Until the Sea Shall Free Them

The Book of the Week is “Until the Sea Shall Free them” by Robert Frump, published in 2001.

This wordy, repetitive, yet suspenseful book tells the detailed story of the February 1983 shipwreck of the Marine Electric, among many other briefly described maritime catastrophes. The scurvy old 605-foot bulk carrier transported coal in the North Atlantic Ocean from Boston, MA to Norfolk, VA.

The investigation of what happened conducted by the Marine Board– a panel of industry officials– was subject to the vagaries of the maritime legal system. Safety inspections of ships were performed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping. The National Transportation Safety Board was yet another regulatory body of maritime matters.

The Marine Board generated reports on shipping accidents. In rare cases, its recommendations might include Justice Department investigation and prosecution of a shipping company executive, or a review of the license of a ship’s captain; the latter, for criminal law violation, like for negligence in putting men’s lives at risk for failure to follow safety procedures.

A ship’s officers were usually blamed for disasters because ship owners and builders had a friendly relationship with the federal government. Political contributions helped elect candidates who turned a blind eye to regulating safety in marine commerce.

The ship’s top officers were under tremendous pressure to go on a voyage despite safety violations. Whistle-blowing behavior might get them fired. There was always the threat that a rival union would be awarded their current shipping contract. Some men waited more than a year before they could be assigned their next job on a ship.

For years, disasters were waiting to happen, due to the “rationalization, denial, greed and stubbornness” in connection with repairing and mantaining of decades-old ships. In the mid-1970’s, more than one fifth of all deaths from shipping accidents were due to structural failures of the vessels.

Heartbreakingly, during a winter storm at sea, some crew members die when they are so close to surviving. The lifeboats are buffeted about by rough waves and dashed on rocks or into a seawall, or men who lack protective clothing and proper safety equipment, fall into the freezing water while trying to board a rescue boat.

As in many other industries, shipping is one in which the big companies care more about money than seeking to reduce dangerous conditions. Despite poor safety records and the expenses of lawsuits and damage to their reputations, the large players stayed in business through the decades of the twentieth century. On the flip side, in accidents, numerous greedy seamen abused a lenient system that awarded them big bucks in personal injury cases.

Read the book to learn the fates of the parties associated with the Marine Electric after its fall from grace.

A Sea In Flames

The Book of the Week is “A Sea In Flames, The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout” by Carl Safina, published in 2011. This is a description of the disaster that spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico starting in late April 2010.

British Petroleum (BP)– the oil company– was the major party responsible for killing eleven workers and causing ongoing long-term emotional trauma and major financial hardships for thousands of people. BP’s poor safety record, and favoring money over human beings made it more of a scapegoat than the other parties involved– Halliburton, Transocean and other subcontractors that were providing equipment and services for deep exploratory drilling.

The accident’s aftermath was a cluster screw-up. Both plugging the oil leak and cleaning up the oil were uncharted territory, literally and figuratively. Previously, greedy politicians had been loath to regulate the oil industry because they needed the industry’s campaign contributions to win elections.

A month after the disaster, President Obama prohibited deep sea drilling for six more months. Even so, in June 2010, a federal judge nixed such legislation for economic reasons. It was clear that the government continued to woo the oil companies, at the expense of the victims. That judge cared more about the nation’s fiscal health than about people’s health and the environment.

The victims include not just humans, but civilization as a whole. This blogger contends that it does not matter that the victims are voters. They are easily psychologically manipulated. The oil mess has incalculable, ambiguous biological and environmental consequences. However, hard economic numbers win elections because money is more important to voters, too. Voters will readily believe a storm of economic misinformation, including the incorrect notion that clean fuels cost more than fossil fuels. Electoral mudslinging that asserts that the opposing candidate allowed serious health problems and scary ecological goings-on to occur, to which oil contamination might or might be attributable, do not win elections.

This is just one more depressing piece of writing that reminds us that we are all destroying our earth.

Coronary

The Book of the Week is “Coronary, A True Story of Medicine Gone Awry” by Stephen Klaidman, published in 2007. This book recounts what happens when people are afflicted by certain aspects of human nature:  greed, power-hunger and fear. It is a sensational story, the kind even tabloids could not fabricate.

In the 1990’s and single-digit 2000’s, there was a cardiac surgeon, one Dr. Moon, who exhibited the first two aspects in spades– instilling dire panic in impressionable patients, telling them that their clogged arteries could kill them at any second, and therefore, they had to be scheduled for triple or quadruple bypass surgery within the week. Those patients underwent the rigorous, dangerous, and worst of all– in the vast majority of cases– unnecessary procedure, taking weeks to recover, getting saddled with medical bills.

Dr. Moon loved the control he had over people, and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. His reputation was sterling, due to word-of-mouth and great public relations (people truly believed he saved their lives). The hospital where he committed his medical malpractice was one owned by the then-disreputable holding company, National Medical Enterprises (which later changed its name to Tenet Healthcare).

Wait, there’s more! There were other greedy parties involved in the story. Three people saw what was really happening, and found a way to capitalize on the situation. They brought a Qui Tam lawsuit against the doctor and his accomplices. This means they accused him of bilking Medicaid and Medicare out of big bucks by billing the federal government for unnecessary surgeries. They were expecting to reap a large reward for reporting the errant doctor.

Read the book to learn the sordid details and outcome of this extreme saga.

Into Thin Air

The Book of the Week is “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster” by Jon Krakauer, published in 1999. This book tells the story of a group of people (naive tourists) in 1996 who had a burning desire to climb the world’s tallest mountain, yet were ill-prepared to do so. The guides they hired charged tens of thousands of dollars, but the guides were themselves inexperienced in dealing with the trip’s harsh conditions. Among other serious problems, there was a lack of: a) life-sustaining equipment due to poor planning, b) physical fitness and c) adaptation to the altitude among the participants. One thing led to another… Read the book to learn of the tragedy that ensued.