When I saw the film, The Poseidon Adventure, within weeks of its release in 1972, I was just fourteen years old, and it made a powerful impression. The plot featured a cruise ship beginning to sink, with most of the passengers choosing to heed the crew’s instructions to stay in the main common areas until they can be rescued. Gene Hackman played a fiery pastor who convinces a small band of followers to climb upward through the listing ship to its highest point, braving a series of harrowing obstacles which deplete their ranks by a few.
In the end only they are saved. Those who abided by the official policy were all lost — echoing the famous poem “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck” — when the ship sank moments after Hackman’s team was rescued.
Inspired by the poignancy of the movie, I went to the library and took out the book it was based on, authored by the great Paul Gallico, famed sports editor of the New York Daily News. When I reached the climax of the novel, I was shocked that the result was the opposite of the movie ending. The passengers who had stayed put were all saved without a single casualty. The only people to die after the initial impact were those who had failed to survive the obstacle course preferred by the wacky cleric.
The astonishing saga of the sinking Italian cruise ship, Costa Concordia, continued to unfold after the weekend with the discovery of two live passengers and one crew member with a broken leg, along with five more corpses to bring the total to eleven known victims of the event. Two dozen more are still unaccounted for, as divers ply their gritty chore of searching the severely listing vessel.
The captain of the ship, nominally its commander tasked with the safety of his passengers, escaped at the earliest opportunity, along with the First Mate. The Italian Coast Guard released a tape in which the captain cringes, waffles, mumbles, fumbles, truckles… anything but returning to fulfill his duty.
Most of the 4,200 people on board were saved anyway, but it took some doing on the part of some more responsible crew members and other heroes, including many of the dancers and musical performers. But the rank cowardice of the ostensible leadership was an extra stink bomb lobbed into the wreckage. It takes a sensitive human tragedy and tinges it with crude farce.
The episode this calls to mind is one it eerily mirrors, the grounding of the Oceanos in 1991 off the Wild Coast of South Africa. In that case, the Greek Captain evacuated first with all of the top crew members, leaving an anarchic vacuum which was filled mostly by the entertainment staff. The woman in charge of fun and games on board in happier times alertly sensed the void and stepped in to assume the leadership role. Amazingly, every single person was rescued by either lifeboat or helicopter. It is well worth the time to see the entire Dateline report chronicling the fiasco turned virtuoso.
The word “coward” is structured ingeniously, including the entirety of “war” but hiding it by smothering from both sides. When the captains all turn out to be cowards, opting for years in a dry jail over hours facing the music in a seaborne dance with the Angel of Death, while the musicians and the dancers rise to the occasion, there is some great lesson to be learned here in assaying the human condition.
The Talmud famously teaches that in a bustling marketplace one day, Elijah the Prophet could point out only two individuals who were heading to Heaven. They were two comedians who made a specialty of cheering up the unfortunate, helping people through crises in their lives.
The story of these cruise ships supports the central insight of that vignette. The captain, who strutted around thinking that it was all about him, could only think of himself when the Heavens tested his mettle. The singers and the dancers, training themselves to please and satisfy the needs of others, were well positioned to put the welfare of the group above saving their own skins.
The next time I am aboard a cruise ship and I get that little gilt-edged envelope with the invitation to join the captain at his table, remind me to seek out the entertainment staff as companions instead. Some of these captains are not fit for the high seas; their place is in the dock.