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article imageOp-Ed: Titanic, Costa Concordia captains had hubris, not ferry captain

By Marcus Hondro     Apr 21, 2014 in World
The terrible tragedy that is the sinking of the South Korean ferry 'Sewol' is being compared to the Costa Concordia tragedy and even the Titanic. But a large difference is that the captain of the South Korean ferry made errors, but not errors of hubris.
That, however, is the case of both the captain of the Costa Concordia and of the Titanic. But while South Korean President Park Geun-hye has called the actions of the captain of the Sewol “unforgivable, murderous behaviour" it was more stupidity than murderous, and certainly not arrogance.
The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, and two of his crew were arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Lee did leave the ship relatively early, but it seems his decision to delay by half-an-hour the evacuation was based on stupidity more than anything else. Lee insists he delayed because he was hoping rescue would come before evacuation was necessary and felt if he ordered passengers into the water they would be in danger of drifting away in the extremely cold water.
Perhaps, given the unknowns at the time he made that decision, not evacuating right away is based on logic. However, his not ordering everyone onto the deck is where experts find particular fault with Lee. Even if he worried about passengers drifting away in the water, he should have known that they'd have had a better chance of surviving should it become clear the ship was going to sink if they were on deck. Stupidity, not arrogance.
The Titanic and Costa Concordia: arrogance
When the Titanic went down on April 15, 1912, 1,517 passengers and crew died, when the Costa Concordia went down on Jan. 13, 2012, 32 died (the death toll of the South Korean ferry disaster will be around 268). The terrible tragedy that is the Costa Concordia took place just a few months shy of 100 years after the terrible tragedy that is the Titanic, and while the tragedies are different, there are similarities.
The tragic similarity is the hubris of the captains. They each did something they should not have, and not simply because of stupidity, but because they thought they could pull it off. They didn't consider their passengers as Lee did (to a point, he forgot about them when he left the ship), but rather each considered only what it was that he wanted for himself.
The sinking of the Titanic
The iceberg situation in the North Atlantic in April of 1912 was the worst it had been in 50 years. High temperatures had caused ice to break away from the west coast of Greenland and the area the Titanic traveled through on her maiden, and only, voyage was dangerous in the extreme. Smith was made well aware of that by other ships in the region.
He nonetheless ordered his ship to travel at a speed close to maximum capability, though there remains dispute as to why. Some say it was on orders from the president of White Star liner, Bruce Ismay, looking to achieve a record crossing time. They say an experienced captain should have known better than to risk his ship. However, no research has proven this to be the case.
But the fact remains there were warnings and ships had hit icebergs that spring and yet he did not bring the speed of his vessel down; all he did was put her crew on alert for icebergs. He felt they could avoid them and his hubris kept him from considering that he was playing with lives. A costly mistake for him and 1,516 others.
The sinking of the Costa Concordia
In the case of the Costa Concordia, it is clear the ship was far too close to shore. A statement from Pier Luigi Foschi, chairman and chief executive of Costa Cruises, puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of Schettino.
"This route was put in correctly," Foschi has noted. "The fact that it left from this course is due solely to a maneuver by the commander that was unapproved, unauthorized and unknown to Costa. He wanted to show the ship, to (go) nearby this island of Giglio, so he decided to change the course of the ship to go closer to the island."
There have been statements from Schettino, currently on trial in Grosseto, Italy, claiming it was the company's fault, but there has been corroboration he alone decided to change the ship's course. He did so without authorization, taking her to a rocky area he did not have full information on. It seems he did so, at least in part, to please his chief steward, who grew up on the island, and to 'salute' a retired captain who lived there.
Smith and Schettino: Captains linked in history
There is no conclusive proof either captain did anything wrong but there is no reason to blame bad luck or the weather; in the more recent case there were no weather issues and in the case of the Titanic, the weather issues were well documented.
With so many ships on the waters at any given time in our world, it is inevitable hubris will on occasion take hold of a captain and send a ship to the bottom. There have surely been other cases in the 100 years that sit between these two high-profile disasters and, until we make human beings perfect, there will surely be more.
But the Sewol did not go down due to arrogance, due to hubris, on the part of its captain, and that makes the sinkings different. However, the fact an error in judgement was made leaves Captain Lee Joon-seok almost as culpable as the E.J. Smith and Francesco Schettino.
And because arrogance and stupidity are hard to guard against, travel on the seas may never be foolproof.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about sewol, korean ferry disaster, Lee Joonseok, Francesco Schettino, The Titanic
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