STOCKHOLM -- Seafaring tradition holds that the captain should be last to leave a sinking ship. But is it realistic to expect skippers to suppress their survival instinct amid the horror of a maritime disaster? To ask them to stare down death from the bridge, as the lights go out and the water rises, until everyone else has made it to safety?
From mariners on ships plying the world's oceans, the answer is loud and clear: Aye.
"It's a matter of honor that the master is the last to leave. Nothing less will do in this profession," said Jorgen Loren, captain of a passenger ferry operating between Sweden and Denmark and chairman of the Swedish Maritime Officer's Association.
Seamen have expressed almost universal outrage at Capt. Francesco Schettino, who faces possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his crippled cruise ship off Tuscany while passengers were still on board. The last charge carries a possible sentence of 12 years in prison.
Jim Staples, a captain for 20 years, who spoke Wednesday from the 1,000-foot cargo vessel he was captaining near New Orleans, said captains are duty-bound to stay with the ship until the situation is hopeless. When they bail early, everything falls apart.
"I'm totally embarrassed by what he did," Staples said of Schettino. "He's given the industry a bad name, he's made us all look bad. It's shameful."
Schettino should have remained on board "until the last passenger was accounted for," agreed Abelardo Pacheco, a Filipino captain who was held hostage for five months in Somalia and now heads a seafarers' training center in Manila.
"That is the responsibility of the captain. That's why all privileges are given to him. But he has together with that an equal burden of responsibility," Pacheco said.
The Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, slammed into a reef on Friday, after Schettino made an unauthorized detour from the ship's programmed route. A recording of his conversation with the Italian coast guard shows he left the ship before all passengers were off, and resisted repeated orders to go back, saying the ship was tipping and it was dark.
Schettino said he ended up in a life raft after he tripped and fell into the water. He is being held under house arrest as prosecutors prepare criminal charges.
Even if he's not convicted, it is highly unlikely he'll ever command a cruise or cargo ship again because of the damage to his reputation, said Craig Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
"Some people panic, but a short time later they collect their senses and do the right thing," Allen said. "In this case there was more than enough time for the moment of panic to pass. It was abject cowardice."
The tradition of a captain standing by his ship isn't established in international maritime law, though some countries, like Italy, have included it in national laws.
Still, it is respected as "an unwritten rule or law of the sea," said Capt. Bill Wright, senior vice president of Marine Operations for the Royal Caribbean International cruise line.
A captain's responsibilities and authority are laid out in the International Safety Management Code, which is part of a larger convention adopted by the U.N. body in charge of safety and security of shipping. It was passed in 1914 as a direct result of the sinking of the Titanic, and has been amended many times since.