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Facing Disaster, What Is A Ship's Captain Expected To Do?

The Costa Concordia lies stranded in the Giglio harbor on Tuesday.
Filippo Monteforte
The Costa Concordia lies stranded in the Giglio harbor on Tuesday.

The captain of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia has been pilloried by many for what they say was cowardice in the wake of the accident off the coast of Tuscany Friday.

The dramatic recordings of the exchange between Coast Guard Capt. Gregorio De Falco's and Capt. Francesco Schettino, reveal a captain unwilling to return to the listing ship, even as De Falco mocks him.

But under maritime law, what was Schettino supposed to do?

NPR's Talk of the Nation explored the role of civilian ship captains Tuesday with maritime lawyer Bob Jarvis. And while Schettino has been excoriated in the media for leaving the Costa before the evacuation was complete, Bob Jarvis says it's a common misconception that captains are expected to "go down with the ship."

"The captain has never been expected to be the last to leave. That's a romantic notion," says Jarvis, professor of maritime law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It is true that many captains won't leave their ship until all hope is lost, but we certainly don't expect captains to commit suicide."

In some cases, Jarvis says the most appropriate place for a captain is, in fact, off the vessel.

"You want the captain where he's in the best position to supervise, to organize [and] to direct." But once local authorities have taken control — as the Italian Coast Guard did in the Costa's case — the captain is required to respond to their orders.

Jarvis says Schettino also shouldn't be blamed for the crew's poor training, if that emerges to be a factor in the disaster. That responsibility, he says, lies with the cruise line, Costa Crociere, in conjunction with the Italian Coast Guard and Costa Crociere's insurers. "But if the captain either knew or should have known that his crew was not up to snuff — that's something certainly the captain would be expected to relay back to his superiors."

Many are likening the Costa incident to the Titanic disaster in 1912, but Jarvis says the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident is a more apt analogy. The Valdez captain, Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, was accused of drunkenness while on duty.

"Captain Hazelwood was very quickly set adrift by his employers, who tried to put the blame on him," Jarvis says. "[But] who hired him? Who trained him? Who oversaw him, kept putting him back in charge of a huge supertanker?"

That's not to say that Schettino is blameless, Jarvis stresses. Civilian ship captains are ultimately responsible for their vessels, and Schettino took his ship off course, allegedly failed to sound the alarm and the distress signal, and may have failed to follow orders after ceding control of the rescue operation.

"The one thing that is already very clear from this disaster is there is lots and lots of blame," says Jarvis. "A lot of people did a lot of things wrong."

(April Fehling is a producer on NPR's Talk of the Nation.)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

April Fehling