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Op-Ed: Captain Schettino, How Could You Let That Happen to Your Ship?

By MarEx 2012-02-07 16:16:38

By Captain Peter Squicciarini, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Master Merchant Mariner

“Captain Schettino, what were you thinking?” the world wonders. This should be the question at the core of any investigation conducted on the Costa Concordia tragedy off Isola del Giglio the night of Friday the 13th. Captain, I ask you the same question as one seagoing captain to supposedly another, imposter though you may be.

There are any number of international accident investigations in full swing. Investigators are interviewing your ill-fated ship’s officers, crew and passengers in an attempt to glean every morsel of information. Your navigation will be scrutinized. The ship’s and Costa’s management, perhaps even Carnival’s records concerning all things Costa Concordia and, yes, your captain’s license will be dissected. But you already know that, Captain Schettino.  Too late. After the fact.

This marine tragedy is no wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship swallowed by the sea.  That investigation in the end concluded that we will never really know how and why she sank with her entire crew of 29 good men. Captain Schettino, we already know why your ship is dead and lying on its side with at least 17 dead and more missing souls. You personally ran her up onto a rock, that’s why. No investigation is needed to prove, once again, ships and rocks don’t mix. Captain, what were you thinking when you made that fateful decision to pass too close to Giglio instead of sailing a safe course?

In case your understanding of the time-honored tradition that the captain stays with the ship until the end was temporarily blinded, I will remind you that with responsibility comes accountability. This precept is the foundation of the unique and near-limitless authority you had as the captain of the Costa Concordia.  All real captains embrace total responsibility and cold accountability for our ships and the people onboard. What’s your excuse?

Now that you are safely ashore and have some time on your hands, you might want to read the historic editorial that appeared in the May 14, 1952 edition of the Wall Street Journal after the deadly collision between the USS Wasp and USS Hobson. Lives and ships were lost in that tragedy too. It starkly presented the captain’s precept of authority, responsibility, and accountability. Aspiring to command someday, we midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy were indelibly imbued with the editorial’s message that the buck stops with the captain. Period. The “religion” of ultimate accountability served me well as a Navy Commanding Officer and later as a professional mariner at sea. 

Captain Schettino, I shall summarize your Hobson’s Choice when you accepted the job. Listen closely. The Wall Street Journal editorial states that: “With responsibility goes authority and, with them, accountability. The captain of the ship is given honor and privileges and trust beyond other men. But let him set the wrong course, let him touch ground, let him bring disaster to his ship or to his men, and he must answer for what he has done.” When you assumed command you accepted the huge mantle of responsibility that comes with being called “Captain.”  Now you must answer for it.

It is obvious to all honorable and dutiful captains that you only got as far as “given honor and privileges” in your flawed understanding of what was your inescapable duty to your ship, crew and passengers. Arrogance? Vanity? Unfathomable hubris? I ask you, Captain Schettino, what made you think you could do anything and go anywhere with that grand ship and more than 4,000 souls onboard? You chose to be the rock star of Costa Concordia, not the captain.

Amongst sea captains you are now known merely as Schettino, no longer “Captain.” You are shunned. You have cast a black mark on all of us who go down to the sea in ships. Rest assured only you, and not your ship or your crew, will be held accountable for this calamity. You will bear the full burden. No amount of preposterous excuses will blunt the sword of accountability. Unfortunately, no amount of accountability will bring back the dead or find the missing.

Schettino, tell me, “What were you thinking and how could you have let that happen to your ship?”

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.