Fruitless pursuit of perfect safety

March 15, 2004|By Gordon Livingston

"SAFETY FIRST!" We hear it all the time, like a mantra. Agreement is assumed. What could be more important? Then a gust of wind turns an afternoon boat ride into a hideous immersion in dark, cold water.

Is there a moral to this story beyond the ability of nature to confound our best efforts to remain protected 100 percent of the time? In our obsessive pursuit of security in an uncertain world, we lock our doors, alarm our cars, fasten our seatbelts, drive defensively, insure our lives and sue anyone whose mistake injures us or makes us afraid.

We expect our plane to deliver us unscathed to our destination. We try not to think of the forces of kinetic and potential energy that make flight a miracle. We act as if we expect to live forever. Someone has remarked that if the rules of proper diet, regular exercise and preventive medicine are universally observed, in a few years people will be lying around in hospitals dying of nothing.

There are only a few among us who extend themselves to enjoy risk. They jump from airplanes, climb mountains, raft in whitewater, surf the Banzai Pipeline, challenge the Southern Ocean or go voluntarily to war. The rest of us think them crazy, adrenaline junkies whose job it is to entertain the rest of us while we watch our carbs, get our exercise from machines and wonder why we gain weight in spite of it.

On March 6, we got a glimpse in Baltimore Harbor of one result of the expectation that our feet always will be dry. When the Naval reservists reached the water taxi, several passengers were on top of the overturned vessel, some of them shouting that there were people still underneath. No one, apparently, asked the logical question, "Then why are you standing on top?" When the rescuers finally lifted one pontoon, three bodies floated out, one of them a child.

Who among us can say how we would respond to such a crisis? Did the young couple float away together, trying to help each other? It is some small comfort to imagine this.

Now will come the inevitable lawsuits leveled at the charitable organization that owned the taxi, the Living Classrooms Foundation. That the primary mission of this foundation is to help underprivileged children will doubtless be lost on those seeking to profit from this improbable catastrophe. Someone must pay. We cannot sue God, so perhaps the taxi company or the National Weather Service or the manufacturer of pontoon boats will be held accountable.

As one who sails those waters with regularity, let me assure you that abrupt, unpredictable changes in the wind are common, though seldom so extreme. You can die out there, though you are more likely to do so at a railroad grade crossing or be hit by lightning or fall off a ladder.

The government is on the case. It will do its best to fix blame so that we can all feel that this accident made sense and can be prevented in the future. Survivors will be compensated for their chilly swim. The families of victims and their attorneys will be enriched for losses that cannot be measured by money. We may lose the colorful water taxis that have operated safely for 30 years. And we will indulge the illusion that we are somehow safer for having figured out what happened.

Memo to the National Transportation Safety Board: The "probable cause" of this accident was an unforeseeable wind gust, the likes of which we are unlikely to see again in this place in our lifetimes. No individual or institution was to blame.

We can require bigger boats and mandate the wearing of life jackets, but as long as vessels ply these waters, some of them will sink or catch fire, or people will fall off and drown. Time and chance will have their way with us all.

Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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