Everyday Safety: The decision to act

The Costa Concordia sinks (lifeboats in foreground). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I enjoy watching YouTube videos on many things. Everyone has a phone camera now and it’s fascinating to watch people everywhere, going about their daily lives and recording interesting things.

And sometimes our videos catch something else.

I watched one last week by passengers of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, who recorded what was happening during its 2012 sinking that killed 27 passengers and five crew (plus a worker during the subsequent salvage).

The event

The ship was on a night cruise in the Mediterranean, and Captain Francesco Schettino wanted to approach a small island in the area and salute it with the ship’s horn, a common custom in the region.

Submerged rocks surround Isola del Giglio, so most ships stand off at a distance of a few kilometres as a safety margin.

On this night, Schettino wanted to impress his guests and he reduced the distance to about 1.6 km. The ship struck a rock as it was turning away from the island, which tore a hole in its side. Passengers described a sound similar to what I have experienced on the former P.E.I. icebreaking ferry Abegweit. The whole ship would vibrate as it hit the ice, with lots of hammering and grinding noises. It was a similar feeling for those cruise passengers on that night, except they didn’t know what was happening and they weren’t on an ice breaker.

Common themes
I watched a few similar videos to research this article, and it occurred to me that there were common themes in each one.

Bad things are not in our routine.

We humans cope with daily life by having a routine; if we didn’t, getting up in the morning and going to work would be total confusion. So, when some huge, unusual event occurs in the middle of this routine, like when passengers are watching a variety show on a cruise ship and then the whole ship vibrates like it was breaking ice and next most of the lights go out, they get confused.

Francesco Schettino

Something similar happened to the captain. You could hear disbelief and confusion in his voice and probably denial as well. He didn’t intentionally drive his ship onto the rock, and perhaps thought it was a minor strike, only knocking out the generator and scraping the hull.

We don’t expect bad things will happen to us in our daily life and if they do, maybe they’re not really so bad after all. The folks on that ship didn’t expect that it would sink. So, in the video, some people when back to their cabins, as they were being told by the crew members to keep calm.

The crew also didn’t know what happened and they wouldn’t expect it to be a serious problem, either, since they’ve never before been in a sinking ship. Psychologists call this “cognitive bias”—making decisions based on things that we have experienced in our past or based on the information that we already know.

We are taught to follow rules and we assume that those in charge are properly trained for this situation, are competent, and have more information than we do.

In the videos, the ship’s staff sounded authoritative, so initially passengers patiently obeyed instructions like “return to your cabin and wait for further instruction.”

As I watched the videos, I kept thinking “What would I have done there, as a passenger?” I have the benefit of knowing that the ship would actually sink, so my opinion is biased.

The captain didn’t know immediately that the ship was sinking, neither did the crew. Passengers finally started heading to the lifeboats of their own accord, once they saw crew members wearing life jackets in the passageways. That’s what I would have done as well.

People are not stupid; in my research I didn’t read that anyone waited in their cabins and drowned there. Most who died inside where trapped due to damage from the collision, and some drowned later after jumping overboard.

The order to abandon ship was given 40 minutes after the collision, when everyone saw that the deck was starting to tilt. By that time, the passengers (helping waiters and other workers) had started launching the lifeboats by themselves.

My sinking boat
Years ago, I was sailing on a lake with my brother Kevin, going at top speed and we hit a submerged rock. It almost threw him off the bow. I didn’t realize that we were sinking until about 15 minutes later, when the boat became slow and sluggish.

My point is that it took me 15 minutes to figure out, in daylight, that my five-metre sailboat was sinking and that we should get to shore. So, it’s understandable that those aboard a 115,000-ton ship, cruising at night, with the lights out, and with no good communication, should take 40 minutes to determine the same thing.

In the video, it was clear that the captain didn’t have all the information. It was out of his regular everyday routine, so he delayed making the decision to abandon ship. Later, it was revealed that he didn’t call the coast guard, but instead called his company for advice.

That decision makes sense if he assumed that his ship was not sinking. His ship was afloat and only 300 metres from shore. He took some time so that he could put out an anchor and get advice about getting a tow, or maybe even to have someone at his company make the decision for him. What would happen to his career, if he personally made the decision to abandon a perfectly good ship when it was unnecessary? No one would have made that phone call unless they thought they had time to spare.

Training to act
Years ago, I trained to be a pilot. One part that sticks with me is the checklist for an emergency landing.

  • Keep flying. Don’t panic and don’t lose control of the airplane.
  • Never try to turn back. Attempting to reverse course often exacerbates your problems, and has caused many crashes.
  • Pick your spot. This forces you decide where to land and to start taking the steps to get down as safely and as slowly as possible.

If the Costa Concordia‘s captain clearly knew that his ship was sinking, he would have chosen to act and picked his spot.

For any decision, you only have four options: do something, choose not to do something, delay the decision, make no decision and watch events unfold.

If I have information and there is no time pressure, I often chose to defer a decision. For example, should you decide now to keep fixing an old car or to buy a new one? If it’s still safe to drive, why not keep it a bit longer? Should you get your roof redone this year or next year? If the roof is in fair shape and all the shingles are still on, perhaps it will last another year. Delaying a decision can be a good thing since you can take your time and find a good deal on a new car or get your roof repaired when there is a special offer. Making decisions under pressure is different.

The ship’s captain had all the technical skills and experience in order to get the job, but his daily routine as a cruise ship captain probably didn’t include deciding to abandon ship or practising when to do it.

Many observers harsh on the captain, not because he delayed the decision to abandon, but because of a poor decision he made afterwards in leaving his ship early, while there were still hundreds of passengers on board. Not everyone can be a hero. The result was that he carried the majority of the blame and is serving 16 years in prison.

You can’t prepare for every situation, so it’s important to understand how and why people make decisions, so you’re prepared to think fast when the unexpected happens.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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