Lessons from a disaster
I don't speak a word of Italian. But there is something grimly fascinating listening to the dialogue and reading the transcripts of the Italian Coast Guard officer, who with increasing desperation, pleads, demands and then threatens with the captain of the sinking ship to go back on board and save the lives of women, children and those with special needs.
What we understand is that it took about an hour to evacuate the cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, which was carrying more than 4,000 people when it struck a reef off the Tuscan island of Giglio, after its captain, Francesco Schettino, made the fatal decision to deviate from its course to show off to the people on the island.
So visualise a giant cruise ship tilting at least 20 degrees off centre. And the captain abandoning the ship, explaining in a frightened voice that it was tilting.
What then takes place is a desperate exchange between the commander of the port authority, Gregorio De Falco, and the captain.
At first the commander is understanding and uses facts to explain the situation to an obviously petrified captain who clearly thinks his life will be in danger if he returns to the deck of the sinking vessel.
"I understand," says the commander. "But listen. There are people coming down the stem ladder. You must take the ladder in the opposite direction. Get on board the ship and you tell me how many people are on board. What do they have? Is that clear? You tell me if there are children, women, people with special needs. And you tell me how many there are."
He then ends with a personal threat to try and force the captain to take action.
"Look, Schettino, you might have been saved from the sea, but I will make your life difficult. Get on board, damn it!"
But the captain fails to respond, so the commander ups the pressure, yelling: "Go on board and coordinate the rescue operation from there. Are you refusing?"
The captain still refuses to board the ship. So then the commander seeks to assert his authority. "You have declared you are abandoning your ship. Now I'm in charge. You get on board now. Is that clear?"
That didn't work either and the commander tries another angle, pleading to the captain's humanity.
"There are already bodies, Schettino," he says.
"How many dead are there?" he replies.
"You are supposed to be the one telling me how many there are. Christ."
The captain whinges: "Are you aware that it is dark here and we cannot see anything?"
And the commander turns to ridicule: "So? Do you want to go home, Schettino? It's dark and you want to go home? Climb that ladder and get on that ship."
Nothing worked. It appears there was no way the captain was ever going to return to the ship.
As the tragic event continues to unfold many questions will be asked. Would the captain have been able to save more lives if he remained on the ship? Maybe not.
But it is his lack of capacity to lead and take responsibility that strikes at the heart of us all.
What would we do in a crisis situation? Are we capable of understanding in moments of extreme stress that we have caused/contributed to the disaster? Would we wait too late to call for help?
Would we be capable of grasping how truly terrible the situation is so we can quickly face up to what needs to be done and warn others?
Do we ultimately take responsibility and do what it takes to look after others?
Or would we too "abandon ship"?
Fortunately, history shows us that many of us do stay on the ship, accepting that we are accountable and responsible. And that people who fail to end up in very deep water.