This weekend is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. This tragic disaster is perhaps the best known example of “women and children to the lifeboats first.” That chivalrous code led to approximately 70% of the women and children who had been on board the luxury liner surviving, including a distant relative in my own family, while only 20% of the men escaped alive.
Of course the rule didn’t apply straight across the First Class, Second Class and Steerage. Only 27 of the 79 Steerage children and 76 of the 165 Third class women on board survived. On one side of Titanic the rule was rigidly enforced, even to the point of argument whether a 13 year old was a boy or a man, for purposes of saving his life. On the other side, men were easily allowed in the boats if there was room.
As gallant as the Titanic story may be, apparently it isn’t the norm. A new study from Sweden, reported in the Los Angeles Times, examined 18 different disasters at sea from 1852 thru 2011. According to the researchers, in most shipwrecks, it tends to be “Every man for himself.” Per the study: 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.
In three of the shipwrecks studied, all the women died. Less than half of captains went down with their ships.
What made the Titanic stand out, the researchers believe, was that the captain ordered women and children to be saved first – and some of the officers in charge of the lifeboats either threatened to, or did shoot men who disobeyed the order.
In my novel WRECK OF THE NEBULA DREAM, loosely based on the events of Titanic, set in the far future, among the stars, when disaster strikes, the crew is pretty much nowhere to be seen. In the excerpt below, passenger Nick Jameson, Sectors Special Forces, in transit aboard the ship, has to step into the chaos around the nearest lifeboat. You’ll see how he prioritizes things.
Nick tried not to hurt people, but he forced his way through the throng with ruthless intent, stopping short about a yard shy of the door. Exactly as the woman had told him, two men were on the deck, kicking and clawing at each other, fighting over access to the locked LB. No one else could get by.
Reaching down, Nick grabbed one man by the scruff of the neck, hauling him to his feet. He was mildly pleased to find the D’nvannae Brother was right beside him, dragging the second belligerent combatant to the other side of the LB access portal.
Nick sensed the crowd preparing to surge forward in blind panic, now the human obstacles were removed. He wheeled, shoving the man he had grabbed roughly away, knocking down two or three other passengers in the process. People stepped on or over them in an instinctive rush to get closer to the presumed safety of the lifeboat.
“Nobody moves until I say so!” Holding up one hand, he used the tone of voice he would employ on a batch of unruly, raw recruits, awesomely commanding.
“Quiet down now,” he said, watching the people in the front row of the mob, getting eye contact, to personalize his commands, make them feel like responsible individuals, not a mindless, panicking herd.
The blaring sirens and recorded emergency warnings cut out, resumed briefly and then died away in a slowly fading gibberish. The lights in the corridor flickered, causing gasps here and there in the crowd.
“Are there any SMT officers or crew here?” Nick said.
Desperation, fear, and puzzlement on the faces in front of him. Many sidelong glances, mute head shakes.
“All right, then. I’m Captain Jameson, Sectors Special Forces. I’m taking charge of this LB portal. I need four volunteers besides this man,” nodding at the D’nvannae, “to help me keep order here. You can’t all get into this LB. No one’s going to make it off unless you keep your heads and we go about this calmly and quickly.” He pointed at some likely candidates. “You, you, you and you.”
He’d picked out a quartet of fairly good-sized men, who seemed calmer than some of the others ringing him. Pointing at the Brother, he said, “What’s your name?”
“Fine, Khevan, you and these four gentlemen form a ring. No one gets by until I say so. Watch my back while I open this damn portal.”
Nodding, the D’nvannae and the four men linked arms and established a perimeter. Nick gave his attention to the locked access. Damn, there should have been at least one SMT crew person at each LB by now, with the unlock code, getting the civilians safely off the ship as fast as possible. Nick spared a second and a small part of his mind to swear at the inefficiencies and lax discipline of this ship’s captain. Lucky for all these nice people I know how to open the thing.
Nick scanned the portal info display as he keyed in a code on the access panel. “Capacity 100 sentients,” the label declared in Basic and the other five languages. Okay, Jameson, quick, calculate what the limit really means, what the margin of design safety probably was. How many extra oxygen-breathers can I shove onto the thing without killing them all?
As the door cycled open, Nick assessed the waiting throng. The crowd, even larger now, probably in excess of two hundred men, women and children, pressed forward. They were pushing his ring of volunteers closer to him before the men dug in and shoved resolutely back.
“This LB can only support 125,” Nick announced to the assembled passengers, pitching his voice to carry to the edge of the crowd. “I’m not allowing one more person to board beyond the limit. I’m taking children and their caretakers first, followed by as many other adults as possible. Anyone with children, come forward now. We’ve got no time to lose. No luggage! No pets!” Nick pointed to the stout woman, who had followed in his wake through the crowd. “You, what’s your name?”
She stepped forward. “Maud Panula.”
“All right, Maud, come stand right here next to me and keep count. Shout it out for me every ten heads, then every five as we get closer to capacity.”
“Who appointed you Lord of Space?” shouted a red faced man in the middle of the crowd, as the first nervous children and their relatives came forward, passing through Nick’s cordon. The complainer found a few kindred sentients who appeared to agree with him. An undercurrent of ominous murmuring increased in volume.
“There’s only a few of them–”
“No weapons- let’s rush them!”
“The officer and I can kill with our bare hands,” Khevan said softly from his place in the center of the cordon guarding the LB access, his voice carrying as easily as Nick’s had. “You won’t gain entry to this LB by challenging his order, I guarantee you.”
Nick listened to the count rapidly climbing, as more and more children and adults streamed past him. Where the hell had they all come from? “We’re at eighty already,” he announced to the crowd, “If you don’t like your chances here, better go find the next LB.”
“Where?” screamed several despairing voices.
Nick cursed the SMT Line again for their lack of preparation. “There are LB portals every few hundred yards, going both directions, all three passenger decks and on the Casino Deck.”
Khevan broke link with his fellows, to keep a burly man from getting past them without permission. There was a rapid flurry of blows and the other passenger sank to the carpeted deck, unconscious or dead. Khevan meant what he’d said, and was obviously prepared to act on the threat. A large portion of the crowd melted away, running frantically in both directions, in search of another LB where the odds might be better, where no one was in charge. Nick felt sorry for them.
“You get inside when the tally reaches 110,” he said to his human counter. And once I’ve sent them on their way to safety, I can go see about Mara, whether she’s ok, did she get off the ship. He had her cabin number, obtained from the AI the first day, but he was hoping she’d already taken a lifeboat. Even then, I can’t leave until I know every civilian’s been taken care of.