January 29, 2009

Miracle on the Hudson

Scene One, fact. Less than two weeks ago, Flight 1549 took off from La Guardia airport in New York and was hit by a large flock of geese within two minutes of takeoff. With both engines disabled, Captain Sullenberger took over controls from co pilot Jeffrey Skiles and skillfully ditched the aircraft in the cold waters of the Hudson river. Marvelously, all passengers survived without major injury; it was a time of day when numerous boats and ferries were in the area and which rescued the passengers in minutes. The Airbus 320 has a fuel capacity of about 30,000 litres or 20 metric tonnes; at least some was found leaking into the Hudson river by investigators a day or two after the accident: the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, as it is now euphemistically called.

Captain Sullenberger was immediately and unequivocally hailed as a hero in the US and abroad: with glowing public tributes from George Bush and Barack Obama and profiled as such by CNN, BBC, Time, Newsweek and every rag and media talking head in between. The mayor of New York declared that all the crew of Flight 1549 would receive the “Key to the City”, a unique honour. The Captains interview with a top talk show was cancelled as inappropriate since an NTSB investigation is in progress. Meanwhile, Capt. Sullenberger sleeps well at home, and very justifiably so. He is indeed a hero.

Almost two weeks after the incident, nobody has publicly raised many questions about why co Pilot Jeffrey Skiles was at the controls at such a critical time. There is no mass hysteria that up to 20 tonnes of aviation fuel could potentially have leaked into the waters almost within New York, and an unknown quantity has indeed done so. No recriminations. It is all calm after the storm for “Sully” Sullenberger.

Scene Two, imagined. Captain ‘Patsy’ Patel is on the bridge but the Chief Officer is manoeuvring the M.V. “Doomed Indian” as it leaves the breakwater of New York harbour. The engines suddenly fail. Captain Patel takes over immediately and skillfully uses the ships momentum and helm to avoid the numerous craft in the vicinity. In the process, the ship hits the breakwater and one small gas oil tank of 20 tonnes capacity is ruptured on board. An unknown quantity of oil leaks slowly into New York harbour. Professional mariners say, immediately, that Capt. Patel showed great skill and courage under pressure and almost certainly avoided a major accident. Everybody on board is unhurt. Everything is done by the crew to minimise the oil leakage.

Captain Patel and a few other crewmembers are immediately detained and the ship arrested. Almost immediately, the world descends on the ship to harass the crew to a point when it feels like rape. The Managers want records, photocopies, reports and testimonies from the traumatised crew. P&I, Class and charterers want all this in a different format. The Coast Guard demands documents, testimonies, drills, maintenance records and procedures to be demonstrated. Flag State inspectors are expected for a full inspection. Meanwhile, the US approved oil spill contingency plan is in full swing, involving all the crew.

Never mind that the remaining crew is running ragged, doing a dozen critical things at the same time. Never mind that all the outsiders (because that is what you are if you are antagonistic to the crew) just want to finish the paperwork, cover their liabilities (used instead of a more impolite term), control the spill and go home. Never mind the sheer inhumanity of not providing any moral, physical or psychological support to the crew. Never mind the fatigue they are under or the helplessness they feel at this onslaught on their basic human rights. Mariners, especially third world ones, are fair game. They can be treated as convicts before they even become accused criminals.

Never mind that, as far as Patsy Patel and his crew are concerned, they are living on a different planet than Sully Sullenberger and his crew.

“Patsy” Patel will probably sleep in prison. He may not go home for years. No Presidents or President elects will salute him, not even his own in India. Nobody will want to listen to what he has to say unless he is being interrogated. And the only profiles you will see of him will probably include photographs that look more like mug shots. He will probably be handcuffed and simply taken away. Out of sight. Out of mind.

What about the others? Well, most of the seablind population will ignore them. Their own colleagues will usually feed them homilies for the next few years. We will tell those that rot in jails or detention that they are heroes. Some of us can protest their treatment even while others stop paying their wages claiming frustration of contract. Some will tell Patsy’s colleagues that they are this industry’s real strength and part of a family. Most will switch to damage containment mode and hope that mariners will continue to buy their lies once again, because they always have. The IMO will bring out an updated version of its ‘Fair treatment’ guidelines. The UN will ratify new conventions. Legal experts, diplomats, captains of industry and other miscellaneous experts will dine on cocktails and the carcasses of persecuted sailors.

The mariners have forgotten the Erika and the Prestige and hundreds of lesser crimes against them; they will forget the Hebei Spirit and the Doomed Indian, too.

They will continue to agree to sail to France and Spain and Korea, the EU, Canada and the US and dozens of other countries which have legislated draconian laws against their own basic human rights, or the many countries that flaunt ratified conventions in defiance of international law.

The seamen are the fall guys. Let this macabre joke be on them, too.

Maybe sailors will say, at some stage, that enough is enough. Maybe something will snap sometime, and discontent and anger will give way to rage. Maybe when they are repeatedly assaulted, one of them will finally refuse the violation politely. “Not tonight, I have a headache”.

Meanwhile, let’s clean out their cages, at least. Because for these guys, there is no miracle awaiting them on the Hudson, or anywhere else.