In 2007, my husband and I sailed the western Mediterranean on the Costa Concordia, so it was with awe and fascination that I watched it sink off the coast of Italy.  I kept wondering what it would have been like to be sitting in the dining room when it struck the rock, then the fear and panic as the ship listed heavily to the side.  

Then I realized that many of the passengers were in their first day of the cruise, having boarded at the port in Civitavecchia (an hour from Rome) before they had even done life boat drills or knew where their muster stations were, although we joked that the ship was such a maze it would be hard to find the muster station again anyway, and I noted that our muster station captain, Italian Jamie Bamber (as I called him), had limited English comprehension.  I also wondered if we would have been in the dining room or would have been sleeping off our jet lag in our cabin, an even scarier prospect.  And I couldn’t help but think of the cruise we took a year later on the Costa Serena (Concordia’s sister ship) with our 3 kids.  Being in a shipwreck with our kids was a far more sobering thought.

Costa is an Italian cruise line, so over half the passengers were Italian.  Spaniards were the next largest group in our sailing.  English speakers were only 4th of the 5 languages supported, and that was partly because many eastern European languages were not supported, so those passengers chose to take their instructions in English.  Each ship’s announcement was very long (some lasted 10-15 minutes!) as it had to be repeated 5 times, starting with Italian, then going on to Spanish, French, English, and German.  During our English language orientation that was geared mostly toward the Brits (there were few Americans), we were told not to be offended that people crowded and pushed rather than queued, and that we needed to do likewise or be left out.  Not to worry, we were told, this was just a cultural difference and not in any way rude behavior.  Another observation we made was that while the majority of customer-facing crew members spoke Italian, many of the departments on the ship consisted of groups that spoke other languages (e.g. the kitchen staff was Romanian), and didn’t have the ability to communicate in other languages.  At times it was difficult to find an English or Spanish speaking crew member (the only two languages in which we had a good chance at holding a conversation; we tried to meet the Italians halfway by speaking Spanish with an Italian accent, but it was a non-starter).

Cut to January 2012.  There were examples of heroics in the sinking (a husband giving the only life vest he had to his wife who couldn’t swim; she survived, he died), and cowardice (the damning recorded conversation with ship abandoning Captain Shettino).  Several people talked about large male passengers scrambling over the others to get to life boats, pushing down women and children in the process.  When a mother asked why they were not following “Women and children first,” she reported that a crew member said that it was “Every man for himself” and that the notion was no longer followed.  According to passengers, there was little time to think once “Abandon ship!” had been called and the ship lay on its side in cold waters.

We recently revisited the traveling Titanic Exhibit here in Singapore.  Each of our family members received a name of an actual passenger, and at the end we discovered their fate.  Both my daughter and I survived, while all 3 of our men folk met an icy death in the cold northern Atlantic.  In fact, 75% of women survived, while over 75% of men (who were living at the height of patriarchal society) died.  That disaster (the real one, not the James Cameron wooden dialogue version) had many examples of heroic behavior, and tearful separations as women were saved while their men died.  In contrast to the Concordia disaster, the ship stayed mostly upright until the end, and the disaster occurred when most passengers were alert and up top rather than belowdecks. 

For practical reasons, children and many women would not be able to compete lifeboat space with much stronger, larger men.  In the Concordia disaster, several who could swim made it to shore on their own.  Yet, a parent weighted down with hysterical children trying to swim hundreds of yards is not feasible.  My kids are capable of being hysterical when there are too many bell peppers in their dinner, so I can only imagine them in a maritime disaster.

Is the notion of “Women and children first” antiquated or impractical?  Is it a byproduct of our more egalitarian society like women serving in the military or providing paternity leave for fathers?  I think most would agree that children should be given priority where possible, but it has become problematic to extend that thinking to prioritizing women over men.  On what basis would that judgment be made?  Why would a woman’s life be more important than a man’s?  Let’s see what you think.

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