Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Sea Captain's True Test

The west coast of Italy
(photo by Greg Larson)


             At the end of our bicycle tour across Italy in the summer of 2005, my wife, Gretta, and I dipped the front wheels of our bicycles into the Mediterranean waters off the west coast.  We also took the time to visit the postage-stamp-of-a-beach near Porto Ercole.  The patches of sand were scarce, due to the jagged volcanic rocks which hugged the coastline.

After seeing the recent news about the shipwreck of the Italian ocean liner Costa Concordia, we looked on the map of Italy.  To our amazement, the large ship had capsized near the island of Giglio, just ten miles from where we had completed our bike tour.  It didn’t surprise me when I read that a gash in the ship’s hull, 160 feet in length, occurred when the ship came too close to the island’s shore.  I could visualize the sharp rock shelf hidden beneath the water.

A Sea Captain’s True Test
by Greg Larson

            What would you do if your world was literally sinking, and you were responsible for the lives of those on board your ship?  Any captain of a large ocean-going vessel bears the burden that he or she may someday have to answer that question.  It can only be definitively answered when the crisis occurs, and we know that human behavior varies from person to person and circumstance to circumstance.

            The recent incident involving the Costa Concordia has prompted me to compare the actions of two Italian sea captains, and expose the differences in their behavior before, during, and after the sinking of their respective ships. 

Captain Francesco Schettino was at the helm of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, on January 13, 2012, when it struck the rocky coast of the Italian island of Giglio. 

The other captain, Piero Calamai, was in command of the ocean liner Andrea Doria, which was struck broadside by another passenger ship, the Stockholm, during the foggy night of July 25, 1956, off the U.S. coast, about fifty miles southwest of the island of Nantucket.  The disaster was voted one of the top ten news stories of 1956.


            The early news reports about the sinking of the Costa Concordia have highlighted the apparently shameful and negligent behavior of the captain, Francesco Schettino.  And the evidence continues to mount against him as the facts are slowly coming forth from court hearings and from interviews with co-workers regarding captain Schettino’s actions during the disaster.

On the evening of January 13, 2012, Captain Schettino dined on board with a female passenger.  After dinner, he increased the speed of the 114,500 ton ship to sixteen knots, and he manually steered the giant vessel close to the coastline of Giglio, to pay homage to a former captain and co-worker.  At 9:42 P.M., the ship’s port (left) side came in contact with a rocky shelf along the coastline, creating a gash 160 feet long, piercing numerous compartments in the hull.  The engine room began to flood, and the ship lost its main power.

The ship was adrift, with 4,200 passengers on board.  Miraculously, the ship turned and drifted back towards the island.  Some speculate the captain attempted to steer the ship, while others speculate the wind caused the ship to turn and drift towards the island shore.  Schettino conversed by phone with the executives of the ship’s company, Costa Cruises, while the ship began to list from its normal vertical position.

At 10:06 P.M., the Italian Coast Guard contacted Schettino, but he denied the ship was in distress, and he stated that he was having electrical problems but the situation was under control.  The coast guard contacted the captain again at 10:16 P.M., and he admitted that water was coming into the hull.  At 10:30 P.M., with the ship listing at twenty degrees, he sent out a Mayday signal.  With many of the passengers and crew already commencing evacuation procedures, Schettino reluctantly gave orders to abandon ship at 10:50 P.M.

The ship ran aground and began to list at an extreme angle. Eventually it capsized.

At 11:40 P.M., the captain reportedly entered a lifeboat with the second-in-command.  The captain claims he fell into the lifeboat, due to the extreme listing of the ship.  Many passengers were still on board.

At 12:42 A.M., a captain with the Italian Coast Guard, Gregorio De Falco, contacted Schettino via cell phone.  Here is a portion of the transcript:

·         De Falco: "You go aboard [the Costa Concordia]. It is an order. Don't make any more excuses. You have declared 'abandon ship.' Now I am in charge. You go on board! Is that clear? Do you hear me? Go, and call me when you are aboard. My air rescue crew is there."

