Tag Archives: hubris

Titanic: A Monument and Warning to Human Presumption

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1912 the Bishop of Winchester said these words in a sermon marking the end of the R.M.S. Titanic: “Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a monument and warning to human presumption,” as well it should. Sadly, it seems that that Trump administration is doing its best to strip away vital safety, health, and environmental regulations that protect people from even worse disasters than that which befell the great ship 105 years ago today.

The story of the Titanic has been told many times, and it should be a cautionary tale for those who in the name of profit and glory seek to dismantle safety and environmental standards. I remember reading Walter Lord’s classic treatment of the story, A Night to Remember back in 7th Grade. It made a tremendous impact on me, and every so often I will go back and read it again.

The Titanic’s Captain, Edward Smith, her was blinded by his faith in shipbuilding technology and had said about the Adriatic which he commanded previously, “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.” A Senator Said during the hearings about the sinking of her captain, “Overconfidence seems to have dulled the faculties usually so alert.”

The story of what happened to the great ship is as hard to believe now as it was then, but then incredible tragedies be they the loss of ships, aircraft, buildings or bridges, and even spacecraft always invoke such feelings. When I was told about the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up in 1986 I remarked to the young soldier who brought me the news “don’t be silly Space Shuttles don’t blow up.”  Walter Lord, who was probably the most prolific historian and author of the Titanic disaster used to talk of the “if onlys” that haunted him about the sinking of Titanic: If only, so many if onlys. If only she had enough lifeboats. If only the watertight compartments had been higher. If only she had paid attention to the ice that night. If only the Californian did come…” 

Bruce Ismay

The word “if” probably the biggest two letter word that plagues human history, looms large in the tragedy of Titanic. The great ship, which was the largest ship and one of the fastest ocean liners of her time was the victim of her owner and operators hubris as much as she was that of the iceberg which sank her. The ship was heralded by Bruce Ismay, the Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line as unsinkable, a claim that was echoed in the press.

Her builders had no such illusions and protested the claims. Thomas Andrews the Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards where she was built commented “The press is calling these ships unsinkable and Ismay’s leadin’ the chorus. It’s just not true.” 

Titanic was designed with the latest shipbuilding innovations, watertight compartments, a double bottom and equipped with wireless. She was billed as “unsinkable” by her owners but those innovations as advanced as they were for her day were insufficient to save her when her Captain and owners chose to charge through a known ice field at full speed.  Her watertight compartments did not extent far enough up the hull to prevent water from going over them.  Likewise it was never imagined that so many watertight compartments could be compromised.

Thomas Andrews

As far as lifeboats, the great ship carried far too few. Thomas Andrews, her builder wanted 64 had his arm twisted to bring the number to 32 and Titanic sailed with only 20 of which 4 were collapsible boats smaller than smaller lifeboats. Justifying himself under antiquated regulations (which were written for ships of 10,000 tons) which allowed just 16 boats J. Bruce Ismay the Director of White Star Line told Andrews:

“Control your Irish passions, Thomas. Your uncle here tells me you proposed 64 lifeboats and he had to pull your arm to get you down to 32. Now, I will remind you just as I reminded him these are my ships. And, according to our contract, I have final say on the design. I’ll not have so many little boats, as you call them, cluttering up my decks and putting fear into my passengers.” 

If only the Californian had come. Californian was the nearest vessel to Titanic and in easy wireless range. However her wireless was unmanned, she did not have enough operators to man it 24 hours a day.  Her lookouts saw Titanic but despite flares being fired from Titanic she never assumed Titanic to be in extremis. The next nearest ship, Carpathia heard the call and made a valiant attempt to reach Titanic but was too late.

If only…so many “if onlys” and so many traceable to one man, the Director of White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay.  Thomas Andrews would go down with the ship but Ismay ensured his own survival. Ismay is symbolic of men who allow their own hubris, vanity and power to destroy the lives of many.  He is so much like those that helped bring about the various economic crises that have wracked the United States and Western Europe and so many other tragedies.

After the disaster the tragedy was investigated by the United States Senate, as well as the British Board of Trade. However, the inquiry of the latter was condemned by the White Star Line’s Archivist, Paul Louden-Brown. He noted: “I think the enquiry is a complete whitewash. You have the [British] Board of Trade in effect enquiring into a disaster that’s largely of its own making.”

