Maritime Disasters
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Famous Maritime Disasters

Written by Rick Archer
June 2012

The 1912 sinking of the Titanic one hundred years ago is considered to be one of the most famous Disasters of all time. 

Why?  How does the Titanic disaster remain so most famous?

In our previous chapter, we explored the world's most famous non-maritime disasters.  In this chapter, we will cover the maritime disasters.



The sinkings of the Lusitania, Cap Arcona, and Wilhelm Gustloff have little in common with the Titanic. Like 9-11, these were all acts of war.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was a German flagship that sank after being torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in January 1945.  The Wilhelm Gustloff was struck while participating in the evacuation of civilians, military personnel, and Nazi officials who were surrounded by the Red Army in East Prussia.

The Russians weren't particularly happy about this escape effort. Ready Aim Fire. The Gustloff was hit by 3 torpedoes in the Baltic Sea on 30 January 1945. It sank in less than 45 minutes. An estimated 9,400 people were killed in the sinking, the largest known loss of life occurring during a single ship sinking in recorded maritime history.

However, since there wasn't much sympathy for the Nazis at that point, most people just shrugged their shoulders and muttered under their breath they got what they deserved.

The May 1945 sinking of the Cap Arcona four months later was far more poignant. With 5,000 victims, the sinking of the Cap Arcona ranks among the biggest maritime losses of life in history.

The Cap Arcona was a large German luxury ocean liner that transported passengers between Germany and South America until 1940 when it was taken over by the German Navy.

Like the Wilhelm Gustloff, the Cap Arcona was used late in the war for the evacuation of Germans from East Prussia. In addition, the ship was heavily-laden with doomed Jews and other prisoners from Nazi concentration camps. The ship was sunk in 1945 by the Royal Air Force. Already imprisoned deep within the ship, the pitiful Jewish prisoners never had a chance. The ship sank far too quickly to help anyone.

The British fired on the vessel because they believed the ship was full of SS officers trying to escape. Pilots of the attacking force later stated that they were unaware that the ships were laden with prisoners who had somehow survived the camps this far.

These poor people were truly cursed. Sad to say, most of the people who died in the sinking were scheduled to be put to death one way or the other. One plan had them dying at a new German extermination camp while another plan suggested a German U-boat was preparing to sink the ship as the fastest way to eliminate the prisoners. It looks like the RAF unwittingly spared them the trouble. Whatever the truth, it is a tragic story. Drowning is said to be a horrible way to die although how anyone knows this is a mystery to me.

The Cap Arcona incident was not well-publicized at the time. I don't think England was keen about having the story aired. In fact, I had never even heard of the incident until a lecturer mentioned it on the recent Titanic Memorial Cruise. Some people have suggested the sinking of the Cap Arcona was England's revenge for the Lusitania.

To the list, we must add the 1915 sinking of the Cunard luxury liner Lusitania. After being struck by a German torpedo, the Lusitania sank in 18 minutes. 1,200 out of 2,000 passengers died. The Lusitania was hardly a war vessel. These were not only innocent victims, they were totally helpless. The world's outrage was practically identical to the rage people felt after 9-11.  They wanted revenge.

Germany's cheap shot would have repercussions. Germany paid a high price for their mindless behavior. The sinking of the Lusitania led directly to America entering World War I. "Remember the Lusitania" were the words that spelled doom for Germany.



The Titanic differs completely from the disasters above.  Human stupidity played the key role in the Titanic disaster, not human evil. 

Cruise ship disasters are not common, but they do seem to occur more often than people suspect.  When the investigation is over, more often than not some person turns out to have been careless or foolish.

Sad to say, even in our modern times with radar and satellites, there are still seagoing crashes.  For example, on December 20, 1987, the overcrowded Philippine ferry boat, Dona Paz, collided with an oil tanker off the island of Mindoro. The Dona Paz flipped over and sank quickly.  The accident took the lives of 4,536 passengers and crew.

Having survived a hijacking in 1985, the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro met its end on November 30, 1994.  The ship was sailing in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia with 1,000 passengers on board.  It was close to the Horn of Africa when a fire broke out on board in the engine room.  The ship sank two days later.  Talk about a cursed ship!

The Norwegian-owned cruise ship MS Estonia was en route from Estonia to Stockholm, Denmark, on Sept. 28, 1994, when it ran into severe weather in the Baltic Sea overnight and rolled over. Of the nearly 1,000 people on board, 852 people were killed.

Philippine-owned MV Princess of the Stars was sailing off the coast of Sibuyan island, located in central Philippines. Suddenly the 24,000 ton vessel was caught in the path of Typhoon Fengshen and capsized in rough seas on June 21, 2008. Of the over 800 passengers and crew on board, only about 30 people survived.

