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The Contract of Command

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No man or woman ever knows how they will react when their life is in danger. I hope, and I’m sure we all hope we would react in a such a way as to earn self-respect, if not honor—but we just don’t know. However, a decision to accept a position as a ship captain, airline pilot, fireman, policeman, Coast Guardsman; any position where danger is possible and the job gives you responsibility for the lives of others, is in effect a contract. A contract in which the implicit agreement is that the lives of others come before your own. It is a guarantee that you will do as promised. You are, as the old saying goes, acknowledging that  “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.” So if it appears that anybody is being criticized in this piece for cowardice, it is not criticism of character or a human failing common to many, the criticism is aimed at a person who apparently defaulted on a contract; the contract of command.

A fence is never needed until something pushes against it. Similarly, courage can never be measured until fear is present. One can test a fence by simply pushing on it, but gauging a man’s courage is difficult absent imminent danger.

Fight or flight. At one time or another, nearly everyone wonders how they would react if their life was on the line and they had a choice of acting or running. Those who rise to the occasion are said to have “the right stuff.” There is no polite phrase for those who fail in those situations.  

Captain “Sully” Sullenberger answered all his own questions on January 15, 2009. His decisiveness, skill, and calmness are now legend. Sully’s friends describe him as “shy and reticent,” but beneath that shyness lay the makings of a hero. Finding himself in an engineless, 75 ton flying fuel tank over Manhattan with the lives of 148 people on his shoulders, Sullenberger knew that he had just one or two chances in a thousand to survive. Over the shouting of the electronic voice of the plane, “pull up pull up pull up pull up…..” the questions from air traffic control, and the attempts to restart the engines, he thought quickly, decided on the only realistic option, and flawlessly ditched the airliner in the Hudson River next to Manhattan.  Listening to his confident, decisive communications on the radio is nothing if not inspiring, if only for knowing what “the right stuff” sounds like.

Two days short of three years later, on January 13, 2012, Francesco Schettino, captain of the luxury Costa (Carnival subsidiary) Cruise liner “Costa Concordia” also answered his own questions and provided the world an example of what “the wrong stuff” sounds like, via his radio communications with the Livorno Port Authority.

Somehow, a cruise liner in good weather ran aground. It apparently did so during a “Salute” to the island of Giglio. A ship’s ‘salute’ is a close sail-by of land to generate excitement and is the nautical equivalent of the aviation “buzz-job,” itself one of the leading causes of fatal aircraft crashes. This ‘salute’ was allegedly intended to raise the visibility of the cruise line. It worked. Costa Cruise line rules allegedly prohibit the ship from coming within a half mile of land while underway. Schettino claimed to be no nearer to land than .29 miles. The charted rocks he hit, however, were 450 feet off shore. It is said that he might have been distracted by a beautiful 25 year old blonde who was somehow a guest on the bridge after witnesses say she and Captain Schettino split a carafe of wine. But the even more troubling issue than how it happened, is what occurred after the ship ran aground. The commander of the Livorno Port Authority is Gregorio De Falco, and De Falco had by Italian law, control of the scene. He contacted Schettino by radio after being told that the captain of the Costa Concordia had abandoned ship with passengers aboard.


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Gregorio De Falco: "Hello. Hello."

Francesco Schettino: "Good evening, captain."

De Falco: "Hello, I'm de Falco, from Livorno. I am speaking with the commander?"

Schettino: "I'm Commander Schettino."

De Falco: "Listen Schettino, there are people trapped aboard, you go with your lifeboat under the prow of the ship on the port side and you go aboard the ship using the rope ladder. You go aboard and you tell me how many people there are. Is it clear? I'm recording this conversation, Commander Schettino."

“I’m recording this conversation, Commander Schettino.” De Falco knew the gravity of the situation and he knew what he was saying. He was obviously stunned that the captain of a foundering ship had fled, leaving his crew and passengers behind. I must admit that I too am stunned, as is the world, likely. De Falco felt that it was necessary to threaten the captain with exposure of his cowardice if he would not return to the ship.

One cannot help but compare this to Sullenberger’s demeanor as his plane plummeted at over 200 miles per hour toward downtown Manhattan. Sullenberger’s words in the cockpit and on the radio were strong, decisive and inspiring. In contrast, Captain Schettino was speaking with such diffidence that De Falco had difficulty understanding him.

Schettino: "So, I'll tell you something..."

De Falco: "Speak louder."

Schettino: "Now, I'm in front of..."

De Falco: "Commander, speak louder, take the microphone and speak loud. Is that clear?"

Schettino: "Commander, right now the ship is skewed. [listing to starboard]"

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De Falco: "Understood. Listen,…….. you go aboard and you tell me the number of people and what they have on board. Is that clear? You tell me whether there are children, women or people needing assistance. And you tell me the number of each of these categories. Is that clear? Schettino, maybe you saved yourself from the sea, but I'll make you pay for sure. Go aboard, (expletive)!"

But even then, Schettino argued that his presence was not needed aboard.

Schettino: "Commander, please?"