Ismay and Titanic are symbols of men guided only by their quest for riches and glory who revel in their power and scorn wise counsel or regulation, government or otherwise. They often believe that rules don’t apply to them. It is a cautionary tale for us today as corporations, lobbyists, and politicians seek to dismantle sensible and reasonable safety and environmental regulations for the sake of their unmitigated profit. Today we are seeing the Trump administration doing all that it can to strip away important safety, workplace, and environmental regulations in order to maximize profits.

But the warning goes far beyond that, it applies to any of us who adopt the mindset, “this cannot happen to us.” After all, there are times when we all end up as victims of our own hubris, such is the human condition.

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+


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Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary

Sinking the Costa Concordia: A Lesson in Hubris and Cowardice

“You go up that ladder and get on board the ship. You go on board and you then tell me how many people there are. Is this clear? I am recording this conversation, Commander Schettino.” Commander Di Falco, coastguard

Captain Francesco Schettino acted with hubris and demonstrated cowardice in the sinking of his ship the Costa Concordia.  He has denied taking his ship the massive 114,500 ton Costa Concordia too close to to the island of Giglio but evidence is showing that this is a bold faced lie.  From the what we know now the ship passed too close to a rocky outcropping under 300 meters from the main island but much closer to a smaller rocky island just offshore. The ship based on its AIS tracking system was sailing at about 15.3 knots when she struck the rock on her port quarter at 2137 local time.

Captain Francesco Schettino

Damage was massive and within moments of impact the ship suffered a power outage but evidently still had some power and Schettino or one of his officers attempted to turn the ship toward Giglio harbor, presumably to get her into shallow water so she would not go down in deep water.  Investigators have found the exact point of impact with the rocks off the Le Scole Shoal (42° 21′ 20″ N, 10° 55′ 50″ E)

See map  http://toolserver.org/~geohack/geohack.php?pagename=Costa_Concordia_disaster&params=42_21_20_N_10_55_50_E_ )

If you look at the track charts and diagrams it is easy to see how short of distance the ill fated liner travelled before sinking. She struck the rocks and turned slightly to starboard as she rapidly listed 20 degrees to port. The track shows that Casta Concordia slowed and turned rapidly to port (left) and slowed to a near standstill in the space of about 1000 meters as she lost power as Captain Schettino attempted to get her closer inshore.

The visible damage shows a massive gash of about 150 feet in her port side beginning just aft of midships to her port quarter.  The extent of the damage indicated that her double bottom was pierced and that numerous watertight compartments were breached including her main engineering spaces. The power failure experienced by the ship was most likely due to the flooding in the engineering spaces which powered its electrical generators.

The damage itself was catastrophic and probably mortal, but when she turned to sharply to port she heeled back to starboard as the ship’s center of gravity shift and water in the flooded compartments shifted to starboard.  At 2145 the Chief Engineer informed the captain that the breach could not be repaired and was impossible to manage. Schettino should have ordered the ship abandoned at that moment but waited until 2258 to sound the alarm.   The rapidity with which the ship heeled to starboard could have also been affected by winds and the ship’s proximity to shore.  It is also possible that the very design of such large ships can make them vulnerable to such damage in that with such high superstructures they could be more prone to instability when flooding rapidly.

Concordia rolled over on her starboard side on the rocks off of Point del Lazzaretto eventually settling to the bottom at an 80 degree list. 11 people are known to have died and many more are still missing with hope fading for their rescue.

The situation is made worse by the actions of the Captain of the Concordia, Captain Schettino.  First based on the evidence of previous sailings that this is not the first time that Schettino took the ship close inshore. Apparently he did this to allow show off the ship to the relatives of the Maitre d’hotel of the ship to see the ship pass close to the island. Another report said that Schettino called a former commander now retired who lives on Giglio to let him know that he was coming close to the island.  The fact is that taking a ship the size of Costa Concordia so close to a rocky shore at night for the purpose of showing off is reckless endangerment and an act of hubris.

The second concern is the fact that Schettino abandoned ship and despite repeated orders from a Italian Coast Guard officer to return to the ship did not and that junior officers on their own initiative began to evacuate the ship well before Schettino gave the official order to abandon.

see transcript of the exchange between Schettino and the Coast Guard Officer here http://news.sky.com/home/world-news/article/16150968

After his rescue Schettino claimed that the rock was uncharted and that he was farther out to sea than he actually was.  The fact that Schettino and his First Officer abandoned ship while hundreds of not thousands of passengers were still in danger and refused orders to return to the ship shows cowardice.

The will be more on this but Captain Schettino bears the ultimate responsibility for what happened to his ship and the loss of life.


Padre Steve+


Filed under Navy Ships, News and current events