“Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” – Aristotle
On the night of Friday, January 13, the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia, with more than 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members on board, struck a reef, keeled over, and partially sank near Isola del Giglio, off the coast of Tuscany in Italy.
The news of the disastrous sinking of the Costa Concordia has left the world stunned. Not only because of the size (290 m long) of the modern cruise ship (entering service in 2006), its proximity to shore (150 m from land) and the good weather conditions, but also because of the circumstances surrounding it, in terms of the lack of responsibility shown by the master of the ship and his officers. Captain Francesco Schettino, 52 years old, a captain since 2006, is accused of “inexcusable” recklessness after it emerged that he steered too close to shore to come within sight of his head waiter’s family home on the island of Giglio. Mario Palombo, his former captain, is on the record as saying that Schettino was a braggart, too exuberant and more than once he had had to put him in his place.
The death toll has reached 11 with divers recently locating more bodies, all of them adults wearing life jackets, in the rear of the ship near an emergency evacuation point. Tens of people are still missing and amongst the survivors many are injured. The survivors have lost all of their belongings and they relate stories of panic and confusion, but also tales of courage and heroism.
Captain Schettino, who has been stripped of his command, was arrested on Saturday. Prosecutors urged at the hearing on the mainland that he be held in prison. The magistrate released Captain Schettino from jail but placed him under house arrest. He faces a possible 15 years in prison for multiple manslaughter charges and for abandoning ship while dozens of passengers were still aboard. Dramatic audio recordings on the night of the shipwreck reveal a coastguard official yelling at the captain to get back on board and coordinate the rescue efforts from the ship, as he should.
Still, tales of courage and heroism have emerged as both passengers and staff recount stories where people selflessly tried to help others, complete strangers doing their utmost to help others survive, and staff risking their lives to help passengers who were trapped or too elderly to help themselves. Aside from the persistent efforts of official rescuers, who are still scouring the Costa Concordia for survivors, there are news of a husband giving his life jacket to his wife while he perished, people creating human ladders so that passengers could climb to safety and swimmers helping the non-swimmers to reach safety.
The question is why the Captain showed such a lack of consideration for his passengers and crew, abandoning the ship in a most cowardly manner, while ordinary people showed so much more fortitude and bravery, staying behind to rescue fellow passengers and crew? I guess the answer lies in variations of human nature and differences in character. The brave conquer the fear they feel and it is only they who know how scared they are in adverse and dangerous circumstances. They retain their composure and act level-headedly, having the clearest vision of what dangers are before them, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet them. The brave person dies only once, the coward dies a thousand times, each death more painful than the one before it.
Altruism is something that human beings demonstrate in numerous situations fraught with peril and in many cases an altruist will put himself at risk to save others, often giving up his life in the attempt. Such selflessness is what we recognise as courage, bravery, heroism and stout-heartedness. It is a quality that many people will display in adverse circumstances and the most unlikely persons may step up to the challenge and surprise even themselves.
A coward is someone whose life is ruled by fear. Like the brave person he may hide that fear but unfortunately the façade is a flimsy edifice built of bluster, arrogance, swagger and ostentation. He is loud and aggressive, usually to those in positions of lesser power than himself or those who are physically weaker and smaller. An attitude of flamboyance and loudness – but only in fair weather. When the storm comes, the coward is the first to run and hide. His lack of courage is easily demonstrable in situations that demand leadership, cool-headedness, swift action and selflessness. The coward is selfish and his first thought is to preserve his own life, even if it means sacrificing tens or hundreds of others to do so. Putting such a person in a position of leadership and responsibility is disastrous.
The Costa Concordia disaster was one that was avoidable and which should not have happened. Its occurrence was the result of a profound irresponsibility, lack of judgment and thoughtlessness. Those responsible should be held accountable and steps taken to ensure that they are never again entrusted with similar responsibilities. The victims silently demand justice, the bereaved families ask for retribution. The persons responsible for the tragedy protest their innocence – this surely is adding insult to injury…