I am fascinated by disasters, whether it’s the Hindenburg, a $15 million failed software implementation that I helped clean up, or the possible nomination of Newt Gingrich to be the Republican Party candidate for the presidency in 2012. Disasters never result from a single failure. Instead they come about through a chain of failures that all lead up to the undesired outcome. Another useful analogy is that of a combination lock. The rarer the disaster, the more cylinders the lock has and all must be lined up perfectly for the disaster to occur. The two analogies have limitations. The chain implies inevitability, and the combination lock implies control. Both are extremes that fail to account for the role chance plays. Chance is an injection of randomness into the disaster scenario that can either stop a disaster in its tracks or push it along to success. It is a completely independent variable that can be diminished but never completely eliminated.
In 1912 the Titanic sailed into infamy, and although it isn’t the greatest shipwreck disaster in terms of loss of life (the MV Dona Paz, a ferry in the Philippines that sank in 1987 ranks as the worst maritime disaster with the loss of 4,375 lives – 3 1/2 times the loss of the Titanic) it has been thoroughly studied and remains a template for maritime disasters even a century later with the wreck of the cruise ship Costa Concordia.
In both cases there were heroes and villains. On the Titanic Second Officer Charles Lightoller took charge of the evacuation and stayed with the stricken vessel until it went down. After surviving the sinking, he found an overturned lifeboat with 30 survivors clinging to it. Swimming to it in ice cold water, he took charge of the craft and kept it from throwing off the survivors by distributing their weight and ordering them to move in rhythm with the ocean swells to keep them from all tumbling into the frigid sea.
While the story of the Costa Concordia is still taking shape, we are beginning to hear similar stories of heroism. British teen James Thomas used his 6’3” body as a ladder to allow passengers to scramble over him between decks to the lifeboats. There are also reports of bravery and acts of heroism by the Costa Concordia crew including Filipino waiters and cooks who stepped in to lead passengers to safety after the captain left the doomed ship.
Which brings us to the villains. In the Titanic disaster no one is more infamous than J. Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line who was on-board the ship and encouraged the captain to maintain speed even after receiving warning of icebergs on the route. Ismay survived the disaster by taking to a lifeboat early, earning him the sobriquet “Coward of the Titanic” in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. Today the same words are being used by in both the Italian and English press to describe Costa Concordia captain Francesco Schettino for abandoning the ship 4 hours before the last passengers had been rescued.
Even the companies that owned both ships are vilified. The White Star Line was criticized for failure to provide enough lifeboats in order to cut ship’s costs and expand the number of cabins. After the disaster White Star refused to pay the full wages of the surviving crew, prorating their pay according to the moment the ship sank below the waves. While it remains to be seen how Carnival, owner of the Costa lines, treats its crew, it has shown incredible stupidity by offering survivors 30% discounts on their next Carnival cruise. The Titanic didn’t destroy White Star Lines, but it did wound it. By 1934 it was forced to merge with its rival Cunard, and in one of History’s delicious ironies, Cunard was taken over in 2005 by Carnival. So in a sense the corporate villain of the Titanic is the same entity behind the Costa Concordia disaster.
While the broad themes of heroes and villains appeal to us, by focusing solely on them we lose sight of the elements that lead to the disaster. With the Titanic it turns out that the riveted joints of the steel and the quality of the steel itself, particularly its brittleness when exposed to extremely cold salt water, were the cylinders that turned and unlocked the disaster. Had the seams been welded (though in fairness welding was still in its infancy) they would have resisted the collision. Had the steel been of different alloy, it could have kept the ice from penetrating into the ship. The watertight compartments weren’t truly watertight, a decision made by engineers under the authority of White Star management to maximize paying space on the ship. These are the engineering failures that lead up to the Titanic disaster. It remains to be seen whether this type of failure contributed to the sinking of the Costa Concordia.
Then there were the human mistakes. The captain of the Titanic Edward John Smith was an extremely experienced sailor, yet he made several mistakes that doomed the ship. He ignored the iceberg warnings and kept the ship on its original northerly course instead of taking a safer, southerly route that would have cost time. Whether against his better judgement or not he kept the Titanic sailing at speed into danger in order to achieve the record-setting transatlantic crossing Ismay expected [see JJ comment below]. Other human mistakes creep in. The Californian was in sight of the distress signals from the Titanic as it sank, yet ignored them. It also missed the distress calls from the Titanic because the radio operator had turned off his set and went to bed. Had either of these two human errors not happened it is possible that the Californian would have saved many of the lives lost that night.
Similarly the Costa Concordia had a plethora of similar errors, the most obvious being the captain’s movement of the vessel too close to the island of Giglio. After running the ship aground, the captain disappeared as did most of the officers of the crew leaving the passengers and low-ranking crew members to their own devices. No one knew what to do, and language barriers hampered evacuation efforts. In the chaos passengers were given bad information (“it’s a problem with the generator”) and told to return to their cabins. Even the black boxes which would have detailed events leading up to the crash turn out to have failed two weeks before the disaster and weren’t repaired. These errors will be detailed in the inquests into the disaster sure to come.
In terms of the scale of loss of life the disasters are quite different, but the mechanics are eerily similar especially considering that both disasters are separated by 100 years. In the dark of night two ships experience a series of engineering failures and human errors that result in a disaster.
Contrast this with air travel. A century ago planes were notoriously dangerous and unreliable. Today flying is the safest form of transportation in the world. It has only become so through the study of each air crash. The factors that lead up to each disaster are determined and guidelines and changes to procedures or mechanical elements are made to prevent the accident from occurring again. Over time this has stopped air safety from being the oxymoron it had once been. It is important to understand how this process has occurred. Luck hasn’t made air travel safe – only the careful application of the tools of investigation and science has.
The similarities between the Titanic and the Costa Concordia prove that progress in maritime safety has a long way to go to match that of aviation safety. The true tragedy of the Costa Concordia is the loss of life without doubt, but also, that after a hundred years of technological progress, better steel, GPS systems, and engineering advancements an inattentive and risk-taking captain can still sink his ship.