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Titanic: In most shipwrecks, it's more like 'every man for himself'

April 12, 2012 | 10:56 am


As the world gets set this weekend to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, attention is once again being focused on the old adage: when a ship is going down, it's women and children first.

After the storied liner struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, men were ordered to stand back while lifeboats were loaded. That chivalrous act led to 70% of women and children surviving -- while only 20% of the men escaped alive.

But the Titanic isn’t the norm. A new study from Sweden finds in most shipwrecks, a more apt slogan is "Every man for himself." Men stand a better chance of surviving than women. Captains and crew escape more often than their passengers. And children seem to have the worst survival rates of all.

All in all, the study suggests the recent scandalous wreck of the Costa Concordia in Italy, in which the captain pleaded not to go back to his sinking ship, is more typical than the case of the Titanic.

Economists Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson of Uppsala University pored over records of 18 different maritime disasters spanning from 1852 to 2011 to assess whether "women and children first" has really been the "unwritten law of the sea," as it has long been dubbed.

Women were roughly half as likely to survive (17.8%) as men (34.5%); they found in three of the shipwrecks, all the women died. And despite the storied saying, less than half of captains went down with their ships.

Though the statistics seem grim for women, shipwreck survival rates for women appear to have improved since World War I. The finding echoes other studies showing that when women hold higher status in society, they tend to fare better in disasters.

What made the Titanic stand out, the researchers believe, was that the captain ordered women and children to be saved first -- and threatened to shoot men who disobeyed the order, as some sought to do. The captain plays a crucial role in whether women are more or less likely to survive, the new study found.

Unfortunately for women, the researchers also found, captains rarely give such an order.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: This 1912 photo shows Titanic lifeboat No. 6, carrying 11 women and six men away from the sinking ship. Credit: U.S. National Archives