Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Going down with the ship

Since the Costa Concordia - an Italian cruise ship with 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew members on board - ran aground on January 13th of this year, there has been a lot of chatter about whether Capt. Francesco Schettino was obligated to be the last one off the sinking ship and much speculation about that maritime "rule." Starting with a list by Marine Insight of 10 famous shipwrecks, then eliminating some and adding 1 more, I offer a review of the actions of the captains of those vessels:

The Vasa was a Swedish war vessel that sank during its maiden voyage to the naval station at Älvsnabben on Aug. 10, 1628. The crowd that had assembled to watch the ship fire a salute and set sail from Stockholm instead saw it capsize just 390' from shore when gusts of wind forced it onto its port side and water flowed into the open lower gun ports. Captain Söfring Hansson, who survived the disaster that killed up to 50, was immediately imprisoned awaiting trial, but an inquest found that he and his crew were not at fault and that the builders of the poorly-designed and under-ballasted ship were not negligent.

The SS Sultana was a steamboat paddlewheeler used at the end of the American Civil War to transport prisoners of war from the Union army back home. The vessel was severely overcrowded with released Confederate soldiers when 3 of the 4 boilers exploded on April 22, 1865, and it sank in the Mississippi River near Memphis. Captain J. C. Mason was among roughly 1,800 of the 2,400 people on board who were killed.

The RMS Rhone was a royal mail steam packet ship that transported cargo and carried passengers from England, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The "unsinkable" ship was refueling in the British Virgin Islands on October 19, 1867, when Captain Robert F. Wooley, worried about worsening hurricane conditions, took on (an unknown number of) passengers of the nearby RMS Conway - which then foundered with the loss of all hands. When the Rhone (with 146 on board) was thrown directly into the rocky shore, the lurch sent Captain Wooley overboard, never to be seen again. The ship split, the boilers exploded, and both bow and stern sank. Only 23 people (all of them crew members) survived the wreck.

The RMS Titanic, with Captain Edward J. Smith in command, was the largest cruise ship of its time. The passenger liner collided with an iceberg during its maiden voyage from Southhampton, England, to New York. The ship broke apart and sank in less than 3 hours on April 14, 1912, 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. During that time, Capt. Smith authorized the lowering of the lifeboats and the sending of distress signals. Although some say he met his end in the wheelhouse or radio room, Robert Ballard and others claim that Smith was on the bridge 7 minutes before the final sinking, with one officer reporting that the captain dove into the sea from the open bridge just before the final plunge. He was one of the 1, 517 people who lost their lives in one of the biggest maritime tragedies. Like many others, his body was never recovered.

The RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner that traveled between Liverpool and New York, was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. Captain William Thomas Turner tried to steer toward the shore, but steam pressure and electrical power quickly failed. He ordered evacuation, but there was much panic and many mishaps in the lowering of the lifeboats. Captain Turner remained on the bridge until the water washed him overboard into the sea. He clung to a chair floating in the water for 3 hours until he was rescued, unconscious but alive. The Lusitania had sunk in 18 minutes, killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard, and leaving 764 survivors.

The RMS Carpathia, famous for coming to the aid of the sinking Titanic, was destroyed by a German submarine during World War I. The steamship had left Liverpool for Boston and was travelling with 6 other ships when it was struck by 2 torpedoes on July 17, 1918, killing 5 crew members and taking out the wireless and 2 lifeboats. The captain ordered the crew to signal other ships using flags and rockets and to lower the 11 lifeboats. After the passengers and most of the crew were evacuated, Prothero and the remaining officers and gunners abandoned ship. A 3rd torpedo hit and the Carpathia sank 10 minutes later. All 57 passengers and 218 of the crew were saved, with only 3 serious injuries.

The SS Andrea Doria was an Italian ocean liner that collided with the Swedish ship MS Stockholm on July 25, 1956, on its way to New York carrying 1,134 passengers and 572 crew. The accident in foggy conditionswas severe, causing the ship to list severely to starboard, leaving half of the lifeboats unusable. Captain Piero Calamai ordered evacuation within 30 minutes and his quick action, along with a design that allowed the Andrea Doria to stay afloat for 11 hours, is credited with avoiding massive casualties. While hundreds of passengers were injured - and large numbers of crew had left the ship first - only 46 were killed. The captain (later found equally at fault with the captain of the Stockholm for the collision) and remaining crew disembarked little more than an hour before the ship disappeared underwater.

The MS Estonia was a cruise ferry piloted by Arvo Andresson that sank on Sept. 28, 1994, in the Baltic Sea en route from Estonia to Sweden. Of the 989 passengers and crew on board, 852 people lost their lives when the ship capsized for reasons blamed on everything from rough weather to military involvement. Reportedly, the bodies of the captain and his officers were found still on the bridge when divers entered to retrieve the watertight computer tapes.

Coast Guard attorney Scott Allen has written that the captain of a vessel is expected to save himself (and continue his career) rather than drown, but only after all passengers and crew have been evacuated or accounted for. As master of the vessel, the captain is morally and legally responsible for remaining on board until he discharges all his duties, including seeing to the safety of his passengers and crew and attempting to salvage the ship. In light of this most current disaster, Jans-Uwe Schroder-Hinrichs of the World Maritime University in Sweden asks, "How would a captain fulfill his obligations if he was not on board? Emergency responses are nearly almost always coordinated from the ship - you have fairly limited options for getting necessary information from a lifeboat."

The image above by DigitalGlobe shows the Costa Concordia as it appears from their WorldView satellite. The ship is lodged just off shore near the Italian island of Giglio after striking a reef.

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