Going down with your ship (or the ship you are on)

Like millions oSewolf people around the world and especially in my native South Korea, I have been transfixed by the stream of tragic updates to the sunken ferry Sewol off the southwestern coast of Korea, near Jindo. Today’s news is particularly poignant: a pair of high school students were found in a passenger stairwell, each wearing a life jacket. Of the two clasps on each jacket, one was properly fastened to hold the jacket in place; the other was tied to the other jacket, holding the young boy and girl together in their slumber.

I recall the scene from the movie Titanic that brought the most tears to my 16 year old eyes, the first time I watched the epic: Macy’s Department Store co-owner and US Congressman Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, who refused to leave the ship without each other. They are last portrayed in the movie lying side-by-side in a narrow bed as the icy water rises around them.

The story is more complicated than that, as it always is. In this case, the story is decidedly more heroic, while maintaining its loyal and romantic tenor. Here is an excerpt from Isidor Straus’s Wikipedia entry:

Once it was clear Titanic was sinking, Ida refused to leave Isidor and would not get into a lifeboat without him… According to friend and Titanic survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie IV, upon seeing that Ida was refusing to leave her husband, he offered to ask a deck officer if Isidor and Ida could both enter a lifeboat together. Isidor was reported to have told Colonel Gracie in a firm tone: “I will not go before the other men.” Ida insisted her newly hired English maid, Ellen Bird, get into lifeboat #8. She gave Ellen her fur coat stating she would not be needing it. Ida is reported to have said, “I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so will we die, together.” Isidor and Ida were last seen on deck arm in arm. Eyewitnesses described the scene as a “most remarkable exhibition of love and devotion.” Both died on April 15 when the ship sank at 2:20 am.

In sharp contrast is the Sewol captain’s decision on the morning of April 16 to abandon his ship in advance of its sinking and well in advance of his passengers’ escape. He, and other members of the crew, have been labeled “murderers“and “cowards.” Given the tremendous loss of lives, most of them 16 and 17 year old high schoolers on a field trip, it is not hard to understand why. The captain and 22* of his 29 crew who survived the disaster will forever be known as those who went before the children. (*A caveat that some of the 22 who survived were saved while attempting to rescue others from the doomed ship.)

A friend who is a former investment banker observes that people tend to make deals based on fear or greed — or both. As the ship showed signs of a rapid descent into the dark and rapid current (I recall the waters between Jeju Island and Jindo as being particularly frightening, even from the distant perch of my hotel balcony), I imagine the captain’s decision to abandon ship was fueled by similar impulses. If he knew what was at stake — that the entire connected world would put him on trial in the court of public opinion and find him guilty, over and over again — maybe he would have stayed and done the honorable thing: let the children get off before him.

(Or maybe not. In the end, perhaps he would deem preservation of his physical self to be worth the shame of public guilt; I don’t know.)

In the long wake of the disaster, much has been made of whether or not Korea has a law barring captains from abandoning ship before passengers disembark. (For the record, the country apparently does have such a law, and it will likely provide a legal basis for Captain Lee’s prosecution.) Captain Lee himself has suggested that his long tenure and superior navigation skills would have averted the disaster, pointedly placing the blame on his relatively inexperienced twenty-something third mate. To my eye, these discussions divert our global attention from the greater issues of Lee’s humanity and fitness to lead.

Elie Wiesel defines humanity by the presence of gratitude and compassion. In the case of Captain Lee, I find myself fixed on the absence thereof — where one would hope to find a full measure of both, all I see are fear and greed. People who behave as he did roam the earth; they always have. They are often kind-hearted and well-liked. But they should not lead. Because when they choose poorly between gratitude and greed, compassion and fear, we all pay the price as their lives become swiftly defined. Leadership is never satisfied by the technical ability to do the job. It does not necessarily grow with age or experience. It requires vigilant judgment and fierce wisdom, particularly when the waters get rough.

As I mourn the young couple whose discovery hearkens the touching legend of Mr. and Mrs. Straus, so also I mourn the death of Captain Lee: his sterling four-decade reputation of service and kindness were buried last week beneath the enormity of his decision to abandon the children on his ship. And as I continue to obsessively track the excruciating process of recovering and delivering children’s broken bodies to their grieving parents, I’ll close with a short passage about the Strauses:

Isidor Straus’s body was recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett and brought to Halifax, Nova Scotia where it was identified before being shipped to New York. Ida’s body was never found. Isidor and Ida are memorialized on a cenotaph outside the mausoleum with a quote from the Song of Solomon (8:7): “Many waters cannot quench love – neither can the floods drown it.”

What irony — they stayed on that ship and became immortal.