Let's face it - despite all precautions and new safety features, the ocean is still dangerous.  However on closer inspection, it often turns out that human error at fault more often than rough seas.  I will now tell the story of three modern day cruise ship disasters that are darkly reminiscent of the Titanic story.  As you will read, human error played a key role in each story.

The tale of the Andrea Doria is a perfect example of human stupidity causing a major maritime disaster. The Andrea Doria was an enormous Italian cruise liner that sunk in a collision with a Swedish ship named the Stockholm. The accident took placein 1956 just outside the New York harbor. The main culprit was fog. The other culprit was the heavy traffic outside the NY harbor. On paper, the accident didn't make much sense. After all, the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm were equipped with radar. This collision should never have happened. But it did.

Both ships knew the other ship was in the area, but they couldn't "see" with their own eyes. At the last moment, the helmsman aboard the Stockholm was stunned to see the Andrea Doria appear out of nowhere in the fog. Forced to make a snap decision, he panicked and made a horrible mistake. He turned his ship head on to aim straight at the Andrea Doria. By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late.

The Stockholm rammed the front of the Andrea Doria broadside, creating a huge gash. Struck in the side, the top-heavy Andrea Doria immediately started to list severely to starboard. There was no doubt this ship was doomed. The luxury liner soon capsized. It sank beneath seas the following morning.

46 people died in the collision. Fortunately, the rescue effort went smoothly and there were no further casualties. The crew did its job well taking care of the passengers. 1,660 passengers and crew survived.

Although the crew performed brilliantly on the Andrea Doria, we all know this is not something we can take for granted.  The story of the Oceanos will demonstrate this point conclusively.

The MTS Oceanos was a Greek-owned cruise ship that sank off South Africa's eastern coast.  On 3 August 1991, the Oceanos set out from East London, South Africa, headed to Durban, South Africa.

The ship headed into 40-knot winds and 30 foot swells. Usually there would have been a "sail-away" party on deck with musicians and entertainers. However, due to the rough sea conditions, this event was held inside at the lounge. They probably should have just cancelled.  Most passengers chose to stay in their cabins because the rough seas were making everyone miserable. The ship continued nevertheless.

The storm worsened as the evening progressed. When the first seating of dinner was served, the waiters could hardly carry the trays of food without dropping something. The ship was rolling about from side to side so badly that crockery and cutlery began sliding off the tables and potted plants all over the ship were toppling.

At 9:30 pm, a muffled explosion was heard. The Oceanos lost her power following a leak in the engine room's sea chest. Water was entering the hull and flooding the generator room. The generators were shut down because the rising water would have short circuited them. The ship was left floating adrift in the rough seas without power.

The water level in the ship steadily rose. It flowed through a 4 inch hole in the bulkhead and into the sewage waste disposal tank. Without check valves in the holding tank, the water coursed through the main drainage pipes and rose through the ship, spilling out of showers, toilets, and waste disposal units. Can you imagine?

Realizing the fate of the ship, the crew down below fled upstairs in panic. They neglected to close the lower deck portholes, which is standard policy during emergencies. Incredibly, no alarm was raised. Passengers remained ignorant of the events taking place below until they witnessed the first signs of flooding in the lower decks themselves. Imagine the panic thanks to the lack of warning.

At this stage, eyewitness accounts reveal that many of the crew, including Captain Avranas, were already packed up and ready to depart. The captain quickly got his family into a boat and joined them. The crew was seemingly unconcerned with the safety of the passengers.

Nearby vessels responded to the ship's SOS and were the first to provide assistance. The South African Navy along with the South African Air Force launched a seven-hour mission in which 16 helicopters were used to airlift the passengers and crew to safety.

All 571 people on board were saved thanks to a hero who emerged from nowhere.  Moss Hills, hired on as a singer, is the man who organized the orderly evacuation of passengers by the helicopters.

The following day, the Oceanos rolled over onto her side and her stern rose upright and sank.

Here is a quote from one of the people rescued: "Moss Hill was one of the heroes from the Oceanos. In fact Moss was the person that put the harness over me.  He personally saw to it that I was air lifted to safety from the Oceanos. Without Moss I would not be here today to tell the story. So many of us owe him our lives for being there to orchestrate the rescue operation."

One of the last five people off the ship, Hills was acknowledged as the only person from the ship's crew who stayed behind to help. Later on, Hills was quite modest about it. He pointed to his wife Tracy and said she deserved just as much credit as he did.

