Three Unfortunate Ship Captains

Captain Edward Smith decided to ignore suggestions to slow his ship down while going through waters known to have icebergs. He wanted to be sure to arrive on time. It was his ship’s maiden voyage. The year was 1912 and he was in charge of the largest ship, in fact the largest moving machine, ever built. It was called the Titanic. You know the rest of the story.

What you may not know is that Captain Smith made another fatal error that day: He did not inform the passengers as to the severity of the situation, once they hit the ice, and did not stay on board long enough to help people get into the lifeboats in an organized way. As a result, many lifeboats left with just a few passengers, although they each had a capacity for seventy people. More than 1,500 passengers who could not get on lifeboats died in the mishap.


Unfortunate ship captain Edward Smith
Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic

In 1991, MTS Oceanos, another cruise ship, started taking on water in heavy seas and lost power. Just like the captain of the Titanic, Captain Yiannis Avranas did not help the passengers escape. Instead, he abandoned the bridge almost immediately. Guitarist Moss Hills and his wife Tracy, who were hired as entertainers on the ship, went up to the bridge to find out what was happening. Upon finding no one in charge, Moss himself called in a mayday, which eventually brought rescue for everyone on board just moments before the ship sank.

Almost exactly one hundred years after Titanic, Captain Francesco Schettino ignored the sea lane map and maneuvered his large cruise ship, Costa Concordia, close to Isola del Giglio, an island just off the coast of Italy, evidently so his passengers could enjoy the close passage. His ship gored itself on a rock outcropping and capsized. Water flooded vital equipment resulting in a power outage. This captain, too, left the ship early. Not only did he not help his passengers into lifeboats, he told the passengers nothing, leaving them to mill around aimless and confused in the darkness while the ship floundered with no one in control.

The captain was found a short time after the little mishap smoking a cigarette under a staircase. Then, he left in one of the first lifeboats, and refused to re-board his ship and take charge of the evacuation when ordered to do so by the Italian Coast Guard.

The passengers and the mostly untrained crew had to organize their own evacuation. The crew were mostly restaurant, cleaning and entertainment staff, so were not trained in safety procedures. Among the most helpful people in the evacuation, and the last to leave were Tracy and Moss Hills. That’s right, the same couple who were on the MTS Oceanos!

Even though the ship did not fully capsize, being only meters from the coast, and even though the water was warm and calm, at least thirty people died.

What’s with these captains? Psychologists say it is not uncommon for good people to act poorly in such situations. When one is in charge of a lot of people, and something goes terribly wrong, the one in charge will often freeze up with fear, rendering them useless in an emergency.

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