For the most part, people aboard one of history's most famous shipwrecks, the Titanic, also followed the tradition of the "Birkenhead Drill." The Titanic's captain E.J. Smith admonished the men to "Be British," letting women and children leave first. In the best romantic tradition, he did go down with his ship.
Indeed, 74 percent of the women and 52 percent of the children were saved; while only 20 percent of the men survived.
But one cannot rely on the Birkenhead tradition on all ships. Of the 86 survivors of the Northfleet, which sank in the English Channel in 1873, there was only one woman and two children, while no woman is recorded as a survivor in the emigrant ship the London, which sank near Plymouth in 1865.
The chivalric code was also absent on the Costa Concordia, with people pushing to get into lifeboats -- leaving behind children, pregnant women and disabled people.
Nevertheless, acts of heroism emerged amid chaos and panic.
While the captain was ashore giving television interviews, four men -- a doctor, a young official, the ship's purser and the deputy mayor of the Giglio island, who boarded the ship after the disaster -- saved about 500 trapped passengers.