Belfast Telegraph

Tragic reminder of the unforgiving nature of the sea

Ship safety may have improved since Titanic. But, as the Costa Concordia shows, we're no nearer to taming the oceans' power, says Malachi O'Doherty

Who would have thought that, in the centenary year of the sinking of the Titanic, one of the first great images in the media would be of a toppled luxury liner?

Once again, we have the stories of people scrambling over the hulk of a humbled ship. We hear from the dancers and the crew - even from the grim-faced captain, who must be kicking himself for having brought so much woe on others and on himself.

But if the Titanic's demise was a warning against human presumption - the fantasy that we could rule the waves and engineer perfect safety for the rich and self-indulgent, as well as for the hungry immigrant, what does the death of a great cruiser in calm Mediterranean waters tell us?

We all assume that these ships are as solid as the skyscrapers on dry land that they resemble.

They have populations on the scale of small towns, serviced by shopping malls and diverse entertainment.

Some people dream of living all year round on such ships, for they have everything that a whole community would need.

They are popular and they are trusted. Until now, the greatest risk to vacationers seemed to be that they would catch a stomach infection, magnified in its threat by the closeness of the passengers to each other and the hermetic ecosystem of the floating resort.

All of the modern, familiar risks have been anticipated; there is close security to screen out the possible terrorist with a bomb, or a gun. A passenger who admits to having diahorrea can be safely quarantined.

And the technical resources available to spot changes in the weather, ships at close quarters and map the surface of the water both below and ahead should guarantee the free and safe passage of the liner over the most turbulent waters in the deepest and darkest of mists.

But what guarantee is there against human folly?

If a captain wants to trust to a notion that he can scrape his way around the wrong side of an island, or wing it over shallow water as blithely as a country boy on his first bike jumping the lights, then what real protection is there for the thousands of revellers and sleeping passengers in his charge?

One mistake, or crazed notion later and the whole world wakes to astonishing footage of an enormous cruise ship lying on its side and listens to the shocking stories of people scrambling for lifeboats, forming human chains to guide people in the dark - some of them bravely staying on to the very end, some not making it off at all.

What is so compelling about those pictures is that they belong to another time.

People felt the same when they looked at the pictures of the Titanic.

They believed - as we have believed more confidently - that the seas were safe for grandmothers to take the holiday of a lifetime on.

The sinking of the Titanic was an awesome rebuke to a world that thought itself modern and in charge of nature.

How much more worrying should it be for our generation to see the Costa Concordia lying on its side? And to know that solving the questions raised by the physical vulnerability of the Titanic has not answered the key question at all - that of how people are to be made safe at sea.

For weather, ice and warfare are not the only threats when a man in charge of a stable colossus on calm waters can bring it to grief.

The death toll so far is small. That seems a miracle. And we learn from the accounts of those who thought they were finished just how people behave when they face the end.

As the people in hijacked planes and the Twin Towers did, they phoned home to have contact with those they loved.

We will not get the same scrutiny, or analysis, of how people reacted in the face of more routine dangers.

On the same weekend that the Costa Concordia sank, five men were lost from a trawler, the Tit Bonhomme, that sank off the coast of Cork struggling for home through strong winds and heavy seas. One of them, Kevin Kershaw, was a young student on work experience.

But death at sea is not routine and even fishing accidents are rare now. It is just particularly ironic when a ship is brought down by no perceptible cause other than folly.

It matters to us for practical, familiar reasons, because of the numbers of people from here who take such holidays, with the surest sense that they will enjoy themselves and return home intact, as they nearly always do.

But who could look at an image as disturbing as the toppled Costa Concordia and not feel a queasy sense that we've all been wrong all along about what is dependable in this world.

That is the question the Titanic raised, too. And the fates seem almost to be sniggering at us on the anniversary.

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