·         Schettino: "Where are your rescuers?"

·         De Falco: "My air rescue is on the prow. Go. There are already bodies, Schettino."

·         Schettino: "How many bodies are there?"

·         De Falco: "I don't know. I have heard of one. You are the one who has to tell me how many there are. Christ."

·         Schettino: "But do you realize it is dark and here we can't see anything…"

·         De Falco: "And so what? You want to go home, Schettino? It is dark and you want to go home? Get on that prow of the boat using the pilot ladder and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what their needs are. Now!"

Schettino never returned to the ship. He was arrested on charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning ship.  After a court hearing, Schettino was placed under house arrest at his home near Naples, Italy.  Executives for the company which owns the $450 million ship (Costa Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival Cruises) are also under scrutiny by the authorities.

Roberto Bosio, an off-duty captain, was on board the Costa Concordia.  Once it was apparent that the ship was sinking, he helped with the evacuation operation, and is considered one of the heroes of the night.

“It was the most horrible experience of my life,” said Bosio, “A tragedy, a heartache that I will carry with me forever.  Don’t call me a hero.  I just did my duty, the duty of a sea captain – actually the duty of a normal man.  I and the others with me just did our duty.  We looked each other in the eyes for a second and then we just got on with it.”

One of the ship’s officers, Martino Pellegrino was quoted in one of the Italian newspapers with the following comment:  “If I had to make a comparison, we got the impression that he [Schettino] would drive a bus like a Ferrari.”

The Costa Concordia off the island of Giglio
(internet photo)

 At the time of this writing, thirty persons who were on board the Costa Concordia have been confirmed dead, and two persons are still missing.  Based on the available information, it appears that the tragedy could have easily been avoided.

Captain Piero Calamai was the commander of Italy’s passenger flagship, the Andrea Doria, on July 25, 1956.

With 1,706 passengers and crew on board, the Andrea Doria was near the end of its voyage from Italy to New York.  During the afternoon, with concern about fog which was forecast for the remainder of the day, Captain Calamai stayed on the bridge.  He left twice to go to his cabin, and quickly returned each time.  He ordered a light supper to be delivered to him on the bridge. The meal consisted of soup, a small piece of meat, and an apple. 

The fog began in the afternoon and continued to worsen as the ship approached the U.S. coast.  Calamai’s foremost worry was the sea traffic around the Nantucket lightship, which was located about fifty miles off the coast of Nantucket Island.  The lightship was a barge with a warning light strategically positioned to warn ships of the shallow ocean depth near the island.  At 10:20 P.M. the Andrea Doria passed the lightship.

As darkness fell, the passsenger ship, Stockholm, approached the Nantucket lightship from New York, having embarked from the city in the afternoon.  The Stockholm and the Andrea Doria were traveling towards each other at a combined rate of forty knots per hour. Within twenty nautical miles of each other, both ships were able to determine their respective locations through the use of basic radar.  The ships were manned with competent crews, but errors were made in determining each other’s position as they continued to approach.

At 11:07 P.M., members of each crew made visual sightings from a distance of 1.9 nautical miles as the Andrea Doria came out of a thick patch of fog.  They each made changes in their direction, in an attempt to pass.  Unfortunately, these changes put them on a collision path.  In a slow motion drama, the Andrea Doria crossed in front of the Stockholm, which reversed its engines in an attempt to brake before impact.

At 11:10 P.M., The Stockholm’s bow struck hard on the starboard (right) side of the Andrea Doria.  Both ships quickly closed all compartment doors to prevent flooding to other compartments.

The ships were supposedly designed to remain seaworthy with two compartments flooded.  The front two compartments of the Stockholm were damaged, but it remained upright.  Captain Calamai in the Andrea Doria, was confident that his ship would remain seaworthy, since only two of the ship’s compartments had been breached.  To his surprise, the ship quickly listed eighteen degrees to starboard.  It was supposed to list only fifteen degrees in the worst conditions.  As the listing worsened, Captain Calamai quickly sent out a Mayday signal.

