Scorned Cruise-Ship Captain Not First to Abandon Sinking Ship

What will likely never be forgotten about the Italian cruise liner disaster is the quickness with which the captain of the Costa Concordia abandoned the sinking ship.

According to investigators, captain Francesco Schettino maneuvered the ship, which was carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, too close to shore of the Tuscan Island of Giglio to "make a bow" to the locals. The "significant human error," as described by the ship's owner, Costa Cruises, caused the 114,500-ton liner to capsize just 500 feet from the shore, killing at least 11 people, while 24 remain missing.

According to the Italian police, who have detained Schettino on charges of manslaughter, failure to offer assistance and abandonment of the ship, the captain and some of the crew were among the first to bail into lifeboats.

Considered one of the most infamous crimes in maritime law, Schettino's act of cowardice has many precedents in history.

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"The story of captains abandoning sinking passengers is as old as ships. They are only human," Andrew Lambert, a professor of naval history at King's College, London, told Discovery News.

Schettino, who is denying all charges, is accused of having abandoned the ship on Friday at 23:30, while there were still about 230 people aboard -- including two newborns and four disabled people who were not rescued until 2 a.m.

Coast Guard officers repeatedly urged the captain to return to the Concordia and coordinate the evacuation until everyone was safely on land, but he refused.

"Please ….it's dark...," Schettino cried, according to audio of telephone conversations posted today on daily Corriere della Sera's website.

"Listen Schettino, perhaps you have saved yourself from the sea but I will make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this. Dammit, go back on board," Coast Guard Commander Gregorio Maria De Falco yelled.

Schettino may be a scorned captain today, but one of the most ignominious captains in history is Hugues de Chaumareys, captain of the French frigate Medusa.

On July 2, 1816, the Senegal-bound ship slammed into a reef. De Chaumareys, whose incompetence doomed the voyage, fled for the Medusa's lifeboats along with some upper class passengers and crew, while 147 people set afloat on a makeshift raft.

Initially towed behind the convoy of lifeboats, the raft was ordered cut free by de Chaumareys, who abandoned the passengers to a gruesome fate of murder and cannibalism.

When the raft floated to shore 13 days later, only 15 of the 147 were alive. The story shocked Europe and was immortalized in Theodore Gericault's painting, "Raft of the Medusa," on display at the Louvre.

Another 19th century infamous episode, involving the steamship  S.S. Jeddah, became the inspiration for Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim."

In 1880, just like the fictional seaman Jim, captain Joseph Clark and crew abandoned the Jeddah, convinced that the leaking ship would have sunk. Nearly 1,000 passengers -- Muslim pilgrims on the way to Mecca -- were left to their fate in the middle of the Bay of Bengal.

Captain Clark reported his ship as lost, to then hear that she had reached port with all passengers alive, towed by another vessel.

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Since then, "Lord Jim" scenarios have played out several times. Though all 571 passengers of the Greek cruise liner Oceanos survived a spectacular sinking off South Africa's east coast in 1991, captain Yianis Avranas faced public scorn as he left the cruise liner by rescue helicopter while some 170 frightened passengers remained on board.

On the other side of these tales of shame are numerous stories of nautical chivalry. One, involving the sinking of the troopship the HMS Birkenhead off the coast of South Africa in 1852, inspired the tradition of "women and children first."

The story goes that the soldiers' commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, ordered his men to help get the women and children on board the three lifeboats as the Birkenhead began sinking in shark-infested waters. Not a single woman or child lost their life, thanks to the soldiers who stoically stood on deck as the ship went down. Their sacrifice has gone down in maritime history as the Birkenhead Drill -- women and children first.

For the most part, people aboard one of history's most famous shipwrecks, the Titanic, also followed the tradition of the "Birkenhead Drill." The Titanic's captain E.J. Smith admonished the men to "Be British," letting women and children leave first. In the best romantic tradition, he did go down with his ship.

Indeed, 74 percent of the women and 52 percent of the children were saved; while only 20 percent of the men survived.

But one cannot rely on the Birkenhead tradition on all ships. Of the 86 survivors of the Northfleet, which sank in the English Channel in 1873, there was only one woman and two children, while no woman is recorded as a survivor in the emigrant ship the London, which sank near Plymouth in 1865.

The chivalric code was also absent on the Costa Concordia, with people pushing to get into lifeboats -- leaving behind children, pregnant women and disabled people.

Nevertheless, acts of heroism emerged amid chaos and panic.

While the captain was ashore giving television interviews, four men -- a doctor, a young official, the ship's purser and the deputy mayor of the Giglio island, who boarded the ship after the disaster -- saved about 500 trapped passengers.

Among the heroes, the 57-year-old ship's purser, Manrico Giampedroni, was found trapped in the ship with a broken leg 36 hours after the collision.

Live Science Contributor