De Falco: "Please, now you go aboard!"

Schettino: "I am on the life boat, under the ship, I haven't gone anywhere, I'm here."

De Falco: "What are you doing, commander?"

Schettino: "I'm here to coordinate rescues."

De Falco: "What are you coordinating there? Go on board and co-ordinate rescues from on board! Do you refuse?"

Schettino: "I'm not going because there is another lifeboat stopped there."

De Falco: "Go aboard: it's an order*. You have no evaluation to make, you declared abandon ship, now I give orders: go aboard. Is it clear?"

(* Once a captain has abandoned his ship, he no longer commands it, it is under the control of nautical search and rescue command.)

Schettino: "Commander I'm going aboard."

De Falco: "Call me from aboard, my rescuer is there at the prow of the ship. There are already dead bodies, Schettino."

Schettino: "How many dead bodies?"

De Falco: "I do not know. One for sure. You have to tell me how many!"

Schettino: "Do you realize that it's dark here and we can't see a thing?"

De Falco"And what, do you want to go home, Schettino? It's dark, so you want to go home...? Go on the prow of the ship, using the rope ladder and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what are their needs. Do it now."

Schettino: "Here there is also the vice commander. I'm together with him."

De Falco: "Then go aboard together. Together. What's his name?"

Schettino: "Dimitri."

De Falco: "Dimitri what? You and your vice go aboard. Now, is it clear?"

Schettino: "Commander, I want to go aboard, but here there is the other lifeboat, there are other rescuers who stopped. Now I called other rescuers."

De Falco: "You've been telling me this for one hour. Go aboard. Go aboard. And you tell me right away how many people there are."

Schettino: "Ok commander."

Just because a man has the coordination and the skill to handle a ship doesn’t mean he has what it takes to be a captain, especially when lives are at stake. Skill at navigating a ship can no more guarantee suitability as a captain any more than the fact that a male can produce sperm guarantees that he would be an adequate father.

Not only did Schettino fail, but it appears that his flight led some of the crew to abandon the passengers with him. Undoubtedly, there were brave crew who stayed and may have even paid with their lives, but they did this in spite of their captain. But make no mistake, Schettino’s acts were not the first in the tragic string of events. Nor was hitting the rocks. It was that he had been given command in the first place.

In the cases I worked in the FBI, particularly those perpetrated by the most violent, evil men, there had been a trail of acts, behaviors and episodes where the person’s personality was tipped-off. And in each of the cases, innocent people lay dead because the responsible people had shirked their duties. Schettino was responsible for the safety of thousands of people. With apparent failure of courage this blatant, could it be possible that there were no indications of Schettino’s inability to handle fear prior to this crisis?

Carnival has a responsibility to determine the suitability of a man or woman to command. There is no excuse anymore in today’s world. There are ways to weed out those who cannot ‘cut it.’ Even more traditional methods could have determined his fitness for duty. Marine Boot Camp, as horrible and stressful as it has been described, is not that way as some kind of sick initiation, it is to weed out those who cannot function under extreme duress or fear. Drill Instructors and the fear they instill are two of the main reasons that cowardice under fire is not something that people think of when they hear the words “United States Marines.” In a perfect world, Schettino would not have been given command, and he would have been spared what must be the worst experience of his life. He is not evil, he was just incapable of what was asked of him. And somebody in authority likely knew that. They were simply betting on the odds that his courage would never have to be tested.

Fortunately, Costa Cruise lines has now realized the magnitude of the tragedy and has made quick, astute moves to prove to the passengers and the world that they understand the gravity of the situation: They have offered the surviving passengers (and I’m not making this up) a 30% discount on a future Costa cruise. If that doesn’t restore your faith, I don’t know what will.

De Falco’s soon to be famous statement to the fleeing captain; “Schettino, maybe you saved yourself from the sea, but I'll make you pay for sure,” ended with the Italian phrase, “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” “Go on board, ‘cazzo’!” Cazzo is Italian profane slang for male genitalia. De Falco had lost all respect for a Schettino and was goading him to “man up.” Interestingly, there are already T-shirts with the phrase, “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” being made. Possibly it will enter the lexicon as a phrase intended to shame cowards into meeting their duties. Finally and pitifully, Schettino later explained his departure from the ship by saying that he had “tripped into a lifeboat,” a statement which only exposes the depth of his deficiency as a captain.

But to be fair, Sullenberger is not perfect either. After he skillfully ditched his A320 in the Hudson river, he deviated from the aircraft checklist and did not comply with what a captain should do. The checklist told him to don a life preserver, open the cockpit window and evacuate the aircraft. 

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Instead, Sullenberger left the cockpit but not the aircraft. He left the cockpit through the interior door, going into the sinking rear cabin of the plane to ensure that everyone was out. Twice. When the last crewmember besides the captain boarded a raft, the airplane was halfway under water. Sullenberger, however, had one more thing to do. He went forward one last time to retrieve the aircraft’s logbooks to aid in the investigation of the crash before he departed—the last to leave the ship. The right stuff.

 
 
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