Unknown to Captain Calamai, there was a flaw in the ship’s design.  During the investigation, weeks after the crash, it was determined the ship’s fuel tanks were required to be full to properly ballast the ship from listing during compartment breaches.  But the Andrea Doria was near the completion of its voyage, and its fuel tanks were almost empty when it was struck by the Stockholm.

Several freighters in the vicinity quickly responded and brought a small number of lifeboats to assist in the evacuation of the Andrea Doria.  The captain of the Stockholm was concerned about his ship’s safety, but agreed to allow half of the Stockholm’s lifeboats to assist in the rescue. The first few hours of the evacuation were chaotic, and many of the restaurant and housekeeping staff of the Andrea Doria were rescued before the passengers were assisted down ropes and put into lifeboats on the low side of the sinking ship.

The savior of the night was the French flagship, the Ile de France, located fifty miles east of the disaster and on its way to Le Havre, France, with 1,766 passengers and crew on board.  Although he was under no obligation to assist, the captain of the Ile de France, Baron Raoul de Beaudien, quickly understood the urgency of the situation.  Even though he knew a delay would cost his company dearly, he made the proper and ethical decision to turn around.

At 2:00 A.M. on July 26th, he slowly situated his ship parallel to the Andrea Doria, creating a lagoon which allowed for a smooth rescue operation.  Captain Beaudien’s decisions made him the hero of the night.

Captain Calamai and his closest crew members remained on board the empty Andrea Doria.  As the sun rose in the clear morning air, the ship was listing more than thirty degrees, and there was concern the damaged behemoth would tip and sink at any moment.

The empty Andrea Doria on the morning of July 26, 1956
(internet photo)

 Those closest to Captain Calamai said he looked as if he had aged more than ten years in six hours.  Although 1,662 passengers and crew were evacuated from the ship (the Ile de France rescued 753 people), forty-six persons from the Andrea Doria perished, due to the collision, or from injuries sustained in the rescue operation.

Captain Calamai’s subordinates tried to convince him to join them in a lifeboat, but he remained on the Andrea Doria.  His second in command, Staff Captain Magagnini, climbed back up the rope and implored the captain to abandon ship.  He told Piero Calamai that if he remained onboard, all of the immediate crew would come back up the rope and stay with him.  Finally, against the centuries-old code of the sea which requires a captain to remain with his ship in distress, he acquiesced to his crewman’s plea, and climbed down the rope and into the lifeboat.

In the peaceful morning light of July 26, 1956, the Andrea Doria began to sink under the surface.  At 10:09 in the morning, the stern of the ship tilted upward.  With the large rudder and propellers briefly visible, it then disappeared and settled to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, at a depth of approximately 225 feet.

Captain Calamai’s spirit for the sea died when he saw the ship go down.  After the tragedy, he was quoted as saying, “When I was a boy, and all my life, I loved the sea; now I hate it.”

Human behavior is a strange thing.  It is impossible for us to know how each of us would react if we were put in the situations of Captain Schettino and Captain Calamai.  Sometimes our inner being and our integrity aren’t revealed until we are put under extreme stress. We can each wonder if we would direct all of our energy and assistance to save the lives of the helpless from the depths of the sea.

The Mediterranean Sea
(photo by Greg Larson)
Note: The facts regarding the recent Costa Concordia incident were from reliable internet news sources.  The facts regarding the sinking of the Andrea Doria were from the book Collision Course, by Alvin Moscow, copyright 1959, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, New York.

