Friday, 20 April 2012

Women and Children First: Is it really a myth?

Women and children first" (or to a lesser extent, the Birkenhead Drill) is a historical protocol whereby the lives of women and children are saved first in a life-threatening situation such as referred to when typically abandoning ship, when survival resources such as lifeboats are limited.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ships typically did not carry enough lifeboats to save all the passengers and crew in the event of disaster. In 1870, answering a question at the  House of Commons of the United Kingdom about the sinking of PS Normandy,  George Shaw-Lefevre said that—

“It is the opinion of the  Board of Trade (that) it will not be possible to compel the passenger steamers running between England and France to have boats sufficient for the very numerous passengers they often carry. They would encumber the decks, and rather add to the danger than detract from it.”

That was the same view that Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the Board of the White Star Line had about lifeboats being placed on the upper deck of the Titanic when he argued, “Why litter the deck when the ship is herself a lifeboat?”

By the turn of the 20th century larger ships meant more people could travel, but safety rules regarding lifeboats remained out of date: for example, British  legislation concerning the number of lifeboats was based on the tonnage of a vessel and only encompassed vessels of ‘10,000 gross tons  and over’. The result was that a sinking usually involved a moral dilemma   for passengers and crew as to whose lives should be saved with the limited available lifeboats.

The practice of women and children first arose from the chivalrous actions of soldiers during the sinking of the  Royal Navy  troopship  HM Birkenhead in 1852, which was memorialized in newspapers and paintings of the time, and in poems such as Rudyard Kipling's Soldier an' Sailor Too. The story goes that the soldiers' commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, ordered his men to help get the women and children (20 in all) on board the three small 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. Only about 25% of the men survived the wreck and none of the senior officers did. Saving the woman and children first became known as the Birkenhead Drill.

When the Titanic was sinking, Captain Smith gave the order “Women and children first” and more or less enforced it. Although it was never part of international maritime law, it has often been applied at sea.  When the Titanic was sinking, 74% of the women on board were saved as was 52% of the children, but only 20% of the men were saved. Later, near the end, the men were permitted to climb on board the lifeboats but unknown to the deck officers, there were still women and children in the ship trying to get to the boat deck. The men who were saved on the Titanic, were initially branded as cowards, including   J. Bruce Ismay. 

There is no legal basis for the protocol of women and children first — according to International Maritime Organization  regulations. Ships are supposed to be able to load the lifeboats and place them in the water within 30 minutes. History has furthermore shown that application of the protocol has been the exception rather than the rule.

An Uppsala University study published in April 2012, found that historical survival rates have been more common with adult males rather than women or children. The paper analyzed 18 maritime disasters covering a period of one and a half centuries, from 1852 to 2011. The same study found that crew members have a relative survival advantage over passengers. 

Elinder and Erixson wrote in a paper titled “Every man for himself.” published by the Research Institute of Industrial Economics. They found that women had a lower chance of survival in 11 out of 18 shipwrecks. Women fared worse also in recent times, during the sinking of the Russian river cruise MV Bulgaria in 2011. They had a survival rate of 26.9 percent, opposed to 60.3 percent of men. Overall, children appear to have the lowest survival rate. What happened on the decks of the Titanic was the last time that women benefited from the Birkenhead tradition. The “women and children first” order was given for only five times out of 18 sinkings.

What really seems to matter is the behavior of the captain who has the power to enforce normative behavior. Captain Smith certainly enforced the Birkenhead Drill.  
The captain goes down with the ship’ is a concept that expresses the idea that a sea captain holds ultimate responsibility for both his ship and his passengers and crew and will die trying to save all of them. Certainly this applied to Captain Smith who remained on his ship to the very end. If a naval captain evacuates a vessel in wartime when there are still sailors on board, it may be considered a capital offence for desertion. Certainly the captains of passenger ships who desert their ships before the passengers and crew have left them can be brought up on charges.

The concept wasn’t applied by Captain Francesco Schettino who is accused of failure to offer assistance and abandonment of his ship, the Costa Concordia. Many people were horrified when they read news reports of that massive cruise ship capsizing on the western coast of Italy back in January 2012 and learned that the ship’s captain not only climbed into a lifeboat while panicked passengers and crew tried to evacuate, he even refused to get back on board the ship while there were still passengers and crew still on board the ship. He said he “tripped and fell into the rescue craft.” Yeah, sure and the world is flat. “Whatever happened to women and children first?” read a headline in Britain’s Daily Mail, the story underneath saying men and crew were scrambling for the lifeboats, women and children be damned. The 52-year-old captain is currently under house arrest and facing manslaughter charges and charges of failing to assist 300 passengers, and failing to be the last to leave the wreck. He was subsequently also charged with failing to describe to maritime authorities the scope of the disaster (for which seven other officers and managers of Costa Cruises are under investigation) and with abandoning incapacitated passengers.

