Costa Concordia captain: symbol of the era?

The Concordia captain's missteps and failure to take responsibility have spurred deeper discussion about a dearth of moral leaders.

By , Staff writer

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    People view the cruise ship Costa Concordia from the harbor wall, as it lays on its side after running aground off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Thursday. Divers have resumed the search for 21 people still missing after a cruise ship capsized off the Tuscan coast. The $450 million Costa Concordia cruise ship was carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew when it slammed into a reef last week.
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When the Titanic went down in 1912, the orchestra was reportedly playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

When the Costa Concordia began to sink off the Italian coast on Jan. 13, Celine Dion’s tribute to the Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On,” had just been playing in the dining room.  

The Titanic cataclysm in the freezing north Atlantic is magnitudes greater on history’s scale than last week's accident off Giglio Island, but as details emerge, so do similarities: Both disasters are seen as exemplifying a misplaced confidence of unsinkability and the presumed impossibility of human error.

Recommended: Costa Concordia: Did the captain break any law in abandoning ship?

The Titanic symbolized the end of 19th century's arrogant assumptions of infallibility, and the mass attention paid to Concordia may speak of a world yearning for strong leadership and instead watching a captain abandon his ship to save himself. 

"Concordia has become a morality play for how we feel about leadership,” says Paul Bickley, senior researcher at Theos, a public theology think tank in London. “Across Europe and among higher eschelons of society there is a perception that leaders are increasingly selfish, and not helping those in need. We've called it a leadership pathology. Even before the details came out, many people assumed or suspected this captain jumped ship.”

Go down with the ship? Not in this century. 

In a 2010 interview, Concordia captain Francesco Schettino actually compares modern cruises to the Titanic, saying, “These days, everything is much safer… It is easier to navigate thanks to modern technical instruments and the Internet.”

In the same interview, he said he regularly “diverges from standard procedures … I enjoy moments when something unpredictable happens, when you can diverge a bit from standard procedures … It’s a challenge to face, I enjoy it.”

Mr. Schettino seems to miss the 19th century grit of his Titanic colleague who went down with the ship. He was not at the helm, despite ordering a deviation from the ship's course. He was supposed to stay with his ship; He says he tripped and fell into a life boat while hundreds were still on board. 

The 117,000-ton Costa Concordia slammed into rocks two hours into a seven-day Mediterranean cruise while passengers were eating dinner at 9:30 p.m. The $450 million vessel, part of the Carnival Cruise Lines fleet, is a theme park on top of a luxury hotel. When it hit the rocks, a magic show was playing. 

Now underwater footage of the ship’s corridors show the detritus of tablecloths, suitcases, and toys swirling in the watery ether. At least 11 people are dead and at least 20 are still missing. 

This is the reality version of Gilligan’s Island, where Ginger and the professor intended to go for only a “three-hour cruise” on the S.S. Minnow. Part of the story's fascination is that it could seemingly happen to anyone. 

'Go on board!'

In this case, Schettino's disconnection from and denial of the tragedy is a main story line. He maintains he is a captain who did get the boat close to shore and who otherwise is described as having a fine career. 

Reports have Schettino sailing close to the island either to show off the liner to the family of the Costa's head waiter, who is from the island, or to salute a former cruise ship captain. 

The Italian judge who put Schettino under house arrest said she found “serious indications” of guilt. 

The captain has since gone through what is described in politics as a series of “fact-free” moments: An electrical problem is to blame, the port authorities were told the situation was under control, the captain left the boat along with much of the crew. The captain seemed to think, despite the ship being on its side, that he could talk his way out of an actual crisis. 

In a set of extraordinary radio communications, Italian Coast Guard Capt. Gregorio De Falco, apoplectic with anger that Schettino has left the boat, urges him to go back and take command. That radio exchange has become one of the great moral moments of the incident.

Mr. De Falco indicated he didn't care that it was dark or that the boat is on its side. According to audio transcripts confirmed by Corriere della Sera, he told Schettino, “You go up that pilot ladder, get on that ship, and tell me how many people are still on board.… You need to tell me if there are children, women, or people in need of assistance. … Go on board, [expletive]!,” he says. As Schettino hesitates, De Falco says, “It has been an hour that you have been telling me the same thing. Now, go on board. Go on board!”

Thousands are now wearing T-shirts that read (minus the expletive) “Go on board!”  The Coast Guard captain is being called the real hero.

A continent searching for leaders

Italians have just replaced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a leader not known for his assidous leadership. For many of them, the Concordia lying on its side is a symbol of a country still somewhat adrift from a debt crisis and longtime leader mired in scandal.

"We had just come out of the tunnel of Bunga Bunga," writes blogger Caterina Soffici on Il Fatto Quotidiano and quoted in the Guardian. "We were just drawing that little, relieved breath that would enable us to toil again up the hill to international credibility. But [now] … We've gone straight into the Titanic nightmare [and] Italy is once again the laughing stocking of foreign newspapers."

The crisis of leadership extends beyond Italy and has been written about extensively – and the Concordia is a good metaphor. The glamorous euro is in crisis, breached on rocky shoals of Greece, Portugal, and Italy. For two years, European captains have equivocated about what to do as the ship lists, taking on more water. 

Historians are still writing about the larger meaning of the Titanic, 100 years later. In 1910, just before the "unsinkable" symbol of man's mastery of the oceans sank, Virginia Woolf wrote, “human nature changed.” The behavior of the Titanic crew – the mistakes, the sinking – have been read almost as a cultural Rorschach, describing the beginning of modernity and an "age of anxiety" and questions about old Anglo-Saxon presumptions of dominance, among many others. 

Recommended: Costa Concordia: Did the captain break any law in abandoning ship?
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