Editor's note: Samuel Pecota is an associate professor in the Department of Marine Transportation at the California Maritime Academy and faculty captain of the Training Ship Golden Bear. A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, he was master of the 20,000-ton hopper dredge Stuyvesant from 1989 to 2000. He is author of the textbook "Radar Observer Manual" (sixth edition, 2006).
(CNN) -- The world was shocked and astounded to learn of the wreck of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia off the Tuscan coast. How could a modern, state-of-the-art passenger vessel have succumbed to such a gross navigational error in well-charted waters, in clear visibility and calm conditions?
Details of the events leading up to the grounding are only starting to be gathered by investigators but seem to point toward inappropriate ship handling on the part of Capt. Francesco Schettino. Far more disturbing, however, are the alleged actions of Schettino after his ship was stricken and determined to be sinking. He stands accused of abandoning ship before many of the 4,200 passengers and crew, leaving them without his leadership and guidance during a life-and-death evacuation process.
If the preliminary reports are even half true, these actions should land him squarely in prison.
More than a half-century ago, another Italian passenger liner, the tony, beautiful Andrea Doria, was lost in a collision with the Swedish liner Stockholm 50 miles south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, on a fog shrouded summer's night in July 1956. The captain of the Andrea Doria, Piero Calamai, made several egregious navigational and operational errors that contributed to the accident.
Calamai was running his vessel at more than 20 knots in dense fog in a heavily trafficked area; he had no knowledge of the workings of his vessel's radar set and operated his vessel in a dangerously low state of stability to reduce fuel consumption. These mistakes and others by officers aboard both vessels led directly to the loss of the Andrea Doria, severe damage to Stockholm and the deaths of 46 people. What differentiates the Andrea Doria from the current situation was how Calamai behaved after the collision that ultimately sank his ship.
In Alvin Moscow's "Collision Course," a contemporary account of the Andrea Doria-Stockholm wreck, Calamai understood the blow to his ship to be fatal only minutes after the impact. Moscow writes, "Resigning himself as best he could ... to the loss of his ship, Captain Calamai turned to saving the passengers."
One of the officers asked permission to sound the abandon-ship signal as required by law, but Calamai demurred. He realized the severe list made half of the ship's lifeboats unusable. The ensuing panic when the passengers discovered that there weren't enough lifeboats for everyone was not in the best interests of an orderly evacuation. He hoped other vessels would arrive in time to assist (which they did) before ordering the abandoning of the Andrea Doria.
"Above all, he struggled to maintain the calm deliberateness that had marked his career, determined to set the mood for his fellow officers and crew," Moscow writes.
Unfortunately, many of the vessel's crew did not follow Calamai's example and ran for the boats, ignoring their primary duty to assist the passengers first. Sometime during his supervision of the rescue operations, Calamai turned to one of his officers and said softly, "If you are saved, maybe you can reach Genoa and see my family. ... Tell them I did everything I could."
After satisfying himself that all passengers and crew had been properly evacuated, Calamai had determined to go down with his ship and atone for his mistakes, but his officers talked him out of following the Andrea Doria to her grave. Nevertheless, he made certain he was the last person off the ship.
Calamai was destined never to command another vessel and died a broken man in 1972. While his navigation of the Andrea Doria before the collision was judged after the fact to be woefully deficient and unseamanlike in many respects, his handling of the abandon-ship operations was nothing short of exemplary.
Calamai remains a tragic but eminently respectable figure in maritime history. He understood his supreme responsibility to the passengers and crew of his vessel and faithfully performed his duty to ensure their safety after the collision, which in his heart he knew was largely his fault. A lesser man might have folded under the pressure or ignored his obligations and let instincts of self-preservation disgracefully overwhelm him.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Samuel Pecota.