Even as the grisly, ghostly remains of the Costa Concordia rose sluggishly from her watery grave off the island of Giglio, the trial of her former captain, Francesco Schettino, was going full speed ahead in a converted opera house in Grosseto, Italy.
Unlike his five co-accused, the wretched Schettino has not been allowed to enter a plea bargain. His defence team are now conducting their stand along the extraordinary idea that Schettino alone was not responsible for the grounding and subsequent sinking of the ship under his command.
This ghastly playing with semantics will no doubt be of much concern to the families of the thirty two victims of the Costa Concordia, or indeed, the thousands of traumatized survivors, both passengers and crew, that lived through the terrible events of that dreadful night back in January of 2012. Frankly, for Schettino to contest that he is not solely responsible is more than laughable.
Because, as captain of the ship, he had the ultimate responsibility for- and to- all those under his care and command. And that duty did not end when the Concordia came shuddering to a halt after ripping her hull open. And in the exercise of that care and effort, Schettino failed spectacularly.
One of his officers has testified under oath that his captain seemed lost and uncomprehending after the disaster. Lost, indeed, to the extent that he failed to order an abandon ship, and lost to the extent that he failed to notify the local authorities of any accident to his ship, Indeed, so ‘lost’ that he ‘fell’ into a lifeboat, and then left his grounded ship while there were literally thousands still left on board. in the freezing darkness.
But if Schettino did indeed go to pieces after realising the enormity of what had happened to his ship, would it really have been at all surprising? Look back at two other classic examples of command in hopeless situations, and a tangible pattern emerges.
The obvious one is Edward Smith of the Titanic. Once the realisation of his ship’s true situation hit home, Smith seemed to implode spectacularly. Better than anyone, he knew that the lifeboats on board were sufficient for less than half the souls on Titanic, even if every seat was filled. He knew that the nearest rescue ship was four hours away, and that his ship had half that amount of time at best.
Coupled to that was the knowledge that he would ultimately be held responsible for this nightmare situation. That night, everything was left to the isolated efforts of his deck officers. On the port side, Second Officer Lightoller allowed women and children only into the boats. Murdoch, his opposite number on the starboard side, allowed men in as well when no more women were in evidence.
The result? Three times as many people were saved from the starboard side of the Titanic as from the port side, despite the exact same availability of seats on both sides. Another five hundred people could have been got in the existing boats, but Smith did nothing to overrule Lightoller, as he easily could have done. Captain Smith, with his thirty eight years experience at sea, was easily the most famous and feted skipper of any Atlantic liner. But he was simply overwhelmed by the events that overtook him.
Paradoxically, Edward Smith was to prove no more effective at evacuating the Titanic than was Francesco Schettino on the Costa Concordia. Two men, a century apart, bound by the common ties of the same paralytic sense of stupor.
Another example of command in extremity was Captain Ernst Lindemann of the Bismarck. On the evening of May 26th, 1941, a torpedo wrecked the steering gear of his ship, leaving her limping helplessly towards an overwhelming, avenging pack of Royal Navy warships, all of them baying for the blood of the slayer of the ‘Mighty Hood’. For Lindemann and his young crew of 2,200, the Bismarck had become the biggest condemned cell in the world.
Add to that the fact that Lindemann, like most of his crew, had been awake for almost five days on end, as they fought a desperate series of skirmishes and pitched battles on a storm tossed, enemy dominated ocean, where any ship encountered could almost certainly be deemed hostile. After the torpedo hit, the already exhausted captain spent hours trying in vain to steer the crippled ship to safety by using the propellers.
In the small hours of May 27th, the duty engineer on Bismarck rang the bridge to request a routine order. The Captain’s response stunned him; ‘Ach, do what you like. I’m finished with them’…
Having realised the inevitable doom hurtling toward him, and knowing that he was powerless to either prevent it, or save his crew, Lindemann, like Smith before him, quietly imploded. At the same time, he was seen walking morosely around the bridge, while wearing an open life jacket.
And yes, I think something similar happened to Schettino; a kind of reverse ‘shock and awe’ if you will. What the public man is unwilling to admit, the heart and the brain can not deny. Schettino was overwhelmed by the events he had set in motion and, in the final analysis, he can never rise above that.