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Costa Cruises faces image crisis after shipwreck, fire

During a hearing held Wednesday in Washington, D.C., the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee reviewed U.S. cruise ship safety regulations as well as international safety standards and heard testimony from Costa Concordia cruise ship survivors. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

Updated 1:00 a.m. ET -- Costa Cruises is facing a legal and public relations nightmare after seeing two high-profile disasters on its ships barely six weeks apart, the Associated Press reports.

Bookings with Costa Cruises already had dipped by an estimated one-third following the Jan. 13 wreck of its Concordia cruise ship off a Tuscan island that killed up to 32 passengers and crew. The company is blaming that shipwreck on its captain, who stands accused of abandoning ship as passengers struggled to escape.

Now, following an engine room fire this week that left its Allegra cruise ship drifting without power in the Indian Ocean in an area frequented by Somali pirates, Costa faces an even more difficult future.

This Allegra arrived in the Seychelles on Thursday, after three days at sea. The Seychelles Red Cross has set up several tents to assist any passengers needing help. Tour operators were on scene with buses ready to take passengers to either the airport or a Seychelles resort. The process was expected to take several hours.

Industry experts said Costa's survival after 60 years in the passenger ship business could depend on the company changing its name or getting a bailout from its parent, U.S.-based Carnival. 

In testimony before Congress, Sameer and Divya Sharma, describe celebrating their 5th wedding anniversary aboard the Costa Concordia on January 13, 2012 and depict the chaos on board and the lack of information or help coming from the crew.

Magda Antonioli, the director of the tourism Masters program at Bocconi University in Milan, said Costa must think about rebranding itself after the back-to-back disasters.

"Certainly images of the two accidents have been (seen) around the world," Antonioli said. 

But many in the cruise business don't think the disasters will prove to be Costa's death knell or even have a long-term impact on the wider cruise industry, which is experiencing phenomenal growth as the number of healthy elderly rises and more families choose cruises for intergenerational vacations.

"No, not the end for Costa, which has operating passenger ships for over 60 years," Douglas Ward, author of the 2012 Berlitz Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships, said in an email from a ship off the Australian coast. "But the relentless media spotlight may dilute the brand and perhaps the number of ships in fleet." 

On the scene
In the wake of the Costa Concordia disaster, Costa Cruises this week has attempted to mitigate damages.

A member the cruise line's "care team" was on board the Allegra on Wednesday and met with guests to assess their needs. More than half of the Costa Allegra's passengers accepted the cruise line's proposal to continue their vacation once they reach port in Seychelles, a Costa spokesperson said Wednesday.

Passengers aboard the Costa Allegra cruise ship are shown on deck while being towed by a French tuna boat in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday.

"These guests will be accommodated by Costa Cruises, at its expense, in high-quality hotels in the following islands: Praslin, La Digue, Silhouette and Cerfs," Costa spokesperson Davide Barbano said in a statement. The cruise line will also arrange flights home for passengers at the end of their trip.

Passengers who opted to return home immediately will leave Seychelles on Thursday night, also on flights arranged by the cruise line, Barbano said.

Soft drinks, cold cuts, cheese and fruit are available to eat and drink, mineral water is offered for personal hygiene, and fresh bread was delivered by helicopter, Costa Cruises said on Wednesday. The company also said a small generator delivered by a navy ship — it did not specify from which country — could help restore basic services and "to make the situation on board more comfortable." 

Earlier Wednesday, a Seychelles government minister said ship passengers will spend an extra 10 to 12 hours at sea without electricity, air conditioning or working toilets because a French vessel pulling the ship refused to give way to tugboats. But Costa spokesperson Barbano denied that the tow would have been faster with the tugs and said the disabled cruise ship was always scheduled to reach the Seychelles' main port on Thursday. 

"It was decided to continue with that (the fishing vessel) because it guaranteed the smoothest voyage for those on board," he said. 

The director of France's Regional Operational Center for Surveillance and Rescue, or CROSS, said it maritime rules allowed the French fishing vessel to continue with the towing job. 

"We were in a rescue operation, the tuna boat arrived first. Then there are negotiations as one can imagine," said Nicolas Le Bianic, in the French department of Reunion. Any assistance to people is free, not the case here, he said. "Assistance to the boat, in contrast, is paid. That's the rule of principle set by maritime texts." 

Le Bianic estimated the towing journey at about 300 miles (260 nautical miles). 

With no electricity aboard the Costa Allegra, passengers and crew have taken to sleeping on deck.  A woman whose son escaped the Costa Concordia, and whose daughter is now stuck on the Costa Allegra, says all she wants to do is see her daughter. Carl Dinnen Channel Four Europe reports.

 

The Allegra, whose Italian name means "merry," or "happy," left northern Madagascar, off Africa's southeast coast, on Saturday and was cruising toward Port Victoria when the fire erupted. Costa said the Allegra had been due in Port Victoria on Tuesday.

The general region where the cruise ship was adrift — off the coast of Tanzania — has seen a rash of attacks by Somali pirates. In 2009, an Italian cruise ship with 1,500 people aboard fended off a pirate attack in the Indian Ocean far off the coast of Somalia.

Photos released by the Seychelles on Tuesday showed hundreds of people milling outside on the decks of the Costa Allegra. Taken by an Indian navy plane, the photos showed calm seas and an upright ship.

The liner is carrying 413 crew members and 636 passengers, including 212 Italians, 31 Britons and eight Americans. Four passengers are children ages 3 or younger. 

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NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.