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“Women and children first” is a maritime disaster myth—it’s really “every man for himself”

Reuters/Yannis Kolesidis/Pool
A man (C) and his daughter (2nd L), both rescued from the Norman Atlantic ferry, disembark from a Greek Airforce C-130 military cargo aircraft at the Elefsina military airport near Athens December 29, 2014.
By Adam Pasick
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The idea that women and children should be evacuated first from a sinking ship—made famous by the Titanic disaster—has held sway for more than 150 years. But looking at the data on actual shipwreck survivors, the supposed code of conduct just doesn’t hold water.

A group of Swedish economists broke down the data on maritime disasters, and found that women and children actually had the lowest survival rates, while ships’ crews and captains fared the best.

Co-authors Mikael Elindera of Uppsala University and Oscar Erixsona of Stockholm’s Research Institute of Industrial Economics did note that the captain “has the power to enforce normative behavior.” The importance of the captain’s behavior has been borne out in in recent shipwrecks of  the Costa Concordia in Italy and the Sewol ferry in South Korea, in which the skippers were prosecuted for abandoning their ships and leaving passengers behind. Last month, during a ferry disaster off the coast of Corfu, Greece, the captain was the last to leave the ship, after overseeing the evacuation of hundreds of passengers and crew.

The sinking of the the Titanic is a notable outlier, with a high percentage of female and child survivors compared with male passengers and crew. But that result may have been a result of miscommunication between Captain Edward Smith—who ordered “put the women and children in and lower away“—and his officers, one of whom interpreted the order to mean women and children only, instead of women and children first.

The study’s authors, who gathered data from 18 shipwrecks between 1852 and 2011, concluded that “human behavior in life-and-death situations is best captured by the expression ‘every man for himself.'”

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