Friday, March 2, 2012

New Life

memoir and essay
by Greg Larson

The odd-shaped pieces of oak caught my attention as I peered over the edge of the dumpster.  Many of the pieces were curved, with the color and finish of antique furniture.  My curiosity was aroused, so I found an opening into the odorous bin and carefully stepped through the maze of trash to inspect the discovery.  Someone had discarded the parts of an old wooden chair with a curved back, vertical stiles and serpentine arms. The scooped wood seat and legs were intact.  One of the arms was broken and a portion of it was missing. It was the type of chair used in old courtrooms or police stations.  Its life as a piece of furniture had come to an end . . . or so it seemed.

Questions rolled around in my head.  When was the chair built, and where? Who used it, and in what setting?  I don’t know why, but something compelled me to resurrect it.

At that time, in my early adulthood, I had minimal woodworking skills, but I thought what the heck, I might learn something.  It was my hope that I could put the pieces of the wooden puzzle back together, and repair or replace the broken parts to make it whole and functional again.  

The process was slow.  I started by removing the layers of dirt and grime from each piece.  Then I stripped the finish and sanded all of the surfaces.  I could smell the distinctive odor of the oak as the sawdust filled my nostrils.  I sensed the chair coming back to life again. 

The most difficult task was replacing a portion of the curved arm that was missing at the connection to the back. The grain and finish of the new piece didn’t match the old chair, and the repair was crude by professional standards. But I was excited to have a chair - one with character.

Over the years, I’ve found old pieces of utilitarian furniture to save, or discovered ways to build something from discarded pieces of wood.   Our house has an eclectic mix of furniture.  It’s the variety that makes life interesting. 

As I’ve collected and repaired things, I’ve come to understand the American culture of marketing and consumerism doesn’t resonate with the patient and methodical re-use of discarded items.  We receive a daily drubbing of advertisements that advocate using things and throwing them away.  We’re supposed to be in a hurry.  The implication is that time is money, so it’s okay to buy new stuff.  The infomercials tell us so.

With the downturn in the economy, the public attitude has shifted, and that’s a good thing.  People are finding ways to repair their cars, and re-use furniture and other accoutrements found about the home.  I hope we continue to value those items that still have life left in them.

Sadly, there are people in our society who end up like the discarded pieces of furniture - used up, worn out, and left behind.  But these people are not inanimate objects. They have lives with feelings and emotions.

In my volunteer work at the Learning Center at City Union Mission, I assist men who are re-educating themselves to become productive members of society.   Many of them came from fatherless homes, or at best, dysfunctional homes.  Most of these men were addicted to drugs or alcohol, and they have low self-esteem and a limited education.  Although they want to change, they don’t know how to go about it.  They have a distrust of authority figures, and their spiritual life is almost non-existent.

Over several months, The Christian Life Program at City Union Mission helps the men rebuild their lives one piece at a time, from the inside out.  The professionals at the Mission provide them with counseling, medical attention, customized learning plans and spiritual guidance.  The men are put on a path to graduate from the program, get a job and a find a place to live.

My part as a volunteer is small, but I look forward to seeing the men each week.  I show them how to work on the computer, answer their math and English questions, and help them with their writing skills. I also like to memorize their names and faces as quickly as possible so that I can look them in the eye and greet them by name.  Showing that I care helps build their self-esteem.

I’ve seen men come into the program with hardened hearts, bad attitudes, and bruised emotions covered by their physical veneers – to the point that I thought there was no hope of rebuilding their lives.  But over time, the City Union Mission staff goes about helping the men turn things around.  I also know God is working within each man.  Over the weeks, their hearts appear to soften, and a calm and peaceful facet of their demeanor begins to appear.  Eventually, some come to greet me with a smile and they thank me for being there.  I see their true happiness as they graduate and tell me they’ve found a job and will be moving out.

My role as a volunteer has helped me see people as people, not just as figures on the street.  This last Christmas season, one of the men took the responsibility to find a Christmas card and walk it around to the other men in the class to sign. I remembered him as one of the toughest men with a bad attitude when he came into the program several months ago.  At the end of the class, he handed me the card and wished me a Merry Christmas.  Then he thanked me for coming each week. 

I know his best days are ahead.  Instead of being discarded by our society, he has a new life.