Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Why everyone considers him the coward of the Concordia

Fan Meizhong was teaching at Guangya high school in the town of Dujiangyan in China when an earthquake struck in 2008.

Instead of following standard practice, Meizhong shot out of the classroom and onto the football pitches, leaving a class of frightened pupils to save themselves.

Luckily none of the children was hurt but Meizhong caused outrage in China when he candidly said: "I have never been a brave man, and I'm only really concerned about myself."

History, contemporary and otherwise, is littered with cowards.

"Cowards die many times before their deaths,'' said Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, "the valiant never taste of death but once.''

In this instance one can't help but think Franceso Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia, has died a thousand times since his blatant cowardice in the face of adversity has been exposed in the transcript of his conversation with a port official as he made a beeline for dry land, abandoning his ship and all who sailed therein.

Obvious comparison in this newspaper and elsewhere was made between the Concordia and the Titanic, particularly in this year of the Belfast ship's centenary. And of course, the ship they said was unsinkable had its very own coward on board.

Joseph Bruce Ismay, chairman and director of White Star Line of steamships, was on the fated maiden voyage. As the ship was sinking, he fled into a lifeboat without regard for the maritime unwritten code of 'women and children first'. In fact, he abandoned his own wife and children to save his own butt.

Ismay's cowardice became the talk of society. Indeed, in recent history the citizens of the new Texan town of Ismay, on learning of their namesake's escape, "decided to change the name of their community to something - anything - less ignominious".

One might well ask what constitutes cowardice? Ignoble fear in the face of danger or pain.

Is not self-preservation our first and strongest instinct? Altruism merely the trait of few?

Did Yiannis Avranas, former captain of the sunken Greek cruise liner Oceanos, deserve to be castigated as the world's biggest coward back in 1991, after leaving 160 or so passengers on the stricken, listing vessel while he clambered on board a helicopter and made for dry land? Perhaps, and perhaps not.

According to Avranas, all communication was down and he left the ship to better oversee the rescue operation from elsewhere. To many, the experienced seaman had betrayed the first law of life on the ocean waves: the captain is always the last to leave a sinking ship.

In July 1969 the body of Mary Jo Kopechne was found inside a car submerged in a tidal channel off Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts.

US Senator Ted Kennedy later admitted that she had been a passenger in his car the previous evening, and that he had fled the scene of the accident after driving off a bridge. Kennedy still hadn't reported the incident to the authorities the next morning, and only did so at 10am, by which time local fishermen had found the body.

Did Kennedy run from fear or shock? To Mary Jo Kopechne the distinction is irrelevant. The police diver who removed the body later testified: "It took her at least three or four hours to die. I could have had her out of that car 25 minutes after I got the call. But Kennedy didn't call."

The opposite to a coward is the hero.

One thinks of Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger who landed his potentially-doomed jet safely in the Hudson River.

Nearer home was former Translink boss Werner Heubeck who died some years back aged 85, but who diced with death many a time when he bravely tackled suspect devices left on his buses.

Many years ago in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I covered the story of a Viscount plane shot down from the skies by those opposing Ian Smith's minority white rule.

Dentist Cecil McLaren was the hero of the hour as he led a man, two women and five-year-old Tracey Cole, the only survivors among 61 , through hostile guerrilla territory for days, begging water from suspicious villagers, and eventually to safety.

At the time I wrote: "Like Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain, beleaguered among hostile natives, McLaren possessed and displayed what Tracey Cole's mother Sharon calls 'presence of mind and strength of character'.

"And he showed remarkable resilience when ...''

During the time of the Colombia Three, there was a young West of Ireland woman I met up the Magdalena River..

She had a degree from Galway in international politics. It was her first day on the ground with Peace Brigades International (PBI) in what was then the most dangerous country in the world.

The PBI are unique in that their work is to walk, like a guardian angel, alongside people who have been targeted for assassination by rightwing death-squads, leftists guerrillas, narcos or government agents (take your pick), in an unarmed and peaceful show of solidarity in the hope of keeping their charge alive.

They are the bravest people I have met.

I asked her how she was? Fine. How did she feel? Scared, unsure.

"Why do you do it? Put your life on the line ... for complete strangers?''

Her answer came quick and unfailing.

"Someone has to do it? Don't they?''

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