The Folly of Trusting Technology

Monday, June 25, 2012

On a foggy night in July 1956, two passenger liners used the same shipping channel to head in opposite directions.* The Andrea Doria was right where it should be, with its captain on the bridge and its foghorn blowing every two minutes. It probably should have been traveling at a slower speed as it sailed through the fog, but radar was supposed to compensate for the loss of visibility.

The Stockholm was heading east in the westbound channel rather than using the eastbound channel twenty miles south. The westbound channel was shorter and faster, and the Stockholm's captain claimed it crossed the northbound and southbound lanes at a safer point. His action was permissible because use of the designated channels was recommended but not required. After setting a course, the captain retired to his cabin, leaving an inexperienced third officer on watch.

The captain and crew of the Andrea Doria tracked an oncoming ship on radar and determined that the two ships would pass starboard to starboard (right side to right side) at a close but safe distance. The third officer on the Stockholm also tracked an oncoming ship on radar and determined that the two ships would pass port to port (left side to left side) at a close but safe distance. It was only when the two ships were near enough to see each other through the fog that they realized they were on a collision course.

The Stockholm was significantly smaller than the Andrea Doria, but its steel-reinforced bow was made to slice through the ice floes of the North Atlantic. It also proved effective at slicing up the Andrea Doria. It didn't go all the way through, but it cut open a number of first class and tourist class cabins and sent their occupants to a watery grave.

Forty-four Andrea Doria passengers died from the collision, a child died from a rescue-related injury, a male passenger died from a heart attack while resting on a rescue ship, and a woman died six months later from injuries incurred during the disaster. The death toll on the Stockholm was five--all crew members who were in their quarters at the bow at the time of the accident.

But the number of survivors was the bigger story. In an amazing rescue effort involving several Coast Guard, Navy, and commercial boats as well as a French ocean liner that turned around to assist, almost 1,700 people were saved in the eleven hours before the Andrea Doria sank to the bottom of the ocean. And in an ironic twist, the crew of the wounded but still seaworthy Stockholm rescued many of them.

The pictures are incredible, but they are not in the public domain yet.** Although I might be able to claim fair use, I'd rather play it safe and refer you to the Internet to find them for yourselves. Or you can see them in Richard Goldstein's book, Desperate Hours.

The shipping companies and the insurer settled the case before it went to trial, so there was no formal finding of fault. From the sources I read, I think it was a combination of circumstances and human error.

But the greatest contributing factor may have been over reliance on technology. Either the radar was wrong or the crew misread it. The Titanic sank because everyone thought it was unsinkable, and the Andrea Doria sank because crew members on the two ships thought radar was infallible.

It isn't safe to put too much faith in technology.


* If you want more information, I recommend Desperate Hours: The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria, by Richard Goldstein and Alive on the Andrea Doria: The Greatest Sea Rescue in History, by Pierette Dominica Simpson, who is one of the survivors. It is easier to follow the chain of events if you read Desperate Hours first.

** The picture at the head of this post was not taken on the Andrea Doria, but it is probably typical of the tourist class cabins of the time. The photo shows me with my mother and brothers on the Nova Scotia as we crossed the Atlantic Ocean heading to England (on our way to the Middle East) in September 1957, just over a year after the Andrea Doria sank.

No Survivors

Monday, June 18, 2012

At 2:10 a.m. on October 24, 1918, the Princess Sophia ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal, which is part of Alaska's Inner Passage. The ship stayed there, firmly wedged in the rocks, for almost 40 hours before the wind and the waves changed course and sent the severely damaged ship to its death. During that time, the 278 passengers and 65 crew members watched other boats circling the wreck and waited to be rescued. And yet, there were no survivors.*

I've been doing research on maritime disasters, and I thought it would be interesting to blog on some of them. So this week and the next two I will talk about the sinking of three passenger ships that generated a lot of press at the time, but whose stories have been eclipsed by the 100 year anniversary of the Titanic.

The picture shows the Princess Sophia around 1912, shortly after she was built.** She was 245 feet long and could carry up to 500 passengers with special permission, although her normal capacity was 250.

The Princess Sophia made regular runs between Vancouver, Canada and Skagway, Alaska from late spring through early fall. In October, many residents of Alaska and the Yukon went "outside" for the winter, much as the Florida snowbirds head south today. In 1918, many felt lucky to have tickets on the Princess Sophia for one of the last trips out by water.

The passengers on that fateful trip ranged from gold miners and laborers to politicians and businessmen and their families. The passenger manifest included 37 women and 18 children.

Not long after the Princess Sophia left Skagway, it ran into a blinding snowstorm. Captain Locke had experienced white-out conditions before, and he did not slow down. So when he got off course and ran into Vanderbilt Reef, the ship went right up onto the rocks and stuck fast.

