Haiti, Champagne–but “we are not dangerous.” Are we?


When the earthquake struck Haiti, I was about eighty miles south of the island, cutting limes. Of course, being on an enormous cruise liner meant that via satellite, the news reached our cabin as we channel surfed, me cutting limes to ward off scurvy and also for yet another round of vodka tonics before yet another late-seating formal dinner. While it occurred to My Darling Bride that there might be the possibility of a Tsunami, I was less concerned, figuring that the problem came when a giant wave couldn’t go around a fixed land mass and so just washed right over it. Seems like the ship floating on the surface would be fine, especially pointed away from the doomed island and making 24 knots in the opposite direction.

As if by on cue, Captain Giorgio Pomata came on the ship’s public address system. In labored, halting, thickly accented English, he promised there was no report or forecast of a Tsunami and ultimately, he proclaimed that “we are not dangerous.” Hearing that reassurance from the captain, it seemed that the ship’s 3,332 passengers simply returned to the wretched excess that is the hallmark of American cruising.

To that end, Princess Cruises had set up their signature “champagne fountain” in the grand atrium. The “fountain” is simply dozens and dozens of wine glasses painstakingly stacked in ever smaller tiers culminating in just one glass at the top of a pyramid so tall it took stairs and a scaffold to position Captain Pomata to pour the first glass, the topmost glass.

The "champagne fountain."

He dumped a whole bottle on the stack; it bubbled and slopped down the sides to “oohs” and “ahhs” from passengers, and likely groans from the staff who had to mop it up weekly. And although the full extent of the Haitian quake was not apparent from the early reports, still, I had the creeping feeling of discomfort at what was unfolding as a display of excess for the sake of excess on our little floating island south of the disaster site.

The point of the fountain, it became clear, was this: after the captain poured the first glass, you as a passenger could take a turn, climb the scaffold, pour some champagne on the bubbly, overflowing stack, and have your picture taken by the ship’s photographer which would be available later for $29.99. The champagne? Well, it basically just ran off and accumulated on the tarp spread below, ready for clean-up presumably by the crew who’d painstakingly set it up so we could slop perfectly good champagne all over it. We shook our heads and left the Grand Foyer for a quieter spot.

And that, then, is cruising as usual, preserved by the ethos of Captain Pomata whose authoritative words of assurance gave everyone what they needed to resume the blissful detached ease–and excess–that they’d paid for and expected upon embarking on the voyage. And the institutional import of the image began to dawn on me.

Captain Giorgio Pomata.

The captain probably couldn’t have cared less about the Champagne fountain, but most likely, despite the overlay of cruise excess, was very concerned–and responsible–for the safety of his 3,332 passengers in the wake of the enormous geological event a short distance to the north. Because he did his job and as importantly, physically and verbally (however painstakingly) provided a representation of doing so, we could all go about our voyage undaunted. Buzzkill.

Suddenly, I was back at work. And part of the job that no airline pilot can forget is both the charge of safe passage for crew and passengers, but also the representation that the whole deal–safety, comfort, security–is taken care of. The second part is easy: wear your uniform properly and act appropriately when you do.

The first part? Not so simple. First, the most obvious demand is safety. We spend a whole career training for this, working to improve, to keep our skills at the leading edge of the industry. I can only speak for my airline which like most, is dead serious about the training and competence of their pilots.

And if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t set foot in the cockpit, period. That’s guaranteed, by the way, by the operating certificate of any airline–or cruise line as well–and enforced with regular and random evaluations and observation from myriad regulatory agencies and from within the company itself.

It’s the trick that Captain Pomata gave forth so readily that’s difficult: his announcement that “we are not dangerous” was what we needed to hear. NEEDED to hear, which was sufficient, knowing that it was backed up by the years of experience, thousands of hours of training, and thousands more in practice.

In my thirty-plus years in the cockpit, I have at times landed with an engine shut down. In my career as an airline captain, I haven’t directly told the passengers, knowing that what they really wanted to know–and I could unfailingly provide–was that they “weren’t dangerous.” And they weren’t, thanks to the years and hours of experience and training I mentioned.

So what you don’t really need to know, don’t worry: I’ve got you covered. But what you don’t want to know, well, that’s more a matter of conscience.

The part that picks at the conscience, in the case of wretched excess at sea, is what I didn’t know was the agonizing tragedy unfolding  just to the north. I didn’t know because I didn’t want to know–that’s why we were at sea–and needed only to be sure all was well on our floating island.

At stake in the difference between what passengers needed to know and wanted to know was not our safety, but rather, our humanity. Beyond the remote possibility of a Tsunami, the real danger wasn’t in what we didn’t want to know, but rather, the risk of going about our vacation without a care.

The first cruise ship to dock in Haiti after the earthquake  created quite a controversy. Because what’s the balance between not knowing, not caring, or as importantly, not even wanting to know? Who’s responsible for cleaning up, whether it’s deliberately and frivolously spilled champagne, or the wreckage of a neighboring country with no infrastructure?

While many aboard that day had concerns over the Haitian dilemma, perhaps even that and the juxtaposition of festivities in our world going on regardless, many didn’t:

Ultimately, we docked and returned to the real world, and there it was, full blast from every form of news media:  the colossal tragedy and continued need for rescue. Met some really nice folks on that cruise and I wonder if they felt the same pangs upon reentering the real world on dry land and realizing the full extent of the disaster we’d so glibly sailed by. I’m sure they did.

In that regard, I’m proud that my airline was the first to return to Haiti following the quake. Not because it made “business sense,” because with damaged ground facilities and canceled passenger travel plans, it probably didn’t.

But it was sorely needed to reopen the bridge of commerce and humanity to that unfortunate country. And with each flight came tons of relief supplies and thousands of dollars in aid donated by my fellow employees. Not because they had to, but rather, because it was the right thing to do.

Which leads me back to the captain’s reassuring words. No, we were “not dangerous.” But, given the choice to know or not, to look away or not, to stand aside or not, in the face of disaster playing out in a nation cast aside by colonialism, are we “harmless?” Champagne poured and spilled aside–that’s the real question and the answer has less to do with safety and everything to do with humanity.

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2 Responses to “Haiti, Champagne–but “we are not dangerous.” Are we?”

  1. I must admit that as I read your latest, I was not expecting the poignant and relevant thoughts you shared. It’s nice to know that you have us covered as we place our lives in your hands. And it is equally comforting to know that YOU and your company know the value of doing the right thing. Thank you

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