Magazine article The Spectator

Ship of Fools

Magazine article The Spectator

Ship of Fools

Article excerpt

Ah, those Italians. Let's just blame the bloody Eyeties for the catastrophe of the Costa Concordia and have done with it, shall we? That way we don't have to think too much about the perils of floating citadels in general.

There was something peculiarly Italian about this disaster. The night his ship went down Francesco Schettino, the 52-year-old captain, was in the bar with a striking blonde on his arm who was not his wife. He stayed glued to her side until the moment the ship struck the submerged rock - which it only did because he had changed course to get in nice and close (he says 300 metres, the prosecuting judge 150) to the tiny island of Giglio, ten miles or so off the Italian mainland, and give a three-foghorn salute to the daughter of the ship's head waiter, who lives there. In a word: a womaniser and a show-off. How very Italian. But what do you expect from a nation that elected a sex-addict clown as Prime Minister three times?

And it did not, of course, end there. When the Costa Concordia started to sink, Schettino became even more Italian. He delayed sending a Mayday message for 45 minutes or so - presumably because his macho Italian pride would not permit any admission of failure. And then in true Italian style he abandoned ship, leaving behind up to 300 of the 4,250 passengers and crew. Just remind me how many gears was it that an Italian tank had in the second world war? Just the one - reverse, wasn't it? And what of the crew?

Yes, the Italian ones at any rate were just as bad as the skipper, according to passenger accounts, and the evacuation as one would expect when it finally got under way was chaotic. The crew, naturalmente, shoved passengers out of the way in the scramble for the lifeboats. The Italian among them, that is.

Well OK, but hang on a minute. Let's just consider how a British captain and crew of a similar cruise ship might have behaved. As it happens, I have hands-on experience of British passenger vessels and their crews. For a couple of summers in the early Eighties I worked on the Herald of Free Enterprise, which sank on the night of 6 March 1987 with the loss of 193 passengers and crew moments after leaving Zeebrugge harbour. …

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