The Princess Sophia put out a distress call and was soon surrounded by would-be rescuers. But the reef and the gale conditions made it impossible for those boats to get close. Captain Locke considered putting his passengers into lifeboats but was concerned that they would capsize in the raging waves and the occupants would drown--something that had happened recently in another shipwreck. Since the Princess Sophia was firmly wedged in the rocks of the shallow reef, he decided to stay put until the weather calmed down. Several high tides passed without budging the ship, which seemed to confirm his judgment.

But late in the afternoon of October 25, the wind shifted and pushed the ship off the rocks. With the huge gashes cut into the hull by the original grounding, the Princess Sophia never had a chance. And because of the stormy conditions and the darkness, the would-be rescuers could only pray for the passengers' safety. A prayer that God answered in his own way, but not as the rescuers hoped.

The official inquiry concluded that the accident was nobody's fault and the decision to wait before evacuating the passengers was a judgment call that could have gone either way. But the politicians in Washington may share part of the blame. For years, Alaskan shipping interests had been asking for a light on Vanderbilt Reef, and their pleas had gone unanswered. After the Princess Sophia sank, they finally got their light.

Why do so few people remember the Princess Sophia? I think it is because there are no survivor stories to add to the romance.

But I would love to know what the passengers thought and did as they were trapped on the stranded ship.


* If you want more information, I recommend The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her, by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison.

*** I got the picture from Wikipedia, which says the photographer is unknown. The photo is in the public domain.

Doing Customer Service Right

Monday, June 11, 2012

Did you ever have a customer service experience that was both embarrassing and pleasant? Let me tell you how Bed Bath & Beyond earned a loyal customer.

Shortly after moving into our condo, Roland and I took inventory to see what accessories we needed to make it a comfortable home. We are both avid readers and there are no ceiling lights like we had at the house, so our list included lamps.

That Saturday we made a shopping trip to Bed Bath & Beyond. We also went to Lowe's, which is just a little farther down the street. After buying two bedside lamps and a few other things, we returned home.

Roland's bedside lamp never did turn on easily, so he loosened the switch. Then I turned the light on while dusting and the switch fell apart. Since then, Roland has been after me to exchange the lamp.

I pass Bed Bath and Beyond every Saturday on my way to my writers' group, but I procrastinated over returning the lamp because I couldn't find the receipt. That puzzled me since I am very meticulous about keeping records of my expenditures. But I kept looking for a Bed Bath & Beyond receipt for the lamps without luck.

Roland assured me that the store could find the transaction in its computer, so this past Saturday I gave in. Since I didn't want to wander around Bed Bath & Beyond with a lamp I had already paid for, I took it straight to the service desk. Unfortunately, the customer service representative said she couldn't locate the transaction without an item number, which I didn't have. She then asked another employee for help, and he went to see if he could find the same lamp. He couldn't, and neither of them recognized the lamp as one they sold. Still, Roland had been positive we bought it there, and so was I.

When the male employee couldn't find the lamp online, either, he offered me a store credit for the price of the closest thing he could find. I declined because I needed two matching lamps and already had one working one. So I walked out of the store with the lamp and hoped that Lowe's would have a replacement switch to solve the problem.

Even though I was positive we bought the lamp at Bed Bath & Beyond, when I arrived at Lowe's I decided to look at its lamp collection just in case. And there it was. I felt like a total idiot.

I appreciate the way the Bed Bath & Beyond employees handled the situation. I had no evidence of the purchase and could have been trying to rip off the store by returning a defective item I hadn't bought there. But I probably sounded as sincere as I was--I really did believe I had bought the lamp there--and store personnel made the decision to keep a customer happy. By doing so, they turned a now-and-then customer into a long-term one.

The Lowe's employees also deserve a thank-you for their friendly service in exchanging the lamp without the receipt I probably had at home.

Because sometimes stores do customer service right.

The End of an Era

Monday, June 4, 2012

Yesterday my church voted to call a new music director. She graduated from one of the denomination's colleges with a degree in church music, so I'm sure she'll do fine. But it won't be easy.

It never is when you follow a legend.

When I became a member of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church 33 years ago, David Brandt was already well-established as the head of its music program and director of the Senior Choir. In 1954, right out of college, he was hired by the church's day school as a second-grade teacher, and it didn't take him long to organize a children's choir. I don't know when he took over the Senior (adult) Choir, but this picture was taken sometime around 1966. Dave is in the back row on the right, wearing a suit and tie instead of a choir robe. He never did wear a robe that I can recall.

I joined the Senior Choir as soon as I married and joined the church, and I have sung in the choir for most of those 33 years (taking a short hiatus while I was working on an advanced degree). So Dave has been a significant part of my life. He has also been a significant part of my husband and children's lives, all of whom had him as a teacher during their elementary or middle school years and sang in the Children's Choir under his direction.

David Brandt isn't retiring as a teacher yet and will continue to be a force at the church and school. And he deserves to actually sit in the congregation and go up to communion with his wife and children and grandchildren. Still, when he announced to the choir that he would be stepping down as director, we were all in shock. We still are.

Thank you, Dave, for your many years of dedicated service to St. Paul's music program.

It won't be the same without you.