It seems as though every ship disaster has at least one goat and at least one hero.
Titanic had many self-sacrificing heroes, and it had Bruce Ismay as the main goat, although there were others. Captain Edward Smith was both goat and hero: goat because he supposedly ordered the ship to travel at a speed greater than conditions warranted; hero because it is reported that he stayed on board and went down with the ship. But it is quite possible that both men (especially Ismay) got a bad rap: see this for the details.
The Coast Guard officer who ordered the captain of the capsized Italian cruise ship to go back aboard unwittingly became an instant hero on Wednesday, credited with saving the national honor on one of its darkest nights.
Italy has become enthralled with the tale of two captains.
One is Coast Guard Captain Gregorio De Falco, who furiously ordered the skipper of the Costa Concordia to return to his ship and oversee the rescue operations.
The other is Captain Francesco Schettino – whom newspapers have branded a coward for fleeing in the face of adversity and who is now under house arrest, accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship.
“Listen Schettino, perhaps you have saved yourself from the sea but I will make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this. Go on board (Expletive!)” De Falco yelled at Schettino during a 4-minute radio exchange made public on Tuesday.
The Italian word De Falco used, “cazzo” in Italian, is slang for the male sexual organ but it is commonly used to emphasize something, equivalent to “Go on board, damn it.”
The imperative phrase in Italian — “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” — was already on T-shirts by Wednesday morning.
There isn’t much question that Concordia captain Schettino was responsible for the disaster. He admits as much:
The captain confirmed that he took the cruise liner close to Giglio’s rocky coast in order to give a ‘salute’ to an old colleague, a former Costa Cruises captain named Mario Palombo.
“It’s true that the salute was for Commodore Mario Palombo, with whom I was on the telephone. The route was decided as we left Civitavecchia but I made a mistake on the approach. I was navigating by sight because I knew the depths well and I had done this manoeuvre three or four times. But this time I ordered the turn too late and I ended up in water that was too shallow.
“I don’t know why it happened, I was a victim of my instincts.”
(Sounds as though something got lost in translation; “victim” of his “instincts?”)
The accusations against Schettino include another very serious charge, that of abandoning the ship. It seems obvious that that’s exactly what happened. But not so fast, says Schettino:
Mr Schettino told investigating magistrates in Grosseto, on the Italian mainland, that he ended up in the lifeboat by accident.
During three hours of interrogation on Tuesday, he reportedly said: “The passengers were pouring onto the decks, taking the lifeboats by assault. I didn’t even have a life jacket because I had given it to one of the passengers. I was trying to get people to get into the boats in an orderly fashion. Suddenly, since the ship was at a 60 to 70 degree angle, I tripped and I ended up in one of the boats. That’s how I found myself there.”
He said he got stuck in the lifeboat for an hour before it was lowered into the water off the coast of Giglio island.
Also with him was Dimitri Christidis, the Greek second in command of the Concordia and Silvia Coronica, the third officer, according to La Repubblica newspaper.
“Suspended there, I was unable to lower the boat into the sea, because the space was blocked by other boats in the water.”
So is he telling the truth about this or lying through his teeth? Is he the victim of the press and a rush to judgment, at least in regard to this portion of the charges, or guilty as charged? Were all three officers cowards who abandoned the ship, or did they all fall when the ship suddenly listed, and then other boats blocked their way back? How improbable is this story?
Time will tell—perhaps. But when I read the transcript of the conversation between De Falco and Schettino (and before I’d read Schettino’s explanation), I thought it odd that Schettino seemed to be trying to explain something about his situation with the other boat to De Falco, and the latter was so agitated and urgent that he never quite gave Schettino the opportunity to say it.
This doesn’t mean Schettino is telling the truth now, but he does seem to be telling the truth about the fact that his stupid and reckless actions caused the accident. So why would he tell the truth about that but lie about the other? Perhaps because it seems more acceptable to be reckless than a coward?
[NOTE: The title of this post is a reference to Whitman's poem about the assassination of Lincoln. I invariably get a chill when I read it, because the emotional immediacy of Whitman's grief for Lincoln is so striking.]