In another life long ago, I was the editor of a boating magazine on Long Island. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself "a sailor," but I came to the job with a bit of boating experience: my dad owned a small motorboat, I'd done some rowing and canoeing in my youth, and I took a short sailing class just before being named the magazine's editor. If I had to assign myself a number (1 being landlubber and 10 being sea captain), I'd be about a 4. I've sailed on the Long Island Sound on friends' boats, serving primarily as "rail meat" on tame adventures where the shoreline was never out of sight. I like being on the water, and while I'm a proficient swimmer I have a healthy respect for boating's inherent dangers. As for the ocean...well, that's another story. My respect is less like healthy and more like terror-filled.
All this to say I've never been on a cruise. I've been close to cruise ships, which for those of you who haven't look more like buildings than boats. They are massive, holding from 2,000 to 5,000 people and featuring restaurants, swimming pools, casinos, nightclubs, bars, spas, fitness centers, movie and live theaters, shops, and all manner of amenities. Not to be confused with ocean liners of old, modern cruise ships have designated routes that rarely take them across an ocean. They are by some descriptions "balcony-laden floating condominiums."
The Friday the 13th sinking of Costa Concordia did not, like its tragic sister Titanic one hundred years ago, result in the deaths of more than 1,500 people. As of this writing, 15 people are confirmed dead and 17 are still missing of the 4,200 aboard. That the number of dead and missing is small does not, however, diminish the tragedy, particularly in light of the ever-blooming story of a daredevil captain who claims to have "tripped into a lifeboat" when explaining his premature departure from the ship. Stories about why the ship was so close to Giglio are varied. Some say Captain Francesco Schettino decided to take the ship for a spin in rocky waters to show off for the locals. In fact, gossip around the island suggests captains compete to see who can get closest to shore. The closer they get, the more thrilling. Then we have Schettino's story, which is that his bosses at the cruise line told him to do it "for publicity." There's also some nonsense about "noisy passengers" distracting the captain, which is so ridiculous as to be dismissed out of hand.
The whys -- other than for reasons of prosecution -- are less important to me than the results. Take the couple from Minnesota, Barbara and Gerald Heil, who according to their children bypassed luxuries all their lives in order to send four kids to private schools from elementary to college. When they retired, they decided to treat themselves and, with great excitement, boarded the Costa Concordia for a 16-day cruise. The Heils are still missing. And then there's Sandor Feher, a Hungarian violinist working on the ship as a musician. In the chaos of the sinking, Mr. Feher helped children don life jackets, then returned to his cabin to retrieve his violin. He was never seen again.
I don't know what will become of the ship captain, nor of the Carnival Cruise Line spin doctors who I'm sure at this moment are in a brand-saving scramble. What I do hope, however, is that Captain Schettino and his superiors will be tortured in their dreams by the cries of frightened and dying passengers who trusted them. I hope they are shamed by the potential damage that 500,000 gallons of spilled fuel might cause to marine life and surrounding waters, and by the colossal ship now abandoned like a broken toy off the coast of Italy. More, though, I hope they are haunted from now until forever by the memory of frugal and caring parents finally taking the trip of their lives, and by the song of a beloved violin, its music silenced for all time by, at the very least, grotesque incompetence, and at worst, by arrogance and thrill-seeking and a contemptible lust for publicity.