Friday, November 03, 2006

That's the spirit

The tugboat company that assisted in the immediate aftermath of the Staten Island Ferry crash in 2003 is suing for a $6 million reward:

"They are making their claims under an ancient tradition called 'pure marine salvage,' which holds that boats that take the trouble to help other boats in distress are entitled to a reward."
I don't now anything about the law here (any maritime lawyers in the house?), but let's talk about the principle. I have no problem with paying them for their efforts - damage to their vessel, time lost (the boat was involved for a few days it seems), etc. But a reward far in excess of that, as something they are so entitled to that they can sue? I'm not so sure.

To be clear, they didn't throw their commercial interests over the side and rush into the stormy sea to offer aid:
"On the day of the crash, Oct. 15, 2003, he was on the Dorothy J., reading the paper and waiting for orders to move an oil barge for the city. His captain was resting below, on a regular four-hour rotation.

'I was engrossed in the paper, and something told me to look up,' he said. The Barberi was heading at top speed right to the Staten Island pier where he was moored."
So, let's be brutally honest. The boat was on some down time, and the ferry came right to them. Plus, they were waiting to work for the city at the time anyway.
"The salvage tradition, which is supported by a long history of case law, is meant to encourage mariners to help one another even if they are jeopardizing their own commercial interests."
Except here, the commercial interests weren't quite jeopardized in the way they would be if you abandoned your fishing grounds to answer a mayday call on the open sea. That might not mean anything legally, but it sure feels different.

"'I don’t need to be a hero,' Mr. Seckers, 59, said this week in a telephone interview from Chesapeake Bay, where he is now the mate on another tug. 'But every crew member on that tug was a hero, and they didn’t get any acknowledgment, thank you or anything for it. It wasn’t right. They went far above the call of duty.'"
Of course, in a technical sense he is right - he didn't sign up to be a hero. But who does? Things happen, and - hopefully - those closest to the situation rise to the occasion. One's reaction should be one of concern and compassion, not a quick check of what the expected value of the reward might be. At least isn't that what your parents taught you?
"But the dispute over the Barberi has made him a little wary about helping others in the future. 'Somebody told me, next time you’re reading a newspaper and feel something bad is happening,' Mr. Seckers said, 'just keep your head in the paper and keep reading.'"
I don't want to minimize what they did. They are heroes, and deserve to be treated as such. It just strikes me that suing for a hefty reward for helping someone, is, well, a bit unseemly. And the suggestion that it might not be worth the trouble to help out others in need in the future if he isn't paid off now, is, well, grotesque.

That day might have been one of his proudest moments, but sharing the thoughts he did in this article wasn't.


delightful said...

I'm certainly not up on ancient mariner traditions, but if the tradition includes an expectation of reward, then by practicing the tradition, the tugboat company can reasonably expect a reward. I don't agree with suing to get it, but if the tradition is not being maintained by both parties, why _should_ the tugboat company participate in it in the future? (This is an argument on the principle of mutual expectations only - obviously, saving lives should be motivation enough.)

Gadfly said...

You are right, so far as "mutual expectations" go. What I was suggesting was that it is reasonable to expect each other to help in situations like this on humanitarian grounds, especially when the opportunity presents itself so directly (e.g. occurs right next to where you are sitting docked, as happened in this case).

As an aside, I also wonder how much the average crew member on a tug today knows about "ancient mariner traditions." If the answer is, "not much," then it would seem not to be likely to affect behavior much. But I could be wrong about how much things like this are talked about.