With the looming September trial of Francesco Schettino, and the recent guilty verdicts on five officers and shoreside staff in connection with the Costa Concordia tragedy, the whole question of a captain’s responsibility is once more under the microscope, and as never before.
The loss of the Concordia collided head on at 22 knots with the centenary of the Titanic disaster and, for the wretched Schettino, that inevitably invoked comparisons of his behaviour with that of Captain Smith, who famously went down with his command. The captain of the doomed White Star liner was posthumously hailed as a role model by a whole raft of armchair sailors. But was he?
First and foremost, there is no rule- written or otherwise- which insists that any captain go down with his ship. Captain Turner survived the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania- he literally stepped off the wing of the bridge as it came level with the water. One year earlier, Captain Henry Kendall was saved from the sunken Empress of Ireland in the Saint Lawrence seaway. Neither man attracted to themselves the level of opprobrium hurled at Schettino.
And yet comparing like for like is hardly fair. It may not be fair, but it is inevitable. And consider Schettino’s actions- or lack of them- in the light of those of another Italian skipper; Piero Calamai of the Andrea Doria.
Calamai insisted on remaining with his mortally wounded, slowly sinking ship until almost the last minute, and only finally left her when he was convinced that everyone on board had been saved that could be. Some of his decisions that night can be questioned, but his personal bravery- and sense of responsibility for his passengers and crew- never were. Quite right, too.
The sinking of the Andrea Doria haunted him for the remaining sixteen years of his life. On his death bed in 1972, he cried out in delirium, asking if all the passengers and crew had been saved.
Schettino, by contrast, scarpered at warp speed, after wrecking his ship and then failing to raise a general alarm for almost an hour. Neither is excusable, as the language of an Italian coast guard officer at the scene made clear. His on the spot censure and railing at Schettino was scathing.
Naval men have a different take on such things. Japanese captains routinely went down with their vessels. The captain of the sinking Yamato was literally lashed to the wheel on the bridge. Six years earlier, Captain Hans Langsdorff took personal responsibility for the scuttling of the Graf Spee off Montevideo. He shot himself in a hotel room in Buenos Aires.
That said, no one is remotely advocating that Schettino- or, indeed, Smith- should have followed such ghastly, ritualistic immolations as these.
But the armchair genii that lauded Edward Smith over Schettino should also think before praising their man too much. Yes, Smith went down with his ship. But he also seemed to have lost all connection with reality once the awful truth sunk in about the true extent of the damage to the Titanic.
He imploded spectacularly on the inside; the botched evacuation of the Titanic was left to the isolated efforts of his deck officers. The result? Almost five hundred empty seats in the boats that were lowered. Almost three quarters of the Titanic survivors embarked in boats on the starboard side of the ship. Here, men were allowed in the boats by first officer William Murdoch after the women and children were loaded. Yet the boat capacity on port and starboard sides of the Titanic was exactly the same. Smith did nothing to override Charles Lightoller, his second officer, who sent down boat after boat less than half full. Ironically, Lightoller survived, while Murdoch did not.
Smith proved no more effective in overseeing the abandonment of the Titanic than did Schettino of the Concordia. The fact that he chose to stay and go down with the ship earned him his posthumous spurs but, either way, he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. He sank Titanic. He would have been branded a coward if he survived yet, by dying, he avoided taking responsibility for his actions.
The world is full of armchair experts. One of whom is currently typing this piece. Darkness and confusion at sea can create, warp and enhance all manner of perceptions. The job- and the responsibility- of a ship’s master is sometimes lonely, and always a heavy one.
But it is also as unforgiving as it is undeniable. And, on the most crucial count of all- the safety and preservation of the lives entrusted in his charge- Schettino failed totally, and in the full glare of public sight.
His assertion that he ‘fell’ into a lifeboat is too risible to even rail against. Period.
Today, September 16th, a full scale attempt will be made to refloat the hulk of the Costa Concordia from its impact point off the island of Giglio. Francesco Schettino goes on trial later this month.