Posted: May 2, 2014
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Article SummaryOn April 29, 2014, reporter Sheila M. Eldred of the Discovery News website emailed me about an article she was writing in the wake of an April 16 ferry disaster in South Korea on “why captains abandon ship.” My brief email in response stressed that a captain who abandons ship prematurely isn’t panicking, but is simply failing to be a hero in a situation where duty demands heroism. The temptation afterwards, I wrote, is to self-justify instead of admitting as much. Sheila’s story used a lot of my email.

When a Ship Captain Abandons Ship Prematurely

(an April 30, 2014 email responding to Sheila M. Eldred of the Discovery News website)

Sheila M. Eldred’s May 1, 2014 article drew from this email.

It seems to me fairly obvious why a ship captain (or crew member) might abandon ship prematurely, leaving passengers to fend for themselves: overwhelming fear for his or her own life.

I wouldn’t call it panic. (Not that you did … but you might be tempted to.) Panic, properly defined, is limited to cases in which people act unwisely because of overwhelming fear. People who are panicking lose their ability to think straight, so they do things they wouldn’t otherwise have done. When fearful people act in obviously self-defeating ways, that’s panic. But when fearful people put their own survival ahead of the survival of others (even others they are responsible for), their behavior is selfish – but it’s not irrational, and therefore not panic.

The captain may or may not have felt panicky, but he abandoned his passengers, not his senses. He didn’t panic.

What needs explaining, I think, is why people sometimes put the other people’s survival ahead of their own. We often call that heroism, especially when it’s voluntary but even when it’s a duty. When emergency responders rush into a deadly situation they are “just doing their jobs,” as is a ship captain who stays onboard to coordinate the evacuation. Yet we often call them heroes, because we realize how tempting it must have been to put themselves first.

And of course emergency responders have lots of practice prioritizing other people’s safety over their own; it’s the very essence of their job. By contrast, most ship captains never face the moment when their ship is going down. So whatever their training tells them, or marine tradition, or law, they don’t know until the moment arrives what they will do.

Once the emergency is over, a captain who has failed the “hero standard” must feel a very strong need to self-justify – grounded in shame, guilt, legal vulnerability, etc. So he/she makes up reasons for having abandoned ship prematurely – e.g. to coordinate the evacuation more effectively. It would take not just self-awareness but another kind of courage to say instead: “I always assumed that if I ever faced a deadly emergency I would stay at my post, as duty requires. To my shock and shame, I didn’t. I fled. I put my own survival ahead of my passengers’ survival. You never know how you will measure up to an awful moment like this until the awful moment arrives. Now I know. I was required to be a hero, and I was a coward instead.”

Copyright © 2014 by Peter M. Sandman

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