Richard Smith, who, in 2003, during a run that lasts all of 25 minutes, fell asleep at the wheel of the Staten Island Ferry. Of 1,500 people on board, 11 were killed and more than 100 injured, many critically, when the ferry slammed at full speed into the docking terminal. Instead of helping with the evacuation, Smith slipped away in the chaos and went home. He would later plead guilty to manslaughter and he served 18 months in jail. A ferry line executive was also jailed for failing to post the required second pilot in the wheelhouse.

The Oceanos, a Greek cruise ship that flooded and broke up in a terrific storm off eastern South Africa's so-called Wild Coast. Miraculously, all 571 passengers were rescued under harrowing conditions by the South African navy and air force. Of these, 227 were hoisted off the sinking wreck by a convoy of helicopters. Near the front of the line was Captain Yiannis Avranas, who reportedly stepped in front of an elderly woman to seize the dangling harness. By the time a rescuer told him to wait his turn, he already had strapped himself in and was lifted to safety, with 170 terrified passengers still in peril on board. Left to manage the evacuation were several of the ship's entertainers, heroically led by the ship’s magician.

Captain Avranas later claimed to be supervising the evacuation from aloft. When the loud guffaws died down, he tried to explain that his order to abandon ship applied to everyone, including himself. Although the captain helped the early attempt to fight the fire, witnesses were shocked to see him climbing into one of the first lifeboats with just four passengers and a handful of senior crew, including the bosun, and rowing off towards a Finnish freighter which had arrived on the scene to render assistance. Avranas and several other officers were found by Greek authorities to have been negligent in their duties. Captain Avranas is currently working as the captain of a Greek ferry, and was not fined nor punished by the Greek authorities for his behavior re his abandonment of the Oceanos.

Captain Byron Voutsinas of the cruise ship SS Yarmouth Castle was also a coward. The ship was steaming from Miami to Nassau in 1965 with 552 crew and passengers when a fire broke out in a storage room and quickly swept through the front half of the ship. Before an SOS could be transmitted, the radio shack was engulfed in flames and half the lifeboats burned in their davits.

The first of the remaining lifeboats to be launched was rowed away only half full, with just four passengers and 20 crew members aboard, including Captain Voutsinas. This lifeboat also was the first received by the Finnish freighter Finnpulp, which had rushed to the rescue after a lookout saw the burning Yarmouth Castle. When the Finnpulp captain learned that captain and crew from the stricken ship were on the first lifeboat afloat, he angrily turned them away, ordering them to return to their ship to look for survivors. Of the 90 souls who went down with the burning ship or died later from their injuries, only two were crew members. Capt. Byron Voutsinas, 33, a Greek national, testified later that he was heading for the Finnpulp to use the ship’s radio. He later returned to his ship, he claimed, and was the last to abandon her but his career as a cruise-line captain was over.

The wreck of the French frigate Medusa, which ran aground off Senegal on July 2 1816, ended with such horror that it later became the subject of a very big painting by Theodore GĂ©ricault. I saw that painting when I visited the Louvre in Paris in 1974. There were not enough boats for the 400 men, women and children aboard. The commander, Hugo de Chaumareys, however, was among the first off, along with his officers and certain favoured passengers, leaving 147 other passengers and the rest of the crew to construct a makeshift raft. When the raft finally made landfall 13 days later, there were just 15 survivors. The rest were dead of exposure, suicide, thirst and murder as the panicking men fought each other with machetes. Some of the dead had been eaten by the others. De Chaumareys was called before an inquiry and acquitted.

ust as Captain Smith of the Titanic stayed with his ship as it was sinking, Captain William Turner of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a U-boat off Ireland on May 7 1915, did the same thing. Lusitania sank in just 20 minutes, taking 1200 people with her. Even though Turner who was exonerated by a board of inquiry had, with steadfast British resolve, stayed with his ship as it sank, the press harried him till the end, even long after he had retired from the sea. I can only surmise that if Smith had survived, he too would have been harried by the press even though he was seen on the bridge when the ship began sinking under water.  

In 1880, Captain Joseph Clark and his crew abandoned the Jeddah, convinced that the leaking ship was about to sink. Nearly 1,000 passengers who were Muslim pilgrims on the way to Mecca were also left to their fate in the middle of the Bay of Bengal where they all drowned.

