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: Yes.
"It's a matter of honor that the master is the last to leave,'' said Jorgen Loren, captain of a passenger ferry operating between Sweden and Denmark and chairman of the Swedish Maritime Officer's Association. "Nothing less will do in this profession.''
Seamen have expressed almost universal outrage at Captain 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 potential sentence of 12 years in prison.
Jim Staples, a captain for 20 years, who spoke Wednesday from a 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 is accounted for,'' said 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,'' Pacheco said. "That's why all privileges are given to him, but he has together with that an equal burden of responsibility.''
The Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, slammed into a reef 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 in house arrest as prosecutors prepare criminal charges.
Maritime specialists said the tradition of a captain standing by his ship is not established in international maritime law. But some countries, including Italy, have included it in national laws.
Others respect it as "an unwritten rule or law of the sea,'' said Captain Bill Wright, senior vice president of Marine Operations for the Royal Caribbean International cruise line.
Both literature and real life offer plenty of examples of shipmasters who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect their passengers and crew.
The most famous, perhaps, is the captain of the Titanic, E.J. Smith, who evacuated the ship - women and children first - until there were no lifeboats left, and then perished with it.