Like many of you out there, I am utterly stunned by the amazingly horrific images of the recent Costa Concordia disaster off the Island of Giglio, on the western coast of Italy. The footage showing the ship gradually listing to its side, with people hysterically holding on as they are clumsily lowered to the sea in their lifeboats, as passengers and crew scramble for a life jacket, and a huge gash in the ship’s side finally unveils an enormous rock still piercing what remains of the ship’s hull above the waterline, is simply gripping. For many reasons, the press has understandably reminded us that this year commemorates the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the worst maritime disaster of its day.
I confess I haven’t come across any relatives, even remotely related to me, who perished in the sinking of the White Star liner. The Titanic was making its first crossing ever, covering the line from Southampton to New York (via Cherbourg and Queenstown, now called Cobh), and was carrying over 2,200 souls onboard when it grazed past an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sunk in just over two hours. I can’t say it’s actually sad not have had relatives on the Titanic, but it would certainly make a good story to include in the family history. But as my grandfather actually crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, and as there is no shortage of relatives who went down with their respective ships (in wartime I have to say) in my family, we’ll let it rest.
Someone who did have a relative on the Titanic was Valentina Capuano, a 30 year-old Italian who was travelling on the Costa Concordia last week when the ship ran into some rocks after apparently getting too close to the shore. Capuano, like most of the 4,000-odd passengers on the ship, managed to get off the sinking vessel and survived. Her great-uncle, Giovanni, was not so lucky. Giovanni (I haven’t managed to find his full name) had been hired by the White Star Line as a steward; his plan was to finish the trip and remain in America, where he would start afresh. Sadly, he never made it there. He was among the 1,500 passengers and crew who either drowned or froze to death on the terrible night of 14/15th April 1912. His great-niece has told the Italian press how often her grandmother would recollect her own brother’s sad loss on the Titanic so many years ago. Now Capuano herself has managed to survive another maritime disaster, but fortunately has survived to tell not only her own story, but also to remember Giovanni’s.
Of course, there are similarities between both disasters: there was a large amount of neglect on behalf of both the ships’ Captains (Captain Smith and Captain Schettino, respectively) which greatly contributed to the sinking of both ships; the vessels were not only quoted as being beautiful and comfortably equipped, but they rated among the best and biggest ships of their day. Safety regulations apparently made them seemingly unsinkable, or at least very tough if things happened to go wrong (although no cruise line would dare saying so now), but once again we are cruelly reminded that we still have a lot to learn from ourselves.
But despite the press’s eagerness to link the Titanic and Costa Concordia disasters, I think that there too many differences between the two catastrophes to make such comparisons even remotely justified, even with the Capuano story. Although the loss of life on the Titanic was many times greater than on the Concordia, the evacuation in 1912 certainly seemed a lot more civilised and humane than in 2012. “Women and children first” was a rule almost religiously observed a century ago. Then what happened on the Concordia last week? The Titanic’s crew may not have known much about safety measures at the time, but by Jove they behaved a lot better and certainly more honourably than many members of crew on the Concordia, particularly the officers. And what about the Captain’s behaviour? Captain E.J. Smith went down bravely with his ship; had he survived he certainly would have had to face the judicial enquiry into the sinking. Even more importantly, had he made a run for it, his professional career would have suffered, despite the fact that he was planning to retire shortly afterwards. Schettino behaved in exactly the opposite way as Smith. Not only did he abandon his post and obligation to evacuate the ship, but he actually left the ship itself about an hour after the Concordia rammed into the rocky seabed at Giglio, leaving hundreds if not thousands of people onboard to fend for themselves. (Obviously, Schettino thinks it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion, as they quote in one of my favourite films.) So far almost a dozen casualties have been accounted for, and over 20 people are still missing somewhere inside the ship’s hull, with slim possibilities of being found alive.
But going back to genealogy, do you have any people on your family tree who were in any way involved in a maritime disaster? Did they survive? What was their story? Tell us about it!