Elinder and Erixson also found that the crew and the captain had the best odds of survival on average—a rule confirmed by the recent Costa Concordia disaster. According to their research, only seven out of 16 captains went down with their ship."Women and children first" reflected the Victorian ideal of  chivalry in which the upper first classes were expected to emulate a morality tied to sacred honor, service, and respect for the disadvantaged. I presume that by use of the word, ‘disadvantaged’ it was referring to the weaker sex and children.

In March 2012, three fishermen from Panama were on their fishing boat stranded in their boat near the Galapagos Islands for 26 days. When the cruise liner Star Princess was sailing past them, one of the men on the fishing boat was seen waving his red shirt up and down violently. It is an international distress signal. Captain Edward Perrin, a veteran captain of passenger liners chose to ignore the plea for assistance and simply continued sailing his vessel until his ship was out of sight. Two of the three-man fishing vessel subsequently died from sun stroke. The third man was eventually saved. If Captain Perrin is found to have acted negligently (and I believe that he did) he could face criminal charges. At the very least, he should be fired from his post as captain.  

When the suffragettes of the day realized that most of the men on the Titanic had drowned, they protested that the men got a quick death whereas the women were left to languish in poverty. That is typical hogwash. In those days, men were expected to risk their lives for women. That is why men are expected to walk on the side of the sidewalk that is closest to the road. Nowadays men rarely tip their hats to women because very few men wear hats anymore. Although I do see men opening doors for women, I can’t help but wonder what they would do if they were to reach a lifeboat on a sinking ship. Would they push the women in front of them out of the way? Some would but how many would? Certainly this didn’t happen on the Titanic however we can never really be sure if it was because of chivalry or because the deck officers had revolvers in their hands and threatened to shoot any man who dared to climb into a lifeboat while there were still women and children on the deck.

I don’t think the drill, “women and children first” is really necessary nowadays with respect to cruise ships. Passengers in those ships don’t have to run all over the upper decks looking for a lifeboat to climb into. There are not only sufficient number of lifeboats on the ships, but further, passengers and crews are assigned specific lifeboats that are close to their sleeping quarters. Despite that, many cruise lines today still ask that woman and children climb into the lifeboats first.

What I don’t know is what passengers should do if they are at one end of their ship and their lifeboat that has been assigned to them is at the other end. For example, if the ship was quickly sinking and half of the passengers are eating in the dining room, will they run to the lifeboats that are closest to them or will they run all the way to the other end of the ship to the lifeboat that has been assigned to them? The question may seem academic since generally such large ships would take a long time to sink especially if the lower parts are sealed compartments but then we have to also consider what happened to the Concordia. It would be very difficult to lower lifeboats on the side that is slanted. Would the passengers then all flock to the other side of the ship where the lifeboats could be lowered into the sea? If that happened, then half of the passengers and crew would be on one side of the ship only and there would not be enough lifeboats for them all to get into. Then comes  the question; would the order, “Women and children first” be given? If so, would it be obeyed by the men?    

As it turned out, almost all of the passengers and crew were able to leave the Concordia however at least 32 of them didn’t. They drowned. That may have been because they were asleep in their beds when the ship tipped onto its side. What is really frightening is if the ship had pulled away from the island with the gaping hole that caused the ship to list to starboard, it would have sunk to the seabed and perhaps more people would have drowned.

It is a very difficult issue to deal with when it comes to the abandoning of a sinking ship. The Birkenhead Drill is an honourable procedure but is it really pertinent nowadays? I personally think that it is but not at the expense of all men on board a sinking ship. The elderly, the disabled and the blind men should also be permitted to go into a lifeboat with the women and children since they are unable to handle themselves well enough to survive in a sinking ship. Further, I believe that some members of the crew should also be in a lifeboat if they have been trained on how to operate such a boat. But as I see it, nowadays, one crew member per lifeboat is sufficient. Too many crew members in a lifeboat while there are passengers still on the ship is most inappropriate.

I am disabled but I can swim so I wouldn’t have too much concern about being in the water unless of course the water is extremely cold or there are sharks in the immediate area of the sinking ship. What would I do if I was in such a situation? Quite honestly, I don’t know. I think we all would have to be in such a situation to really know what we would do if the ship was sinking and the water was freezing or hungry sharks were seen around the ship. I like to think that I would wait until all the women and all the children were in the lifeboats. But I would be forced to ask myself, are they already in the lifeboats? If so, then I would climb into the lifeboat closest to me. But if I am not sure, what would I do? As I said earlier, I don’t really know. I know that brave men do terrible things when panic takes over.

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