Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Death in the Grand Canal, Part 1

A memorial service on 27 January for Pateh Sabally is led by some of his fellow Gambians near the place of his death in front of the Santa Lucia train station

On the cold Sunday afternoon of 22 January, 22-year-old Pateh Sabally, a native of Gambia, jumped into the Grand Canal in front of the Santa Lucia train station and, in front of scores of onlookers along the banks and in a nearby vaporetto, drown. English-language newspaper accounts of this incident have been sloppy at best, grossly irresponsible at worst. I'll attempt to provide a fuller account here.

Pateh Sabally arrived in Sicily two years ago after surviving the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean from Africa to Italian territory. An article from three days ago in the Spanish paper El País describes him as "part of the half million migrants rescued in the last three years by the Italian Coast Guard." (A figure that seems hardly credible until you read an article such as this one from last fall that describes more than 10,000 migrants being rescued in just two days.)

According to El País, Sabally spent some time in a refugee shelter in Sicily and then, two years ago, was granted a Permesso di Soggiorno, issued on humanitarian grounds. Recently, according to various local newspapers, his application to renew this visa had either been turned down or, according to another paper, his visa had been rescinded. There is a significant difference in these two verbs but, as with so much of this story, the reporting I've seen is poorly documented and careless.

What is known for sure is that after taking a train from Milan to Venice on the afternoon of January 22, he exited the train station, left the backpack he carried near its entrance, walked to the edge of the Grand Canal and, after a few seemingly indecisive minutes, threw himself in. In his pocket was, according to El País, a "perfectly sealed plastic bag... to keep out water, [containing] his passport and his train ticket [that he'd just used]."

The temperature that day was not much above freezing, but Sabally was not only leaping into the mortally frigid water of the famous Grand Canal but, whatever his exact intentions may have been, also into visibility.

A visibility that in English-language media has rarely gone beyond the lurid; all of them presenting an image of Sabally "flailing" in the water before hundreds of observers who do nothing but laugh and launch racist taunts.

Now the issue of racism in Italy, and especially in the matter of immigration, is unfortunately ever present, and plays a big role in this incident. But it is possible to keep in mind both this racist context and other relevant contexts. It's not either/or. Nor does it necessarily serve any socially beneficial purpose in this particular instance to present it as either/or: as if the response of everyone who witnessed Sabally's death was either entirely motivated by racism or (with the exception of a few loudmouths) entirely free from it.

For one thing, to present it this way not only invites a too-easy sense of moral superiority or despairing (and fruitless) sentimental anguish in the reader, but it also (as a look at the comments following the story in almost any news source will disturbingly reveal) seems to energize the kind of vicious racist posturing that characterizes the Far Right.

More importantly, though, it localizes a problem which, alas, is not limited only to Venice--nor only to Italy. Nor even only to Europe. Indeed, the great walls (both literal and metaphorical) proposed by America's mad autocrat aim not just to keep people out, but to block out the nation's responsibility for mass migrations as well.

Though I never watch videos of people's death--which seems to be a major genre on news sites, legitimate or otherwise, these days--I made myself watch a one minute video of Pateh Sabally in the Grand Canal because of how sensationalistic and unreliable seemed the reports I was reading. 

One thing I noticed was that Sabally was not at any point "flailing" in the water. Now, it's extremely important to remember that people who are drowning usually do not flail as they do in the movies. In fact, because it's so important to remember this, and because this fact has been completely absent from the discussion of Sabally's death, I'd encourage you to read this piece on the 10 signs of drowning.

To create maximum tabloid outrage, though, "flailing" is the verb that's used in every English language report I've seen--even though it presents a false image. After all, it's the verb that most readily inspires the indignant question that each account of the incident implicitly poses: How can any human being not react, even in some rash impulsive way, to another person in obvious distress in the water--let alone make some stupid or racist crack?

But before returning to the question of what drowning actually looks like, I'd like to add one other bit of context, for whatever it's worth.

Pateh Sabally is said to have jumped into the Grand Canal and swam toward its center. This is a lot different than accidentally falling into the canal--and it's a difference that is especially marked for locals. For a lot of people come to Venice and do stupid things, such as (quite often) jumping into the canals. And when visitors do such things, the habitual Venetian reaction is one of scorn and derision and contempt, no matter who does it. This is not to excuse any despicable comments involving race--such as the moron who shouted "Africa!" in the video I watched. But some of the comments that have been reported, such as the person who is supposed to have remarked "Fa finta (He's faking)," or another who is supposed to have said, "He's stupid, he doesn't want to live," simply sound very, well, Venetian to me. That is, I wonder to what extent some of the comments are simply typical of that insular segment of the population that feels its city is under siege by outsiders of all races who do not "properly respect" it.

Is this attitude appropriate? Is it not always in danger of turning inhumane? I leave those questions to you.

Of course on a freezing winter day one would hope that this habitual response would almost immediately be replaced by a sense of the very real danger that the person in the water was in, no matter how he first came to be there. For the shock of being in such frigid water quickly incapacitates a person, no matter what that person's original intention might have been.

