Maritime police search for missing passengers in front of the South Korean ferry
Jan. 20, 2012 -
As investigators try to figure out exactly what went wrong with the capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia off the Italian coast, maritime experts look back at historic maritime disasters so horrific they prompted new rules. "I like to say the laws and regulations are written in blood," said Kevin Gilheany, a consultant based in New Orleans who specializes in maritime safety compliance and spent 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. The past is full of tragedy at sea. Gilheany and other maritime experts highlighted these five deadly maritime disasters involving passenger vessels as ones that particularly shocked the public. Here, the MV Princess of the Stars is seen capsized off the coast of San Fernando, Romblon. The ship capsized at the height of Typhoon Fengshen on June 21, 2008. More than 800 people died in the accident.
The Heroes of the Concordia
Musée du Louvre
The Medusa In July 1816, just about everything that could have gone wrong with the Medusa did. The French ship carrying around 400 people, mostly settlers bound for Senegal, ran aground far out at sea due to an incompetent captain. There weren’t enough lifeboats so a large but leaky raft was constructed from masts and rigging that the boats could tow ashore, said Charles Cushing, an expert who heads a naval architecture firm in New York City and teaches annuals course at the UN’s World Maritime University. Officers and politicians got in the boats while settlers and crew boarded the raft. One by one, each boat cut the lines and set off, leaving 146 people adrift. The sun quickly scorched many to death. Cannibalism and mutiny reigned. Only 15 survivors were eventually found alive. "It was a scandal of huge proportions," Cushing said. A graphic painting by the artist Théodore Géricault of the raft now displayed at the Louvre ensured the public would never forget.
The National Archives
General Slocum The Steamboat Inspection Service charged with safeguarding lives at sea had corrupt inspectors back in 1904 who let vessel owners get away with bringing a set of new lifejackets to a boat on the day of inspection and then removing them afterward, Kevin Gilheany said. On June 15 that year, the General Slocum was chartered by a Lutheran church in New York City for a trip to the Long Island shore. A fire broke out shortly after the ship carrying more than 1,300 left the pier. The captain didn't heed calls to stop and kept going, fanning the flames. Few aboard knew how to swim. When the passengers grabbed old lifejackets, the cork had disintegrated to powder but the vests were still weighted with iron, Cushing said. Many passengers were immigrants who didn’t know how to swim, Gilheany said. Adults put the lifejackets on children and threw them into the water, only to watch them sink. More than 1,000 passengers died. The captain was sent to prison and the disaster caused many reforms within the Inspections Service, which is now part of the U.S. Coast Guard. "I use that Slocum disaster in my training when I train captains to understand the legal liability they take on," Gilheany said.
How to Refloat a Capsized Liner
The RMS Titanic Speeding along for its maiden voyage from England to New York, the Titanic struck an iceberg the evening of April 14, 1912. Warnings about icebergs in the area had been ignored. The ship flooded and sank into the deep, killing 1,517. When word spread that the technologically advanced, "unsinkable" ship had gone down, the shock was immediate. Newspapers brimmed with news of the tragedy. There were so many Americans aboard the British ship that the U.S. Senate called for an immediate investigation. The British started their own inquiries as well. Out poured a host of regulations relating to adequate lifeboats, lifesaving equipment, and stability, Cushing said. An International Ice Patrol was formed, which still monitors icebergs to this day, and reports that no vessel heeding the patrol’s published iceberg limit has collided with one. "They fly the big C-130s," Gilheany said. "That's all because of the Titanic."
Wide Angle: Titanic Shipwreck 100 Years Later
The Moby Prince Outside of Italy, the Moby Prince is not that well known, said Giampiero Soncini, a former Italian Navy officer who heads SpecTec Group, which supplies specialized fleet management software. But the aftermath of the horrific disaster had the distinction of being filmed by an Italian TV crew. On April 10, 1991, the Moby Prince ferry collided with the oil tanker Agip Abruzzo in the Port of Livorno. The cause is still contended. Some blame fog, some say the rudder failed, and others say the crew was too busy watching a soccer match, Soncini said. The ferry caught fire and 140 aboard were either burned alive by the flames or asphyxiated on the toxic smoke. The mayday was too weak and miscommunication hampered rescue efforts. Only one man survived. "I happened to watched the live footage and it showed a body melted into the deck -- something I did not know was possible," Soncini said.
