Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Monday, January 16, 2012

True-to-Life Accidents at Sea

Is the capsizing of the Italian cruise liner the Costa Concordia more like the sinking of the Titanic or the sinking of the fictional SS Poseidon in the 1972 film, The Poseidon Adventure?

The Concordia struck a rock 1,000 feet from shore as it passed an island off the coast of Tuscany.  Reportedly, the ship’s captain brought the liner close to shore to hail the inhabitants of the tiny island of Giglio as a nod to his head waiter who comes from the island, according to a report by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.  The ship had been on course up until that moment.  The coastal area is known for its rocky underbed.  The crew spotted the rock, but turned the ship too late, causing a long gash in the hull.

The ship consequently capsized, turning over on its side.  The passengers and crew were thrown into panic.  Survivors reported that they received no instructions from the crew and that language was a barrier to getting information.  The survivors, a la The Poseidon Adventure, began rescuing themselves.

The survivors liken the accident to the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April of 1912.  Captain Francesco Schettino fled the ship, supposedly, and is under arrest for manslaughter.  He is suspected of what is known as “showboating”.  Captain Smith, under pressure from the ship’s owner to sail into New York ahead of schedule in order to set a new trans-Atlantic record, ignored iceberg warnings and sailed the Titanic straight into the ice field of the Newfoundland Current.  Smith went down with his ship; the ship’s owner did not.  Ismay disguised himself as a woman and slinked aboard one of the lifeboats.

In the film the Poseidon Adventure, the SS Posdeidon is on her final cruise whereas the Titanic was on her maiden cruise.  In the movie, the owner orders the captain to take the ship at full steam ahead into port where a crew is waiting to scrap the ship.  They go down together with the ship when a tsunami fully capsizes the vessel.

Passengers aboard the Concordia liken both the accident and the aftermath to the Titanic.  Both ships struck an underwater obstruction.  One was 1,000 feet from shore, the other at least a thousand miles from land as well as any rescue ship.  Both captains were “showboating” and both were guilty of human error.

Unlike the Titanic, the Concordia was capsized, somewhat like the fictional Poseidon, making a launching of the lifeboats, or for that matter, even reaching them, difficult.  The Titanic’s crew were not exactly disorganized, although no lifeboat drill was held.  The Titanic was short lifeboats for its entire population by half.  However, according to the statistics in Walter Lord’s meticulously researched novels, A Night to Remember and The Night Lives On, there should have been just about enough lifeboats for the passengers.

There may have been enough lifeboats, but there were not enough able seaman to launch the boats all at once.  In addition to being short-handed, it was known that the ship had only about hour or perhaps to stay afloat.  According to the accounts of the surviving crew, they had to launch the boats as quickly as they could, empty or not, and get on to the next boat.  The passengers were not cooperative, as it was a cold night in icy waters.  They wanted to wait until the last possible moment before getting into the boats.

There may have been enough boats for all the passengers; aristocratic notions of class barred the way of the second and third-class passengers.  By the time they were permitted on deck, all the boats had been put off.  The only way to reach them was to swim and in the freezing waters, they’d never have made it.  They wound up in the water anyway, and while there was still time to rescue them before they froze, the rowboats held back nervously until it was too late.

Then, there was the misinterpretation of Smith’s order.  He said women and children first, not women and children only.  In any case, the greatest number of children were trapped in steerage by human error.

Language variations were evident aboard the SS Titanic, but as former New York Gov. David Patterson noted on WOR radio this morning, as well as author Walter Lord, the Titanic’s steerage passengers didn’t need an interpreter to tell them something was wrong; they could see and hear for themselves, often first-hand.

In the movie, Rev. Scott’s followers climb their way out of the ship, with casualties along the way.  In Gallico’s grim and ironic book, upon which the movie was based, the purser was right; those who followed his advice to stay put, simply walked right off the ship onto a rescue vessel with nary a scratch.  Gallico depicted the crew as panicky, which (coming from a seafaring clan; Gallico’s head engineer in the film sounded suspiciously like Grandpa) was hard to believe.  Until today.

Today, there are enough lifeboats on board every passenger liner, although they were of little use to the Concordia’s passengers.  Icebreakers patrol the Newfoundland Current.  Tidal waves still happen after earthquakes, as we saw in 2004 and in Japan last year.  Ships’ stabilizers are modern and up-to-date.  We can predict earthquakes, tsunamis, and spot icebergs and ships in one another’s path.

But we still can’t predict when someone will make a mistake, or how other people will react in response to the resulting catastrophe.


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