The Italian liner Costa Concordia, with 4,200 passengers aboard, piled up in January on the rocky shoreline of Tuscany, tearing out its bottom and capsizing. The death toll has risen to 25, with the recovery of eight more bodies last week. Seven people remain missing.
Capt. Francesco Schettino, the Costa Concordia's master, violated one of the noblest and most sacred traditions of the sea when he did not direct the evacuation of passengers and crew.
There can be nothing more terrifying for passengers than to see crew members going over the side, as has been alleged by disaster survivors, who described a scene of panic and confusion.
But plenty of other masters have stayed with their stricken vessels until the safety of all passengers and crew had been seen to.
Capt. Edward J. Smith, master of the Titanic, was last seen standing in his wheelhouse, waiting for the end.
When he finally released his officers and crew, he exhorted them, "Be British!" Of course, this could just be some wonderfully dramatic Edwardian hyperbole.
Other reports said Smith shot himself. Some claimed that he jumped into the frigid Atlantic to save a baby whom he placed in a lifeboat before vanishing beneath the waves.
His body, like those of many of the others who died, was never recovered.
In December 1951, the freighter SS Flying Enterprise, bound for New York and Baltimore, cracked its hull in the stormy North Atlantic and listed 45 degrees.
The vessel's captain, Henrik Kurt Carlsen, remained alone aboard his stricken ship for 13 days trying to save it. He captured the attention of the world as the drama unfolded.
Finally under tow on Jan. 10, 1952, the Flying Enterprise, some 40 miles from Falmouth, England, looked as though it might make it when the line parted.
Carlsen, who had been joined by the rescue tug's chief mate, decided to jump. They were soon picked up after the freighter went under in 240 feet of water.
When the Italian Line's Andrea Doria collided with the Swedish American Line's Stockholm late in the evening of July 25, 1956, off Nantucket, Mass., Capt. Piero Calamai refused to leave his vessel even after its 1,660 passengers and crew had been safely removed from the doomed liner.
Fifty-two people lost their lives, most of themk in the initial collision.
When Calamai's deck officers refused to abandon their captain, he finally agreed to step off his ship. The captain, who never spoke again of what happened that night, is reported to have asked repeatedly on his deathbed in 1972, "Are the passengers safe? Are the passengers off?"
One of the most notorious examples of cowardice on the high seas occurred in 1991 when the Greek cruise liner Oceanos went down off the coast of South Africa.
The captain, Yiannis Avranas, and his crew left the ship, still filled with passengers and wallowing in mountainous 24-foot seas driven by 88-mph winds. He later told officials that it was necessary for him to direct the rescue effort from land. (This is similar to the explanation given by the Costa Concordia's master, who also said he landed in a lifeboat after "tripping and falling.")
An entertainer aboard the Oceanos — a comedian — went to the bridge to man the vessel's radio after the captain and officers vanished. Eventually, all 571 people left aboard were safely plucked from the Durban-bound ship by helicopter or rescue craft.
This was a far cry from what happened on Feb. 26, 1852, when the HMS Birkenhead, a British paddle steamer and troop transport, struck a reef off the West African coast.
The vessel had left England five weeks earlier, loaded with soldiers and their wives and children, bound for Algoa Bay.
The Birkenhead had arrived at the naval base in Simonstown, south of Cape Town, to load coal and allow some soldiers and many of the women and children to disembark.
During the long voyage, Maj. Alexander Seton of the 74th Highlanders had drilled his men repeatedly, helping them prepare for their role in the Kaffir Wars or Cape Frontier wars.
The Birkenhead departed Simonstown on Feb. 25. The next morning, some 60 miles from the vessel's destination, it struck a submerged reef off Danger Point.
The ship immediately began to flood and sink. Men vainly tried manning the pumps while Seton ordered all other passengers on deck to prepare for evacuation.
Other soldiers were ordered to prepare the few lifeboats for launching.
All the women and children safely left the sinking ship in the first boat. A second boat loaded with survivors also departed.
Finally, the Birkenhead's captain released his crew, ordering them to go over the side and make for the boats. Seton realized that allowing the rest of those aboard to do the same would swamp the boats and endanger their passengers. He ordered his soldiers to hold their ranks and stand at attention — with only three breaking away.
The remaining 349 soldiers and nine officers went to the bottom with the Birkenhead, which sank only 25 minutes after hitting the reef.
"Every man did as he was directed. All received their orders, and had them carried out as if the men were embarking instead of going to the bottom; there was only this difference — that I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion," an eyewitness told the Times of London.
"Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry among them till the vessel made her final plunge," another survivor told The New York Times.
"And so they sank among the waves, carrying the habits of duty, which they had learnt as solders into that last act of self-sacrifice," observed The Times.
All women and children were saved, and since that time, the disaster has been credited with the tradition of "women and children first" when vessels need to be evacuated.