Cruise ship safety to be scrutinized by Congress

Seagulls fly in front of the grounded cruise ship Costa Concordia off the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Jan. 30, 2012. Residents of Giglio are growing increasingly worried about threats to the environment and the future of the island as bad weather agai
Seagulls fly in front of the grounded cruise ship Costa Concordia off the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Jan. 30, 2012.
AP Photo

(CBS News) Last month's Costa Concordia disaster put cruise ship safety in the worldwide spotlight. And with 12 million Americans going on cruises every year, U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday were scheduled to hear from survivors, survivors, maritime experts and cruise line representatives in the first of two Congressional hearings.

Complete Coverage: Italian Cruise Disaster
Mom faces cruise ship nightmare - again

The hearings come as the Costa Allegra, a disabled Italian cruise liner, is still a day away from safety in pirate-infested waters off the coast of Africa. Helicopters are dropping food to more than 1,000 passengers and crew aboard that vessel.

One of the Costa Allegra passengers has a brother who survived the Costa Concordia disaster off the coast of Italy last month, and their mother is worried sick.

Jayne Thomas, whose daughter is aboard the Costa Allegra, said, "It was a nightmare that we didn't think we'd have to relive, especially within six weeks, so we've cast ourselves as very unfortunate." Both of her children are dancers who work on the sister ships.

The Costa Concordia is owned by Carnival Cruise Lines, but was under Italian jurisdiction -- a common dilemma that Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., hopes to address.

"The United States can only control ships leaving from its port," Mica said. "We're subject to international conventions and relations, and some of those we need to lobby to get updated."

In the wake of the recent disasters, the cruise industry is making changes.

All ships must now go over safety with passengers before they leave port -- something that previously wasn't required.

Still, many are asking questions about the sheer size of these floating cities, and whether they're too big to evacuate in a true emergency. But the cruise industry insists bigger ships are actually better.

Michael Crye, vice president of Cruise Lines International Association, told CBS News, "The technology that you can apply to address safety issues is much greater on a bigger vessel."

Some survivors remain unconvinced and hope the hearings on Capitol Hill will lead to real solutions.

Benji Smith, a Boston man who was aboard the Costa Concordia during the Jan. 13 disaster, said, "I'd like to hear them say that they're going to fix their mistakes, rather than making excuses."

To watch Whit Johnson's full report, click on the video in the player above.