WASHINGTON, JANUARY 19, 2011– When we travel, safety briefings – musters on a ship, the flight attendant pointing two fingers toward the exits – are de rigueur. Or should be.
As is the question we ask ourselves “What would we do?
Would we, like Sandor Feher, a 38-year-old Hungarian violinist that was a ship entertainer on the Costa Concordia, help children to get on their vests and scurry to safety and only when others were safe head for the lifeboats himself? Jozsef Balogh, a pianist working with Feher on the ship says that Feher, who was last seen on deck en route to lifeboats, decided to return to his cabin to pack his violin.
Or would we, as the media reports, order dinner without concern after the initial accident, then once realizing that the ship was sinking, abandoning our responsibilities without concern for his passengers?
The Costa Concordia with more than 4,200 passengers and crew ripped a hole in its side when passing too close to land off Tuscany, Italy. It was the Captain’s error that caused this accident. It is also the Captain’s duty to see to the see to the safety of the passengers, crew and the recovery of the vessel.
From children who watch Pirates of the Caribbean to adults know the adage “The Captain goes down with the ship.” It is quite simply the lore of the sea and it means it is his responsibility to steer the ship safely and if he fails, it is his responsibility to make sure that his passenger and crew are safe before him.
Two tales emerge about Captain E.J. Smith of the ill-fated Titanic that sank after an iceberg ripped a hole in its hull in 1912.
One tells that Captain Smith shot himself in the library of the ship once all was lost, while another has the captain hurling himself into the sea after ships officers forced him onto a lifeboat.
Captain E.J. Smith is remembered for his calm and courage as he made quick assessments of the damage and ordered his crew to lower lifeboats, boarding women and children first.
The story of the ships orchestra staying on deck, valiantly playing “Nearer My God To Thee” in order to calm those doomed to die and to offer for all a final prayer to the heavens, is legend.
Danish Captain Henrik Kurt Carlsen was master of the Flying Enterprise a freighter that in 1952 became a casualty of an English Channel storm. The Captain saw the ships ten passengers and forty crew members safely aboard rescue vessels, but refused to leave the ship during seven days of salvage attempts, only letting go of his ship’s smokestack moments before it sunk to the bottom of the Channel.
Italian Captain Piero Calamai was master of the Andrea Doria that in 1956 collided with the ship Stockholm off of Nantucket. Though that the accident was blamed on the Doria’s excessive speed, Captain Calamai held to the maritime law of the Captain perishing with his ship, only abandoning when remaining crew refused to leave without him.
In 1991, the cruise ship M/V Oceanos sank after a main engine explosion left the vessle’s hull torn open and and the 7,554-ton vessel began taking on water.
Captain Yiannis Avranas, a seafarer with over thirty years experience did as Captain Shettino is reported to have done, fled the ship with hundreds of passengers still on board.
It is only a miracle that the 571 passengers and crew aboard the ship survived, but it was the efforts of the South African Air Force and volunteer private vessels called into service, not the Captain that saved them.
The report is that the Captain forced himself ahead of all other passengers, including the elderly woman next in line to be hoisted to safety in the helicopter.
It is very interesting to note that in much the same manner as Sandor Feher was helping children to escape the tragedy, or how the Titanic orchestra played to soothe the dying and abandoned, an entertainer on the M/V Oceanos aided the passengers. Magician and comedian Robin Bolton, was the one that stayed on deck, using his skills as an entertainer to help keep people, and children calm, aiding in rescue efforts while valuing the safety of others before his own.
The rule of Maritime Law is outlined in The Merchant Marines Officer’s Handbook that lists the duties of the ship’s master are:
1. The last man to leave the vessel;
2. Bound to use all reasonable efforts to save everything possible (ship and cargo), through aid of salvage, if necessary;
3. Responsible for return of the crew;
4. Responsible for communicating promptly with owners and underwriters; and
5. In charge until lawfully suspended.
The duty of the Captain to go down with the ship is more a literary device than a law. Even so it is clear that the Captain must remain on board the ship to save the vessel, crew and;passengers. In the 1889-1900 novel serial printed in Blackwood’s Magazine, Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad first examines this ethical and moral duty of the Captain “going down with his ship.” In the fictional tale, Jim, a young British seaman first mate abandons, with his captain and other crew, passengers on a sinking ship filled with pilgrims traveling to Mecca for hajj.
When the passengers of that ship are rescued, they reveal the cowardice of the Captain and crew. Jim’s moment of cowardice haunts him for the rest of his life, both for his weakness and for the opportunity to be “a hero” that he missed.
We never know how we will react in a situation of extreme panic and impending death. Will we have the moral resolve of Sandor Feher or exhibit the cowardice of Captain Schettino?
Captain Shettino is not the first person in charge to have failed this challenge, and he is probably not going to be the last. Our sense of personal survival is strong, only now he, like Jim in Conrad’s tale will need to live with the consequences of his decisions.
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