What an absurd story!  You and I would laugh our heads off if we saw a made-for-TV movie where the crew fled and all the passengers were saved by the singers! Except in this case, that's exactly what happened. You find heroes in the most unlikely places.

The Captain of the Oceanos, Yiannis Avranas, was accused by the passengers of leaving hundreds behind with no one other than the ship's onboard entertainers to help them evacuate. Avranas claimed that he left the ship first so he could better arrange for a rescue effort.  He said he personally supervised the rescue from a helicopter.

Captain Avranas stated, "When I give the order to abandon ship, it doesn't matter what time I leave. Abandon is for everybody. If some people want to stay, they can stay."

The story of the Oceanus is not well-known since no lives were lost at sea… no thanks to the despicable Captain of course. 

The question is, what was he doing taking his ship into such rough waters in the first place?

By the way, does the behavior of the Captain of the Oceanos remind you of someone else?  Yeah. What's his name… uh… yeah, the Captain of the Costa Concordia!!


Who can overlook the crazy parallels between the 2012 Costa Concordia sinking and the story of the Titanic? 

In the case of Costa Concordia, it is ridiculous to think a modern cruise ship could be crippled so effortlessly. A glancing blow to the side of the ship by an underwater rock was all it took to sink this ship despite the latest in modern safety features. Somewhere in the deep, the ghosts of the Titanic surely stirred. This kill-shot gash in the side of the ship was eerily reminiscent of their own ship's demise.

Afterwards Captain Schettino of the Concordia claimed the accident wasn't his fault. It was surely an act of God. He claimed his ship had struck an underwater rock that wasn't on the map.

"Oh mio dio, questo è terribile!"  Omigod, what a tough break!!

However, what was the Captain doing deliberately taking the ship so close to shore in the first place?  Study the picture of the ship's route.

Testimony from members of the crew indicated the captain had caused the disaster by veering the ship too close to shore where it hit a rock. They added the damning suggestion that Schettino had done so in a bravura "salute" to residents of Giglio, a Tuscan island off Italy's coast.

Just to give you an idea how poorly Schettino behaved that night, let me share the famous exchange Schettino had with Italian Coast Guard commander Gregorio de Falco during the frantic moments after the accident. If you have never read this before, you better brace yourself.

De Falco: This is De Falco of the Coast Guard speaking from Livorno. Am I speaking with the commander?

Schettino: Yes. Good evening, Commander De Falco.

De Falco: Please tell me your name.

Schettino: I'm Commander Schettino, commander.

De Falco:  Schettino?  Listen Schettino.  I understand that you are not presently on the ship.  There are people trapped on board.  Now you go with your boat under the prow on the starboard side. There is a pilot ladder. You will climb that ladder and go on board. You go on board and then you will tell me how many people there are. Is that clear? I'm recording this conversation, Cmdr Schettino ...

Schettino: Commander, let me tell you one thing ...

De Falco: Speak up!  Put your hand in front of the microphone and speak more loudly, is that clear?

Schettino:  In this moment, the boat is tipping ...

De Falco: I understand that, listen, there are people that are coming down the pilot ladder of the prow. You go up that pilot ladder, get on that ship and tell me how many people are still on board. And what they need. Is that clear? You need to tell me if there are children, women or people in need of assistance. And tell me the exact number of each of these categories. Is that clear?  Listen Schettino, that you saved yourself from the sea, but I am going to ... really do something bad to you ... I am going to make you pay for this. Go on board! (expletive)!

(At this point, De Falco lost his temper.  De Falco grew so angry at Schettino's stalling that he screamed, "Vada a bordo, cazzo!"
which can be translated as "Get the fuck back on board the ship!"

Schettino:  Commander, please ...

De Falco: No, please. You now get up and go on board. They are telling me that on board there are still ...

Schettino:  I am here with the rescue boats, I am here, I am not going anywhere, I am here ...

De Falco: (screaming) What are you doing, commander?

Schettino: I am here to co-ordinate the rescue ...

De Falco: What are you coordinating there? Go on board! Coordinate the rescue from aboard the ship! Are you refusing?

Schettino: No, I am not refusing.

De Falco: Are you refusing to go aboard, commander? Can you tell me the reason why you are not going?

Schettino: I am not going because the other lifeboat is stopped.

De Falco: You will go aboard. It is an order. Don't make any more excuses! You have declared "abandon ship".  Now I am in charge. You go on board! Is that clear? Do you hear me? Go, and call me when you are aboard. My air rescue crew is there.

Schettino: Where are your rescuers?

De Falco: My air rescue is on the prow. Go. There are already bodies in the water, Schettino.

Schettino: How many bodies are there?

