It seems Francesco Schettino is destined to be remembered by many names, none of them flattering: Captain Coward, Captain Crunch, the Homer Simpson of the high seas. I like to think of the Costa Concordia captain as a cruise-ship Basil Fawlty, showing off for his waiter friends, bumbling around in the dark, and insisting he hadn’t abandoned his ship but rather tripped, against his will, into a convenient lifeboat. (Possibly, he slipped in a pool of yellow liquid at his feet. We’ll never know.)
Part of the reason Capt. Schettino is being so roundly excoriated – apart from the presence of his friend the Moldovan dancer and his decision to play chicken with an island – is that the evacuation he was supposed to oversee became a free-for-all. The thing that seemed to horrify people the most is that men filled the lifeboats alongside their families; there was no provision for women and children to be removed first.
Edwin Gurd, a retired British police officer, tried to get women and children into the lifeboats. “There was quite a lot of panic from the men who were forcing their way onto the boats,” he told the Scottish Daily Record. “The men were stressed and panicking. They were pushing in front of women who should have got on first.”
This became an issue of some urgency for those who would march off to their watery graves like men, tea cups steady, pinkies raised in defiance. The historian A.N. Wilson was horrified that gentlemen could be such selfish cads in a time of distress: “There is a longing among most men to protect women and children, and chivalry is simply a manifestation of that longing.”
Longing aside, is there any good reason why women should be evacuated from a ship before men? No maritime law demands it. Children, obviously, must go first, and the elderly and the disabled. But why should a woman take precedence over a man? Is her life more valuable than his?
Clearly, this dates to an era when women were not only fragile and much-cherished vessels but also thought more likely to lose their dainty heads in the midst of chaos. It has long been believed that women were “more prone to hysteria and panic” in times of disaster, as historian Joanna Bourke notes. Women who were menstruating, lactating or undergoing menopause were seen as particularly likely to become crazed with fear – into the boats with them! (That particular lifeboat might be more dangerous than the sinking ship, by the way.) These notions of feminine fragility, I sincerely hope, no longer hold water.
I’m not sure my feminist principles would have held so strong if I were on the listing deck of the Costa Concordia, especially if I’d already seen Inspector Clouseau – I mean Capt. Schettino – sailing off in his lifeboat toward the warm lights of safety. Would I have stabbed some poor fellow with an eyeliner and hustled him out of the way, yelling, “Woman here – see you later, buddy”? It’s entirely possible.
How many of us would have listened to Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” had we been on board the Costa Concordia that night? Who would have given his life jacket to his wife, as the former French air force pilot did, telling her “swim straight ahead, I’ll get myself out”? (He didn’t.) Who would have helped others into their life jackets and died trying to save a beloved instrument, as the Hungarian violinist did? Or stayed on the freezing rocks to look after the injured, as did a nurse who’d been on board?
It seems that so much of our fascination with the cruise ship catastrophe comes down to this, a mirror of the most horrible kind. When faced with chaos and crucial split-second decisions, we all hope we’ll be Gregorio De Falco, the coast guard officer who barked at Capt. Schettino in salty Italian to “Get on board, cazzo!” But it’s during those dreadful 4 a.m. wakeups when we worry that we’re more Schettino than De Falco.
Captain De Falco’s wife played down her husband’s actions in an interview with an Italian newspaper. “The worrying thing is that people like my husband who simply do their duty every day immediately become idols, personalities, heroes in this country. That is not normal.” In other words, she’s seen him in the morning before he’s had his coffee. But she also seems to be saying that you don’t need a disaster to rise to the occasion, and you can be a hero at your desk as well as on a ship’s deck. And that includes all the ladies who stayed behind.