If there is something oddly familiar about the news that the erstwhile captain of the ill-fated South Korean ferry—which capsized and sank just a few hundred meters from dry land—botched the evacuation order and jumped ship before his passengers were safe, it’s because we’ve heard about this sort of maritime cowardice before. It happened in 2012, when Italian captain Francesco Schettino rammed his Costa Concordia luxury cruiseliner into the rocks off Giglio island. He, too, was among the first off the ship well in advance of the bulk of the passengers.
The two accidents are, of course, as different as night and day. The South Korean ferry captain, Lee Joon-Seok, was not on the bridge when his ferry took a tight turn, possibly capsizing because it had been loaded over capacity with heavy cargo.
The search for bodies in the Korean disaster is still going on, but of the 476 on board, as many as 300 are feared dead, including hundreds of students who were on a school trip. Pictures showed Lee being hoisted off the ship on a rope, aided by other crew members, well before the ship sank completely.
In the Costa Concordia tragedy, Schettino hit the rocks after ordering the ship more than four miles off course, allegedly to try to impress a Moldovan ballerina who was his personal guest on the cruise. He says he “fell into a lifeboat” in the chaos of trying to organize an evacuation, and he couldn’t get back on because the ship had capsized, despite the Italian port authority demanding that he “Get back on board for f*&’s sake.”
Of the 4,229 passengers on board the Costa Concordia cruiseship, 32 died. All but one body has been recovered. “The two accidents are totally different,” Schettino told The Daily Beast on Monday. “We saved almost everyone, and in South Korea, almost everyone died.”
Schettino, like Lee, was arrested immediately after the accident for negligence and abandoning the ship. Both countries adhere to strict maritime conduct regulations that explicitly state that the captain should stay on a sinking vessel until the last passengers have been saved. Schettino is on trial for multiple manslaughter, causing a maritime disaster and abandoning ship. He denies complete culpability and has blamed mechanical failures, including malfunctioning watertight doors, for the sinking. A verdict in his case is expected in late 2014.
When Lee was arrested along with two other crew members who fled the scene of the disaster, South Korean President Park Guen-hye issued a statement calling Lee’s actions “akin to murder” and implying he, too, would be charged with culpability for the lives lost. “What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense, unforgivable, murderous behavior,” Park said. In the Costa Concordia case, five officials tied to the disaster, including four who were on the ship and one who was in the emergency command center at the Costa headquarters in Genoa, negotiated plea bargains in which they pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for lighter sentences. They have all testified against Schettino in court as part of their plea deals.
Each captain acted horrifically by leaving passengers to die on a sinking vessel, but the true error for both of them was in not calling for an evacuation at the first sign of trouble. According to maritime experts, the captain’s job in a disaster is to guide the evacuation, and not only did neither man call for the passengers to abandon ship in a timely manner, neither stayed around long enough to actually see the evacuation through once they called it. “I’m kind of flummoxed that a master of a passenger ship anywhere in the world would not understand his obligation extends until that last person is safely off the ship,” Craig Allen, director of the Arctic Law & Policy Institute at the University of Washington, told NPR.
Perhaps a more timely evacuation call could have saved lives. The Sewol in South Korea took more than two hours to sink, and initially the captain told passengers to go back to their rooms. Two-thirds of the crew survived, and only one-third of the passengers made it to dry land. The captain told reporters that he was worried they would jump into the icy waters without rescue vessels nearby and drift away in the high seas. “I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims,” Lee said on South Korean Television. “At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without proper judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties.”
Schettino also failed to call for a timely evacuation, waiting more than an hour to order passengers to abandon ship, even though the engine rooms were flooded and the ship was listing severely. His crew also urged passengers to go back to their staterooms, even as water began to flood the lower floors. Schettino has blamed the Costa company for his actions, saying they told him not to evacuate to avoid reimbursing cruise tickets. “Since the beginning, they have searched for a way to put all the blame on me, saying the captain went crazy for a moment, not to forfeit the insurance money,” Schettino told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview in March. “It didn’t take long to figure out that it would all be better if the responsibility rested with just one person rather than the whole company.”
Whatever reason the captains use to justify their actions, they are the exception and not the rule when it comes to maritime bravery. The Titanic’s captain Edward Smith stoically went down with his ship, and several other heroes lived up to his example, including Captain Piero Calamai, who vowed to stay on the sinking Andrea Doria after it collided with a cargo ship off Nantucket in 1956. Rafael Benitez, commander of the Cochino wartime submarine that caught fire in the Barents Sea, stayed onboard the sinking submarine until all of his crew members got off. And even US Airways pilot Captain Chesley Sullenberger III took two passes through his aircraft after crash-landing it in the Hudson River in 2009 before he would agree to abandon his floating plane.