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 now, 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 own life ahead of those of his terrified passengers.
A much-publicized photo from the latest accident shows the Korean captain being helped off his own ship, the Sewol, stepping off the deck to safety even as scores of his ferry passengers remained below, where, as survivors believe, the passengers became trapped by rushing water and debris.
The behavior has earned the captain, Lee Jun-seok, 69, the nickname the “evil of the Sewol” among bloggers in South Korea. It also landed him in jail.
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 B. Padgett III, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and former submarine captain.
Padgett’s sentiments were echoed by Capt. William H. 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 447 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.
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 the Costa Concordia left more than 30 people dead.
The death toll in the South Korean accident stood at 46 as of late Saturday, with 256 missing.
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.
The Sewol took 2½ hours to sink, but many survivors have reported that the crew told passengers it was safer to stay put inside the ship, likely dooming them.
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.
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 in 1956, the captain, Peiro Calamari, 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.
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 to 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.