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Can Costa Cruise Lines Survive Two Calamities?

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images(PORT VICTORIA, Seychelles) -- Who says lightning can't strike twice? It has jolted Costa Cruise Lines two times in the past six weeks. The first time was off the coast of Italy in January and then again this week in remote waters off the coast of Africa.

Eleanor and Gordon Bradwell of Athens, Ga., thought they were going on 30-day dream cruise through the Indian Ocean and the Middle East aboard the Costa Allegra.

Instead, they ended up enduring a three-day ordeal, stranded at sea after fire destroyed the ship's generator.

The Bradwells and more than 1,000 other passengers and crew were hostages of the sweltering tropical heat on a ship with no power, no air-conditioning, no working toilets and no kitchens.

"It could have been so much worse," said Gordon Bradwell. "It could have been a disaster of biblical proportions, if that fire had gotten out of control. We were a long way from help. Then who knows what the results could have been."

The Bradwells were at lunch on Monday when they heard seven short beeps and a long beep: the signal to abandon ship.

"There was a good bit of chaos and confusion," said Gordon as he described the moments that followed. "They began to lower the boats, and at that point we thought we were probably going to go into the boats."

"They were very disorganized," said Eleanor, "Totally disorganized, unprofessional in the way they handled it."

The fire was extinguished, no one was injured and everyone could stay on the ship.

But it was much worse six weeks ago when another Costa Cruise Lines ship, the much bigger Costa Concordia, ran aground and toppled over off the Italy's Tuscan coast.

More than 4,000 passengers and crew had to abandon ship in the middle of the night. Thirty-two people died in that incident.

When the Bradwells boarded the Costa Allegra in Mauritius last week, they knew it was part of the same cruise line as the ill-fated Costa Concordia. Eleanor Bradwell said she simply assumed the Concordia disaster was an aberration. "After the Concordia you think this won't happen again."

It did. The Bradwells, both around their 70s, spent three nights sleeping on deck chairs under the stars. Their cabin was uninhabitable, fluctuating between 100 degrees and 110 degrees. The toilets couldn't be flushed, leaving the odor of sewage hanging in the dense humid air.

After enduring all that, I asked Eleanor Bradwell if she would go on a cruise again.

"Well, we would cruise but I will not cruise with Costa. Ever," she said.

A lot of people seem to be saying that these days. After the Jan. 13 wreck of the Concordia, Costa's bookings dropped an estimated 30 percent.

Now the company faces a public relations nightmare, its brand associated with two high-profile mishaps at sea.

Its official name is Costa Crociere, an Italian company based in Genoa. But Costa is wholly owned by the British-American giant Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise ship operator. (Full disclosure: The parent company of ABC News, the Walt Disney Co., also operates a cruise line.)

Since Carnival bought Costa in 2000, the company's fleet has multiplied from five to 14 ships. In 2010, it carried 2.15 million passengers while sales increased 12 percent to $3.8 billion. Costa is Carnival's largest subsidiary.

Now that future of that valuable brand is in peril.

"I think they're going to have to work very hard to survive," cruise industry analyst and writer Bill Miller told ABC News. "It's going to be difficult because people associate them with two highly publicized mishaps. They may even have to consider rebranding themselves, getting a new name."

Costa is bracing for more bad publicity as the inquiry into the Concordia disaster gets under way in Italy this weekend.

Two Italian newspapers, La Stampa and Il Messagero, are publishing lurid details of alleged drug use, drinking and sexual harassment aboard the Costa Concordia.

"I saw with my own eyes officers taking cocaine—to prove it you would only have had to test them," a nurse identified only as Valentina B reportedly told investigators in pre-trial evidence obtained by the newspapers.

Valentina B says she worked on three Costa cruise ships, "each one worse than the other."

Another woman identified as Mary G is quoted in the documents as saying, "I worked on the Costa Concordia in 2010 for two months. Often the officers and other crew members were drunk. Often we'd say to ourselves, 'If there's an emergency, who is going to save the ship?'"

Mary G also claimed to have been "molested" by a crew member who was high on drugs.

"We operate strict safety and surveillance measures concerning drugs possession onboard our ships," Costa said in a statement. "The possession or trade of narcotics onboard is prohibited. Crew members who possess or use drugs or engage in drug trafficking are submitted to disciplinary provisions and disembarked. Onboard there are checks and preventive actions to discourage such behaviors."

While all of this is damaging to Costa's reputation, not all industry watchers think the brand will disappear.

With two of Costa's 14 ships out of commission, the company has two new ships ready to launch.

It just finished rebuilding its 1600-passenger NeoRomantica, which is set to sail on its first voyage in the Mediterranean. The company says the cruise is sold out.

And Costa does seem to have learned from the disaster of the Concordia.

While the Bradwells were critical of the way the crew aboard the Costa Allegra behaved in the first hours, they have nothing but praise for Costa's response to the disabled ship.

The Bradwells said after the first few hours of chaos aboard the Costa Allegra this week, the crew and the cruise line worked hard to ease the discomfort for passengers as living conditions deteriorated. Costa used helicopters to bring in food, flashlights and bottled water.

"They did what they could do," Eleanor said. "They did the best they could do under the circumstances."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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