A normal accident on the high seas (and beyond?)

By Langdon Winner

The collision early in the morning of June 19 off the coast of Japan between the destroyer USS Fitzgerald the Philippines-registered container ship ACX Crystal caused considerable damage to the US vessel and, tragically, killed seven US sailors trapped in the hull.  Evidently, it was only through heroic efforts of the ship’s crew that the Fitzgerald was prevented from sinking altogether.

 
                     The USS Fitzgerald in tow after the collision

                    The USS Fitzgerald in tow after the collision

 

The exact circumstances leading to the disaster are not yet clear.  Confusion reigned, as first estimates of the time of the event were an hour later than ones offered the following day.  Exactly who was in charge of the Fitzgerald on that calm, clear night is in doubt.  The ship’s commander, Bryce Benson, had earlier retired to his stateroom.  Also puzzling is the sudden U-turn executed by the ACX Crystal within the moments either just before or right after the crash. 

Commenting in Navy Times, Lawrence Brennan, retired Navy captain who teaches admiralty law at Fordham University School of Law, observed,  “For two large ships, both operated by world-class shipping companies, to be in waters where they should expect traffic and not see each other, boggles the imagination.” 

For incidents of this sort, the research of sociologist Charles Perrow immediately comes to mind.  A scholar of the structure and dynamics large scale organizations, Perrow embarked upon his study of sociotechnical disasters following the accident a the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in March 1979.   His investigations eventually branched out to include accidents or near accidents within several varieties sociotechnical systems –chemical plants, air traffic control, dams, other nuclear power plants run amok, and significantly, collisions of ships at sea. 

Perrow’s book Normal Accidents argues that calamities like those at Three Mile Island are in an important sense “inevitable,” a product of the problematic, often unforeseen interactions between the hardware and software of technical devices and the foibles of human individuals and groups.  Thus, most incidents cannot be traced solely to equipment failure or human error or any other particular cause.  A wicked synergy among multiple causes often prevails with features that can be only be identified in retrospect.  Alas, lessons learned through even the most rigorous analyses of notorious incidents cannot eliminate the lurking uncertainties that might generate future incidents.

                                    Container ship ACX Crystal 

                                   Container ship ACX Crystal 

An aspect of Perrow’s work relevant to the collision of the USS Fitzgerald and the 30,000 ton container ship ACX Crystal appears in his study of comparable accidents on the high seas.  Large ships in motion cannot stop or turn on a dime.  They develop substantial momentum such that any attempt to alter their forward trajectory takes a while to accomplish.  Perrow’s review of the evidence about collisions of large ships at sea show that what sometimes happens is that signs of a possible collision ahead obtained by eyesight or instrument readings bring about corrective measures by both vessels that can produce mutual arcs of avoidance leading directly to point of disaster.  Whether or not that is what happened in the present crash will likely take several months to determine.  

In certain respects, “normal accidents” stem from sociotechnical predicaments that mirror the fundamental dynamics of Greek tragedy.  In the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, a key person in the city’s noble family receives an ambiguous prophecy about a horrible outcome on the horizons of one’s life.  He or she then proceeds to take evasive action to avoid what the signs from the oracle ordain.  Alas, those steps turn out to be exactly the ones leading to the person’s downfall and terrible suffering for community as a whole. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is a classic tale of this kind.  

As revealed in Greek mythology and drama, the determining forces at work are ultimately the interactions and machinations of the gods on Olympus, ones that sometimes take several human generations to reach their horrifying climax.  By comparison, the dynamics for modern systemic disasters are economic, technology, social, and sometimes political at their roots.  

In the case of the relatively swift, highly maneuverable USS Fitgerald what will the evidence and analysis reveal?  Were crucial personnel on watch that night asleep?  Were they looking in the wrong direction?  Not interpreting the data from their instruments correctly, not adequately in communication with the approaching ship?  Were there malfunctions in mechanisms of information and steering that somehow did not operate as intended? Were communications, if any, between the two vessels somehow misunderstood?

 Vasili Arkhipov, to whom I owe several decades of life on Earth

Vasili Arkhipov, to whom I owe several decades of life on Earth

In important respects, the perverse logic of “normal accidents” is also found in systems failure of potentially world ending consequence.  Those who study the several “close calls” in the history of nuclear weaponry point to idiosyncratic strokes of luck or heroic human judgments that, in the nick of time, stopped the bombs from flying.  To cite one instance, we all owe a profound debt of gratitude to Vasili Arkhipov, Soviet submarine officer, whose lone contrary vote prevented a nuclear strike during the Cuban missile crisis of fall 1962 and the all-too-likely onset of nuclear holocaust. As one reads accounts of incidents in this category over the decades, one can only conclude that, so far, we’ve erred on the side of extraordinary, undeserved good luck.

Another almost certain “normal accident” looms ahead today, likely the most colossal in human history.  This one involves unexpected, deeply buried properties of crucial technical systems and the energy sources that power them; ecstatic but ultimately mistaken estimates of human wellbeing from their continuing use; sluggish recognition of growing evidence of widespread, complex, interconnected system breakdown within the larger environments; and confused, inadequate gestures of response by key persons at the helm (or perhaps already retired to their staterooms).  The “accident” here is, of course, global climate crash, sometimes politely called “climate change.”   Among today’s crucial players, especially Donald Trump, his administration and the Republican Party, are many staunchly committed to ignoring all the well-grounded scientific warning signals, determined to steer confidently into the dark night.  Full speed ahead!