As the world learns more of the gut-wrenching details of the Costa Concordia disaster and the utter recklessness and stupidity shown by the ship’s captain, a similar story has emerged here at home which should concern any person living in an apartment or condominium building.

The Costa Concordia’s captain will live in infamy not only for the daredevil stunt which caused the ship to hit a reef, but also for his decision to delay the evacuation order and advise passengers that the catastrophic damage to the ship’s engine and power plant was a trifling electrical problem that was under control. Evacuation did not begin until over an hour later, when the ship was already sinking and in much more serious trouble. This made evacuation far more dangerous and some people could not escape safely or at all. At least 17 people died, 17 are still missing and many more were injured.

On January 19, six days after the Costa Concordia ran aground, a fire broke out in an Edmonton condo building. It took 70 firefighters 15 hours to contain the blaze, which completely destroyed 50 of 82 suites. Damages are estimated to exceed $13 million. Luckily, there were no injuries but almost 100 people were left homeless.

After their initial investigation, Edmonton fire officials reported that the blaze started after a plumber’s torch ignited insulation in the boiler room at about 11 a.m., but no one called 911 until almost four hours later. By that point, the smouldering remnants of the initial fire had spread into walls and ceilings and then burst into flames. Apparently the workers had tried to contain the fire themselves, rather than call for help. This was a dumb move, and the first of three very costly mistakes.

To illustrate the foolishness of the plumbers’ decision not to call for help, fire officials point to an identical incident two days later. In that case, another plumber using a torch started a fire at another condominium in Edmonton. The difference? The second plumber called 911 immediately, with the result that fire damage was limited to $200,000, with only two suites affected. Fire officials are now considering charges against the plumbers who waited four hours before calling for help.

Making the Edmonton story even more bizarre are reports that the building’s fire alarm was activated shortly after the fire began and was then silenced, and residents were advised that the situation was under control, even while smoke entered corridors and suites.

The Edmonton Sun quoted a resident whose suite and possessions were completely destroyed in the fire, who said:

“There were people there while this whole thing was transpiring. There was smoke in suites, there was smoke in the hallways,” he said.

“Everyone in the building was aware of it, and yet they were being told that it was under control.”

This was the second mistake. Whoever made those announcements and turned off the fire alarm should be thankful that no one was injured or killed. Then they should hang their heads. Then they should call their insurance company.

There’s more.

The cruise ship and the condo stories are strikingly similar in terms of misleading announcements being made to pacify the guests or residents while critical time passed. But unlike the helpless passengers on the doomed ship, the condo residents had a greater opportunity to take control of their situation. Anyone in the building who detected the smoke and heard the alarm could have picked up the phone and called the fire department.

It is not clear precisely who told residents that the situation "was under control," but residents were clearly convinced since none of them chose to call 911.  It is hard to suggest that people should second guess the people in charge or that these residents might be partly responsible for their own terrible loss, hindsight tells us that the residents’ decision to sit tight was a mistake. They should have called 911 after smelling smoke and hearing the alarm sound (and then stop), even in the face of assurances that everything was under control.  This entire scenario should have sounded familiar from the reports from Italy in the preceding week.

There is nothing wrong with acting out of an abundance of caution where the circumstances or potential consequences require it. The possible inconvenience or minor cost of raising the alarm in a potential emergency in is an absolute bargain when compared to the devastation that could occur and which the Edmonton condo residents are now experiencing.

Criminal prosecutions against the responsible parties and the inevitable civil suits to follow might flesh out some of the finer points in the Costa Concordia case and in the Edmonton condo fire, but the most important lesson is already clear: When faced with an emergency, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Relay accurate information, summon help quickly and get people out fast.

While people everywhere would prefer to believe that those in charge will exercise proper judgment and do what’s best for everyone’s safety, history shows that common sense is conspicuously absent in so many of the worst catastrophes. Severe penalties are needed where such palpable negligence results in massive damage, injury or death, so as to make an example. Those penalties and the lessons that flow from such cases must be remembered.  

Photograph by: Rick MacWilliam,