Visible and Invisible Tragedies

Only hours after the U.S. space shuttle Columbia went down, the investigation into the cause of the tragedy had begun. In more than a year since the Christopher went down, nobody has investigated seriously.

The Christopher? No, your memory isn't failing. When the 165,000-ton ship sank in a North Atlantic storm during the night of Dec. 22-23, 2001, it made barely a ripple in the press.

I learned about the tragedy only because Deepak Gulati, the ship's captain, was my brother-in-law. The Christopher was a bulk carrier, similar to an oil tanker, but designed to carry solid cargo. It was owned by a Greek company and registered in Cyprus. Like the Columbia, the Christopher had a diverse crew. Deepak was from India, and his 26 crew members were from the Philippines, Ukraine and Togo. All 27 were lost.

The Christopher wasn't considered "breaking news" because bulk-carrier tragedies are too routine to be visible to the media. Over the past two decades, these massive ships have been sinking at the rate of one every month, with more than 13,600 lives lost.

While investigators continue to scour the countryside for clues to the cause of the Columbia crash, bulk carriers litter the ocean floors of the world, undisturbed. But without even inspecting those rusting, toxic hulks, it is possible to address the causes of the sinkings. All that is lacking is the political will.

Built in 1983, the Christopher was, by 2001, a disaster waiting to happen. It was being pushed well beyond its safe lifespan, and was probably overloaded with a cargo of coal, bound for Britain. It had no forecastle for protection against the huge waves that struck the bow that night. One or more of its old, weakened hatch covers broke and let water enter the hold, where it formed a coal slurry that broke down the bulkheads.

The 1980 loss of the bulk carrier Derbyshire with its crew of 44, all British, is the only such accident so far to have been thoroughly investigated. That study showed clearly that simple remedies -- age and load limits, strengthening of hatch covers and addition of raised forecastles and pumping systems -- could halt the epidemic of sinkings.

But such improvements would mean reduced profits for the shipping companies that own old wrecks like the Christopher, and no one is forcing them to make the needed changes. Unlike the Derbyshire, the hundreds of bulk carriers now lying under the sea, some still with their crews, have no visible constituency. Like the Christopher, they flew flags of convenience, they were operated by people from countries that many Americans would be hard pressed to find on a map, and they carried coal, grain or other not-so-glamorous cargo that, unlike oil, stays inside the sunken ship and out of sight.

The International Maritime Union, an agency of the United Nations, oversees safety on the high seas. The IMO has no enforcement power, so its regulations are enforced by the nations under whose flags the ships fly, through so-called "classification societies." The less scrupulous shipowners are free to shop around for the more lenient societies. It is their ships that go down, time after time.

We all grieve for the shuttle astronauts, and we expect the defects that caused their deaths to be corrected. We should do the same for the ship's crews that haul the food and fuel that sustain us.

Stan Cox is a senior research scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and a member of the Prairie Writers' Circle.

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