Ever since the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, carrying its captain and many of the passengers with it, the notion that the captain goes down with his ship has been ingrained in popular culture.
But for the second time in just over two years, a sea captain — first in Italy and now in South Korea — has been among the first to flee a sinking vessel, placing his life ahead of those of his terrified passengers.
A much-publicized photo from the latest accident shows the Korean captain being helped off his ship, the Sewol, stepping off the deck to safety even as scores of his ferry passengers remained below, where, survivors believe, they became trapped by rushing water and debris.
The behavior has earned the captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, the nickname the “evil of the Sewol” among bloggers in South Korea. It also landed him in jail.
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Maritime experts called the abandonment shocking, violating a proud international (and South Korean) tradition of stewardship, based at least as much on accepted codes of behavior as by law.
“That guy’s an embarrassment to anybody who’s ever had command at sea,” said John Padgett III, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and former submarine captain.
Padgett’s sentiments were echoed by Capt. William Doherty, who has commanded U.S. Navy and merchant ships and managed safety operations at a major cruise line. He called Lee’s decision to leave his passengers “a disgrace” and likened it to the desertion of the stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship off the Italian coast in 2012.
“You can’t take responsibility, or say you do, for nearly 500 souls, and then be the first in the lifeboat,” Doherty said.
Legal test looms
Civil courts in the United States have long viewed captains as having an obligation to protect their passengers and ships, but the cases in South Korea and Italy seem likely to test the notion of criminal liability in disasters.
The captain of the Italian ship, Francesco Schettino, is on trial on manslaughter charges after the sinking of his ship left more than 30 people dead.
The death toll in the South Korean accident, in which bodies are still being recovered, could end up topping 300.
Most countries do not explicitly state that a captain must be the last person to leave a distressed ship, experts say, giving captains the leeway to board lifeboats or nearby ships if they can better command an evacuation from there.
South Korea’s law, however, appears to be explicit, allowing authorities to arrest Lee for abandoning the boat and its passengers in a time of crisis.
An international maritime treaty known as the Safety of Life at Sea — adopted in 1914 after the Titanic disaster — makes a ship’s captain responsible for the safety of his vessel and everyone on board. A later version of the treaty said passengers should be able to evacuate within 30 minutes of a general alarm.
The Sewol, with 476 people aboard, took 2½ hours to sink, but many survivors have reported the crew told passengers it was safer to stay put inside the ship, likely dooming them. The captain says he later issued instructions for passengers to evacuate the ship, but it remains unclear if that was conveyed to passengers.
The U.S. Navy’s rules are more explicit than ones for commercial ships. Dave Werner, Naval History and Heritage Command spokesman, said Navy rules dating to 1814 require a captain to remain with a stricken ship as long as possible and salvage as much of it as he can.
Werner cited current regulations that state: “If it becomes necessary to abandon the ship, the commanding officer should be the last person to leave.”
The list of military and commercial ship captains who refused to abandon ship is a long one.
The Titanic’s captain, E.J. Smith, was probably steaming too fast when the giant ship hit an iceberg, but he later won praise for helping to save more than 700 lives. He insisted that women and children be evacuated first, and he stayed near the bridge as the ship went down.
After the Andrea Doria collided with another vessel off Nantucket, Mass., in 1956, the captain, Piero Calamai, pledged to remain on his own on the listing ship after the passengers were evacuated to try to save it. He agreed to abandon the vessel only when other officers refused to leave without him.
When the Navy’s first Cold War spy submarine, the Cochino, caught fire and was about to sink in the Barents Sea not far from Russia in 1949, the captain, Cmdr. Rafael Benitez, refused to abandon the surfaced submarine even after all his men had run across a wooden plank connecting them to another vessel heaving in the rough seas. Benitez, who was hoping to save the Cochino, crossed the plank to safety only when the men on the other vessel yelled that his sub was sinking fast.
This sense of a captain’s duty was also part of the narrative in the 2009 crash of US Airways Flight 1549, which was forced to ditch in the Hudson River after losing power in both engines after it struck birds. After landing the plane on the water, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger twice checked the sinking cabin to make sure no one was left before leaving himself.
Sometimes the heroes are fellow passengers.
In 1991, a 500-foot-long Greek-owned cruise ship, the Oceanos, flooded off the coast of South Africa in 30-foot swells after an engine explosion. Instead of evacuating the 571 people on board, the captain and his crew left, claiming later they went to seek help.
According to news reports at the time, the ship’s entertainers and the cruise director coordinated the rescue effort from the bridge and were among the last to leave the ship, along with members of the South African Navy, who were dropped aboard to search for any stragglers.
The Sewol had its heroes and heroines.
One, Park Ho-jin, 16, found a 6-year-old girl standing alone and wet on the side of the ship as it was sliding slowly into the water. She had been left there by her older brother who went back into the ship to hunt for their mother. Park swept the child into his arms and delivered her to rescuers who had pulled a boat alongside the ship.
Park made it onto a later rescue boat.
Another high-school student who survived reported that a crew member named Park Ji-young, 22, had helped teenagers get life jackets and escape by urging them to jump into the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea, where rescue boats were waiting.
She stayed behind without a life jacket for herself despite the youngsters’ entreaties to jump with them. “After saving you, I will get out,” she said. “The crew goes out last.”
She was later found dead, floating in the sea.