Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Crisis Reveals a Captain's Character

The media is abuzz right now in the aftermath of the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster. The investigation is now focusing on the cruise ship captain, Francesco Schettino. And the picture emerging is not pretty. While the details are still fluid, evidence suggests that this captain placed the ship at significant risk by trying to navigate shallow waters near the coast of Italy and then added insult to injury by abandoning the sinking ship before all the passengers reached safety.

I was thinking today of another captain. In January 2009, after a flock of birds seriously damaged the aircraft and caused the engines to fail, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger guided Delta airlines Flight 1549 to a safe landing on the Hudson River. Then, with the help of his co-pilot, he walked the length of the partially submerged aircraft to make sure that every single passenger was safely off the stricken airliner before he himself exited. Here was a captain who seemed willing to “go down with the ship” if that’s what it took to assure the safety of his passengers. He performed with extraordinary grace under unimaginable pressure and became something of a national hero. It was one of those truly good stories that stand out from the ones we typically here about on the nightly news.

When Sullenberg was interviewed about his heroism on the Hudson, he said: “It was obvious to me that this was a critical situation.” Yes, I’d say that was an understatement. There wasn’t much time to think in that fateful moment; there wasn’t time to study and carefully consider his response in this situation.

In a moment of crisis such as this—when snap decisions were needed that would impact hundreds of lives—he had to rely on that which was already “in him” to come out of him. And so, when Flight 1549 became stricken over the Hudson, “Sully” called upon his character—and let it shine for all the world to see.

Almost without thinking, all of Sullenberg’s years of training suddenly snapped into action. He seemed to instinctively know what he needed to do. All the experience gained in those “routine flights” helped him remain calm during this most extraordinary flight—one that clearly was not going to end the way all the other flights he had been on previously had ended. However, he reflected during the interview that: He felt his whole life to date had been preparing him for this moment.

As was the case on the Hudson that fateful day for Captain Sullenberg, when the Costa Concordia ran aground and began sinking, Captain Schettino faced a moment of crisis. It was another fateful moment where the decisions made would impact many lives. (In fact, these decisions literally cost some people their lives.) Again, there wasn’t time for the captain to think it through and make rational arguments; snap decisions had to be made—what was “in him” had to come out. The difference is that, sadly, what came out in this instance was not pretty. This captain chose to flee the sinking ship, leaving some of the passengers to fend for themselves.

Whereas Captain Sullenberg displayed the best of human character, risking his own life to guarantee the safety of those entrusted to his care, it appears Captain Schettino displayed the worst, first by placing those entrusted to him in danger and then by choosing to abandon them in their moment of need.

Now, it’s easy to heap criticism on Captain Schettino for his poor decisions. We’d all like to think that, faced with a similar moment of crisis, we would respond like Sully did and stay calm under pressure. We’d all like to think we’d be the hero in that moment, that we’d be so dedicated to the people entrusted to us (whether it’s family, friends, coworkers, passengers, etc.) that we would be willing to “go down with the ship” if that’s what it took.

But I honestly am not sure how I would respond. There’s probably more Captain Schettino in me then I would like to admit. I do have a tendency to want to escape “messy” situations rather than engage them. I don’t like putting myself out to serve others, especially when it costs me my comfort and security—as it surely would in these kinds of moments.

As much as I know what I “ought” to do in theory, or “what Jesus would do” faced with these situations, I confess that I don’t know how I would actually respond when faced with a similar moment of crisis.

So how would I respond to a hypothetical crisis? I’m not sure. I suppose, like any of us, I’ll only know for sure in that moment. But what I do know is that I will continue to use the “routine moments” of life to prepare me and train me to respond those “extraordinary moments” that life will inevitably throw my way.

And I hope and pray that when those critical moments do come, and there is no time to think about how I will respond before I act, that what is “in me” will come out of me, and that I will respond in a way consistent with the person I want to be and the God I claim to serve.

I heard a song recently whose haunting chorus encapsulates how I hope that I—and all of us—would respond to moments of crisis that we each will inevitably face in this life. When we face those fateful and difficult choices, I pray that we would be so dedicated to the “others” God has entrusted to our love and care that we would be willing to say:

I will go down with this ship

And I won't put my hands up and surrender

There will be no white flag above my door

I'm in love and always will be[1]

[1] Chorus from “White Flag” by Dido. See e.g., for full lyrics and to hear the song.

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