Accident Investigation Board Finland
The Estonia Ferries that transport cars and trucks with decks close to the waterline are especially vulnerable to capsizing, Cushing said. He compares operating them to walking with a wide, shallow pan filled with water. Any inclination and the water rushes to one side. That "free surface" effect can be deadly. One night in late September 1994, a ferry called the Estonia filled with nearly 1,000 people was speeding along its route from Tallinn to Stockholm in rough, windy conditions. Suddenly the vessel rolled in enormous waves. Water rushed into the hold and the ferry capsized. Despite the convergence of rescue boats and helicopters, the frigid waters claimed more than 850 lives. One of the survivors told the New York Times she heard women screaming out in the sea. An official inspection later showed problems with locks on the bow door, and criticized the crew’s actions when metallic noises should have alerted them to serious problems. "It was the largest disaster in Europe since WWII and it shocked all of us,” Giampiero Soncini said. “Recent construction, good classification society, reputed company and yet more than 900 people died. In 1994!"
Scorned Cruise Ship Captain Not Alone in History
Ever since the HMS Birkenhead wrecked in 1852, killing 450 people, the protocol of rescuing women and children first has been part of sealore. Almost as old, and equally entrenched, is the idea the captain is the last to leave a sinking ship. (Remember in "Titanic," when Captain Smith locks himself in the wheelhouse and goes down with the ship?)
So when Capt. Lee Joon-seok abandoned his sinking South Korean ferry with teenage passengers still on board, many of whom ultimately died, he faced immediate scrutiny. Lee is only the most recent captain faced with the choice between escape and heroism: Costa Crociere, Europe's largest cruise operator, now requires its captains to undergo psychological tests after one of its captains abandoned ship in a 2012 wreck that killed 32 people.
So what’s the psychological basis for making that choice?
“It seems to me fairly obvious why a ship captain (or crew member) might abandon ship prematurely, leaving passengers to fend for themselves: overwhelming fear for his or her own life,” said Peter Sandman, a risk communication consultant.
The temptation, he said, is to chalk it up to panic. But that’s not quite accurate.
“Panic, properly defined, is limited to cases in which people act unwisely because of overwhelming fear,” he said. “People who are panicking lose their ability to think straight, so they do things they wouldn’t otherwise have done. When fearful people act in obviously self-defeating ways, that’s panic. But when fearful people put their own survival ahead of the survival of others (even others they are responsible for), their behavior is selfish -- but it’s not irrational, and therefore not panic. The captain may or may not have felt panicky, but he abandoned his passengers, not his senses.”
Are some people simply hard-wired to be either heroes or cowards? Research in understanding behaviors in such situations is scant because mass emergencies are so rare, said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. While some recent research suggests that we can be trained to become more selfless, most of it focuses on altruistic, not heroic, behavior.
Maritime police search for missing passengers in front of the South Korean ferry KIM HONG-JI/Corbis
“We don't really have enough situations that happen like this to say he was a psychopath, but when you see so many other people in emergency situations who become heroes, and you have the norms of situation which are virtually universal that the captain is always last to leave the ship … something really had to have snapped,” Krauss said. “It's like his brain skipped 25 beats and he wasn't thinking. I don't think he's an evil person; he now regrets it, and he’s in his own personal hell.”
And while social norms point to the captain to be the hero, unlikely heroes have also emerged from shipwrecks. In 1991, for example, while the captain and crew of the cruise ship Oceanos packed their bags and abandoned ship during a storm without notifying passengers, entertainer Moss Hills sounded the alarm and organized the evacuation, staying on board until all 571 people on board had been sent off in rescue boats or helicopters.
“What rank are you?” the emergency responders asked when Hills radioed in the SOS. “I’m not a rank, I’m a guitarist,” Hills responded. When asked what he was doing there, Hill replied, “Well, there’s nobody else here.”
“The positive message, if there is one, is that ordinary people often do act as heroes,” Whitbourne said. “it’s human tendency.”
Lee, who has been charged with abandoning his boat, negligence, causing bodily injury, and violating "seamen's law," has said that he didn’t evacuate the ship immediately because passengers may have had an extended wait in cold waters.
“Once the emergency is over, a captain who has failed the ‘hero standard’ must feel a very strong need to self-justify -- grounded in shame, guilt, legal vulnerability, etc.,” Sandman said “So he/she makes up reasons for having abandoned ship prematurely.”
A better approach, he said, would require another kind of courage: “to say instead: 'I always assumed that if I ever faced a deadly emergency I would stay at my post, as duty requires. To my shock and shame, I didn’t. I fled. I put my own survival ahead of my passengers’ survival. You never know how you will measure up to an awful moment like this until the awful moment arrives. Now I know. I was required to be a hero, and I was a coward instead.”