De Falco: I don't know. I have heard of one. My God, you are the one who has to tell me how many there are!  Christ!

Schettino:  But do you realize it is dark and here we can't see anything!

De Falco: And so what? You want to go home, Schettino? It is dark and you want to go home?  Get on that prow of the boat using the pilot ladder and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what their needs are.  Now!

Schettino:  ... I am with my second in command.

De Falco: So both of you go up then ... You and your second go on board now. Is that clear?

Schettino: Commander, I want to go on board, but it is simply that the other boat here … there are other rescuers. It has stopped and is waiting ...

De Falco: It has been an hour that you have been telling me the same thing. Now, go on board. Go on board! And then tell me immediately how many people there are there.

Schettino: OK, commander.

De Falco: Go, immediately!

That is a truly remarkable exchange.  As the world around the world read the transcript, they shook their head in genuine disgust.

Schettino was later dubbed "Captain Coward" by the press. 

For the record, like Schettino, Captain Smith of the Titanic made made serious errors in judgment as well, but he was certainly no coward.  Smith never abandoned the Titanic.  Captain Smith stayed aboard the ship awaiting his certain fate right up to the bitter end. 

The same could not be said of Captain Schettino.


The stories of the Titanic, the Oceanus, the Costa Concordia and the Andrea Doria demonstrate that people in command sometimes show judgment that is so poor the rest of us just gape in open-mouthed shock. 

However, in all these stories, the behavior of Schettino on the Costa Concordia absolutely takes the cake.  This man was wrong on so many different levels it staggers the imagination.

For starters, what is the number one cause of serious car accidents after alcohol?  Take a quick guess. The answer, of course, is texting or talking on a cell phone while driving.  It results in loss of concentration and it requires the driver to take his eye off the road.  Both errors lead to serious accidents.

Schettino will go down in history as the first captain to ever wreck a cruise liner because he was on the phone.  In fact, he actually used the phone as one of his excuses.  In an interview with the Italian TV channel Canale 5 on 10 July 2012, Schettino stated that the distraction by this telephone call had been a contributing factor to the accident.

Can you imagine the nerve of using the telephone as an excuse for killing 32 people?  Any ordinary human being would prostrate themselves on the floor and beg for forgiveness through weeping tears.  Schettino is no ordinary human being.  You have to wonder how on earth this man achieved a position of such great responsibility. 

And who, exactly, was Schettino talking to?

According to Wikipedia, at the time of impact, Captain Schettino was on the telephone with retired Captain Mario Palombo, a buddy of his.  Palombo lived on the isle of Giglio. 

Schettino was busy telling Palombo, "Seeing as we're passing your island soon, we'll sound the siren for you."

In addition, at the captain's invitation, the maître d'hôtel of the ship, who is from the same island, came to the ship's bridge to view the island during the sail-past.  Furthermore, Schettino's mistress was said to be up there too.  Let's have a party!

It is safe to say Schettino was not paying very good attention that day. 

Modern ships have all sorts of safety equipment.  The only thing modern ships do not have are "stupidity detectors".

Costa Cruises later confirmed that the course taken was "not a defined, computer programmed route for passing Giglio."

So what does that mean?  Costa Cruises CEO Pier Luigi Foschi explained that the company's ships have computer-programmed routes.  There are "alarms that go off if the ship deviates by any reason from the stated route as stored in the computer and as controlled by the GPS". 

So why didn't any alarms go off?

Foschi admitted that these alarms could be "manually" overridden. 

And who do you suppose turned them off?

Captain Schettino stated that, before approaching the island, he had turned off the alarm system for the ship's computer navigation system. "I was navigating by sight, because I knew those seabeds well. I had done the move three, four times."

Schettino obviously didn't know the seabeds that well.  Some nasty, uncharted rock beneath the waves was waiting for him.  Distracted, Schettino did not notice waves breaking on the unseen reef until it was too late to take appropriate action.

Schettino told investigators that he looked up, saw waves breaking on the reef and turned abruptly.  This swung the side of the hull into the reef. In other words, Schettino over-reacted to the danger because he wasn't paying attention and inadvertently made the ship even more vulnerable. 

"I have to take responsibility for the fact that I made a judgment error." 

No kidding.

The captain had initially stated that the ship had been about 300 metres (980 ft) from the shore (about the length of the vessel) when it hit an uncharted rock.  Next, Schettino blamed the maps for his mistake. 

"That rock was not on the chart!"

With such serious errors in judgment, the entire world naturally assumed that surely Schettino had been drinking or was on some sort of drugs.

