Wrecked ships and human folly

It is almost 100 years since the RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean after striking a floating mountain of ice on a frigid April evening. And in the decades that followed this catastrophe, humanity grew confident it had learned from and corrected the folly, hubris and misplaced faith in technology that doomed that glittering, seagoing palace.

But guess what? Humanity was wrong. Last Friday, another magnificent, seagoing palace hit a rocky reef off the tiny Italian island of Giglio and foundered, keeling over helplessly on one side like a beached whale. Had the water been deeper, it, too, would have plunged out of sight to the bottom, a 21st Century Titanic.

The cruise ship Costa Concordia carried more people than the Titanic could have ever accommodated. It was far bigger, too. And its bridge must have brimmed with all the marvellous technology invented since the era of the Titanic — the satellite-assisted global positioning systems, sonar and computers. Indeed, it practically could have sailed itself and, according to one report, the accident happened after the captain, Francesco Schettino, took the ship off its automatic navigational control system and steered it himself to get closer to the island.

But some things hadn’t changed in all the years since the Titanic. And hidden aboard the Costa Concordia, along with its 4,200 passengers and crew, were the same foolishness, arrogance and fatal infatuation with the protective power of technology that voyaged with the Titanic.

How negligent have we branded those responsible for the Titanic’s safety — the fools who sent it out with too few lifeboats to save everyone aboard. Yet the safety standards and professionalism on the Costa Concordia were also inadequate. Many of the passengers had not received the safety drills that were supposedly mandatory. And because of this complacency, they may have been ignorant of where the lifeboats and life jackets were located. The evacuation of the stricken ship sounds like amateur hour. Frequent delays meant many of the ship’s lifeboats could not be used to save the passengers — the boats were trapped beneath the foundering vessel. No wonder panic-stricken passengers leapt into the sea and fought over life jackets.

How antiquated must some of the behaviour aboard the sinking Titanic seem today. Capt. Edward Smith went down with his ship, a full 3.9 kilometres to the ocean floor, an acceptance of accountability and responsibility if ever there was one. Yet there was a courage and nobility in his actions that stand in stark contrast to the timidity of the Costa Concordia’s Capt. Schettino. He fled to safety when there were still 300 passengers aboard — and many of them trapped. And he defied coast guard orders to return to the ship to help, arguing that it was too dark and the situation too dangerous to go back. Somehow, over the course of 100 years, “me first” replaced the quaint notion of “women and children first” for the lifeboats. Somehow duty became an obsolete word.

Mercifully, the human losses on the Costa Concordia pale beside the 1,513 lives lost on the Titanic. Even so the cost of human error is grim: 11 dead, 21 still missing. We have learned so much since the morning of April 15, 1912, when the Titanic slipped in pieces beneath the Atlantic swell. Yet we are still human, with all the frailties and failings that are embedded in our species’ DNA.