, it's Goliath, it's Goliath times two…I'm throwing my little slingshot, and I got one or two pebbles that I can throw.  I've done thrown a couple of them and I'm going to keep throwing until we find some way to make this better.”

Editor’s Note: Harry Smith’s full report airs Thursday, July 12 at 10pm/9c on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.