In the wake of the Costa Concordia tragedy, many questions remain about Captain Francesco Schettino’s behavior when it became evident the ship was in peril. The captain’s assertion that he tripped and fell into a lifeboat, while leaving thousands of passengers on board seem pretty preposterous and absurd. Most everyone including myself would believe his actions were cowardly and displayed an egregious lack of leadership. Schettino’s decision to ignore commands and steer off course proved disastrous and even more outrageous was his repeated refusal to return to the Costa Concordia after the ship began precariously tilting sideways and taking on water.
Today there are 15 confirmed deaths, 18 more still missing and new rumors that some stowaways may also have been on board, potentially raising the death toll. Schettino remains under house arrest and the charges he faces could be multiple instances of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and of course, abandoning ship. Personally I don’t quite understand why he isn’t locked up in jail, in solitary confinement.
So what is the story behind the old saying that the captain goes down with the ship? It is a maritime tradition that appears to have begun with the British Royal Navy centuries ago and has been noted in literature, movies and television, but isn’t etched into law. However the tradition for the captain to stay on the ship has long been regarded as a matter of honor, responsibility and obviously, safety for all on board. As a captain, you have the upmost responsibility for all those who are on board your ship. You are certain to remember the infamous sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, whose captain was among those who perished because he chose to stay with the imperiled ship or perhaps you may recall the famous quote “don’t give up the ship” from the US Naval Captain James Lawrence in 1813, onboard the USS Chesapeake. There is no official maritime or US Navy requirement for the captain to remain; instead it is more observed as the lore of the sea and a code of honor. But if you were to simply ask any naval officer about the right thing to do, the answer would be to stay on board.
The recorded conversation released on the web between the Italian Coast Guard Captain Gregorio De Falco and Schettino depicts a repeated reluctance of the captain of the Costa Concordia to get back on the ship. You can find the entire dialogue between the two captains here. It’s quite clear that Schettino was unwilling to go back to help assist the thousands of passengers to safety, many of whom were on their honeymoon.
Some say that the code of honor has changed over the years and that the captain shouldn’t always have to be the last one to leave a ship in distress. But I think it’s fair to say that Captain Francesco Schettino will go down in history as the captain who refused to go down with the ship. Of course I realize that the ship didn’t literally go down, but I hope that this coward goes to prison a long time for his actions and that he is never able to commandeer a ship ever again.