This is why it's typically not recommended that another person dive into freezing water to try to save the person already there. But none of the English language accounts of the incident refers to the low temperature of the water, and for those many people living abroad who are inclined to think of "sunny Italy," this oversight only ramps up their sense of moral indignation. The kind of moral indignation that does not necessarily lead to any kind of moral action, but that definitely leads to more online clicks.

But what about the marinai, the sailors, on the number 2 vaporetto line that reversed its course to draw near to the drowning man? Aren't sailors required by the law of the sea to aid people in distress--even to the point of throwing themselves into frigid water?

Yes, they are obliged to aid those in distress in the water. But ACTV, which runs the vaporetti, forbids its sailors--either the driver or his/her colleague--from abandoning the boat at any time. The crew of the vaporetto drew as near as it safely could to Sabally and threw him at least 3 orange flotation rings, toward which he seemed to make no movement. This is another point we'll return to in regards to what drowning actually looks like.

So what more could have been done for Pateh Sabally while he was in the water? I had no idea. Until I attended last Friday's memorial service for him along the Grand Canal in front of the train station: a gathering of more than 300 people who came together not only to mourn Sabally, but to signal a rejection of the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that surrounded his death. It was only then that I was struck by something I should have already known. On a Sunday afternoon, even in winter, that part of the Grand Canal had to have at least a half dozen water taxis plying its waters. There are taxi parking places all around where Sabally drowned. Not too far away there's even a gondola stand. Were there no gondolas in the water at that time? Is it really possible that there were no taxi drivers right in front of the train station who could have pulled up right alongside Sabally (in a way that the much larger vaporetto could not) and aided him?

Standing at the point of the waterside from which Sabally jumped in, I found that hard to believe. There had to be someone driving a taxi. More than one, most likely. It's what I told my wife, Jen, when I came home from the memorial service.

Then two days ago La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre reported that authorities, after reviewing various videos of the event, were bringing charges against a 35-year-old driver of a motoscafo belonging to the Casinò di Venezia, who'd passed close to the drowning man but hadn't stopped to offer either a life-saving ring or a rope--an omission of aid that violated the codes of navigation

This motoscafo driver, and any supporters he may have, will no doubt say he is being scapegoated. And if he so chooses he'll have no difficulty finding various Right Wing groups and politicians to take his part. After all, Pateh Sabally's actions in the water--specifically, the fact he seemed to make no move toward the flotation rings thrown to him--supposedly made it clear he wanted to die.

Now, in the absence of more details on the charges and the evidence upon which they're based, there's no saying whether they're appropriate. But given the way in which people actually drown, what they actually "look like" while doing so, one cannot say for certain that Sabally wanted to kill himself. Here are some relevant points taken from the article linked to above:

1) "Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help."

2) "Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help."

3) "Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface."

4) "Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment."

Add to these factors the debilitating frigidity of the water and an observer in any position to aid the drowning man can't excuse his or her inactivity with the claim that Sabally "obviously" wanted to die. Even if he'd traveled to Venice with that idea in mind (though he neither wrote nor told anyone anything like this), we can't know whether at some point in the icy water he changed his mind--only to find himself no longer able to do anything to save himself.

This is as much as I've been able to put together about the death of Pateh Sabally in the Grand Canal and it, too, can't help but be only partial and imperfect. In my next post I'll turn to some reactions, political and otherwise, to his death. But before closing I'd like to make one simple non-political suggestion; something that might have saved Sabally's life.

Given the fact the ACTV marinai are not allowed to enter the water to save a drowning person, I'd suggest that each vaporetto really must carry at least one--preferably two--life saving devices known as a body hook or shepherd's hook. They're exactly what the names suggest; made of lightweight material and have a reach of 3.6 meters or 12 feet. They could easily be stowed on brackets along the sides of a vaporetto, or just above or below its roof. Each ACTV employee should be trained to use one. Here is a short video showing how one is used. They are far more effective at saving an incapacitated person in the water than a flotation ring. In the case of Pateh Sabally it would have been the vaporetto crews' only chance to save him.  

You can find Part 2 of this post here.
A view of some of the crowd after the conclusion of the memorial service for Pateh Sabally


  1. Thank you so much for this account which is so valuable given the terrible coverage in the anglomedia. I am especially grateful for the information on the memorial service and the local reactions by Venetians to the antics of their visitors.

    1. Thanks very much for reading it and taking the time to comment. I think it's a very hard thing to write about, and one probably can't help but editorialize (as I do, too, of course). But there was something about the Anglo-American accounts that made me uneasy and seemed, I suppose, insincere or in bad faith: exploiting a story as click bait while feigning moral outrage.

      As for Venetian reactions to their visitors: I think so much of Venice seems like a minor variation on the universal mass tourist experience that a lot of visitors hardly distinguish it in any meaningful way from other "seaside" or at least watery destinations: it might as well be Cabo San Lucas, Mexico or Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Venetians themselves have often been complicit in this homogenization. And yet while plenty of Venetians show little respect for their home (you should see how they drive their boats in various fragile locations), they are deeply offended (perhaps hypocritically) when visitors don't give it the proper respect.