Surprisingly, Schettino passed a drug test.  On 19 February 2012, the Associated Press reported that traces of cocaine had been found on Schettino's hair samples "but not within the hair strands or in his urine — which would have indicated he had used the drug". 

In other words, Schettino had not used cocaine himself, but had likely been in close contact with someone who had. 

As investigators dug deeper, they discovered Schettino had smuggled a mistress on board.  Domnica Cemortan, 25, reportedly did not appear on any official manifest for the Costa Concordia.  A former dancer and crew member, Cemortan later told Italian investigators that she was on the bridge as a "guest" of the captain at the time of the crash.

While Ms Cemortan was not accused of any offense, her testimony played a key role in establishing exactly what happened on the bridge that night and whether the captain was distracted.

While drugs did not contribute to the accident, there is a strong possibility alcohol was involved.  Based on reports from several passengers, just minutes before Costa Concordia cruise ship accident at around 9.40pm on 13 January, Captain Francesco Schettino was having an intimate dinner with a blonde and young girl.  They were sharing some wine.

One passenger claimed that he saw the captain having dinner with an unidentified slim blonde woman and another officer shortly before the vessel hit the rocks.  They were both drinking from a decanter of red wine in the ship's best restaurant

Angelo Fabbri, from Savona, said that he and his wife saw Captain Schettino in the Concordia Club restaurant at 9:05 pm on the evening of the accident. A menu was served for special guests: prawn cocktails, pasta with shrimps and a fish grill.

"Schettino, in a dark suit, was sitting in front of the woman. She seemed young. At first, we thought it was his daughter. A pretty woman, 25 or 30 years old, slim, with shoulder-length blonde hair, with a black dress with open arms," he told Il Secolo XIX newspaper in Genoa.

"They were laughing. There was trust between them, great happiness. There is no doubt they were drinking, at least a whole decanter. The last drop was poured into the captain's glass."

"They left the table crossing the room single file, walking between the tables: first Schettino, then the woman and finally the third diner."

Following the tragic accident, Miss Cemortan was one of the first off the ship. The critics had a field day, saying her quick getaway helped to establish what Schettino's priorities were on that tragic night.

In an interview with a Moldovan TV station, the 25-year-old mother of two admitted that she was falling for the captain despite the fact that he had his wife and a teenage daughter back home. Cemortan stated, “I love him!  It's not right to destroy his reputation!”

She added, “I was on the bridge because I was in love with the captain. I found him charming and fascinating. I love him!"

Despite the fact that Captain Schettino was one of the first to be off the ship, Cemortan insisted, “Captain Coward' is actually a hero. He did a great thing, he saved over 3000 lives!”

There you go.  Talk about Stand by your Man!  This is definitely a 'let's look on the bright side' kind of girl. In the eyes of his mistress, Schettino was remarkable for his heroic efforts to save everyone from his safe location on shore. 

Italian media reported that Cemortan did not have a cabin.  Apparently divers entered Schettino's cabin after the accident and discovered some of Cemortan's clothing and belongings.  Finally the mystery of where the love-starved stowaway had been sleeping was solved.

One would assume that having killed 32 people, injured 64 others, destroyed a $650 million cruise ship, and created a gigantic environmental threat, Schettino would show at least some sense of remorse and responsibility. 

Not this guy.  Schettino was prepared to shock the world again.

In October 2012, eight months after the accident, the disgraced captain of the Costa Concordia filed suit against Costa Cruise Lines for wrongful dismissal.

This was preposterous!  One paper quipped that Schettino had accomplished the impossible.  All of Italy was quiet for an entire minute at the news.  The utter audacity of the action had apparently left the entire country speechless with outrage.

The outrage wasn't hard to understand. After all, this is a captain who interrupted dinner with his mistress only long enough to run his ship into the rocks, kill 32 of his crew and guests and then hop into a lifeboat at the first opportunity to leave the carnage he caused behind. 

Defying the tradition that called for the Captain to be the last off the ship, no one had ever heard of a Captain being the first off the ship before.  And now he was upset that they fired him.  "I wasn't my fault!!"

Eventually everyone got their voices back.  Someone wrote they hoped he would be found "guilty of arrogance in the first degree."

One lawyer suggested Schettino could follow up with a "slip and fall" lawsuit. "I hurt my back while I was trying to escape!"

Another questioned why Schettino didn't ask for a commendation based on "rapid abandonment of a ship beyond the call of duty". 

My favorite was: "Captain Coward didn't like his nickname, so he changed it to Captain Chutzpah."

Clearly the all-time poster boy for outright gall is our forlorn Captain Schettino.

I think this man has set the standard for "arrogance" so high that the world may end before anyone ever tops this guy.   



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