I wasn’t actually sure I should write something about the Titanic, I’m still sort of not sure. But as I came home from getting frozen yogurt two nights ago and found my mother watching a History Channel show entitled “Titanic’s Final Moments: Missing Pieces” I started watching it with her. This was by no means the only program I’d watched. I’ve seen so many documentaries on the famous liner’s doomed maiden voyage in the past week that it’s virtually insane. But the thing that I realized, as I stood in the upstairs hallway giving my mother a thirty minute oration on the sinking, hardly any of it was new information to me. I’m fairly obsessed.
It began, for me, in 1991 after the publication of this title:
we had this thing at school. Something by Scholastic that allowed students to select books and purchase them through the school. At the time I was interested almost exclusively in classics, absorbed with The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, so I let my mom do the choosing. Why it was that she thought I’d be interested in an Edwardian disaster I can’t be sure, but she did also purchase me Secrets of Vesuvius and something about the wreck of the Bismarck. Perhaps she wanted me to be well rounded. I can appreciate Pompeii as much as the next girl but the other two books just didn’t do it for me. Instead I found myself completely and utterly absorbed with the Titanic. Particularly this painting by Ken Marschall.
I stared at it for hours and I remember telling my mother that I had a plan. If I had been on board I would have jumped and swam over to the hall filled lifeboats. She nodded at me and said that was a good idea. Two days ago I asked her why she would have ever told me that, that if the fall from the rising stern didn’t kill me then the freezing water surely would have. Her answer was obvious; I was ten years old and she didn’t want to scare me.
And then, of course, there was the movie. I was the perfect age for it to kill me in so many different ways. I wrote about it once before, here, so I wont go into it now. It’s unimportant anyway in regards to this blog. Really. But, it did do something, it garnered enough public interest for the publication of more books on the subject.
So, why are so many people, myself included (clearly), still obsessed with a ship that sank one hundred years ago today? I think the answer is complicated. There have been other disasters, of course, some much larger and horrific then the great ship sliding into the icy North Atlantic, yet interest remains keen. I think it’s ultimately down to several reasons.
“We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”
The first reason is undoubtedly sacrifice. While there are surely hundreds of unheard stories from the tragedy, the dozens of example of men loading their women onto the lifeboats and then awaiting the inevitable for themselves are clearly touching. Benjamin Guggenheim, for example, put his mistress, Léontine Aubart onto lifeboat number 9, telling her that he’d see her later, and then dressed in his finest to wait the icy water with brandy in cigars. He famously uttered the above quote and wrote to his wife: ‘If anything should happen to me, tell my wife I’ve done my best in doing my duty.’ John Jacob Astor, member of the prominent Astor family, hotel magnate, and richest man on the ship, asked Second Officer Lightoller if he could accompany his wife due to the fact that she was many months pregnant. When he was denied Astor calmly asked the lifeboat number and was last seen smoking a cigarette on the starboard bridge wing. Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s department store, refused to get on a lifeboat while women and younger men were still aboard the ship. He and his wife, Ida, were last seen sitting on deck chairs and holding hands. Thomas Andrews, architect for shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, was on board with the Guarantee Group ensuring everything was perfect on Titanic. When the ship hit the iceberg it was Andrews who assessed the damage and gave the captain the bad news. He spent his remaining time assisting passengers in putting on their life jackets and was last seen in the first class smoking room. And finally, the band, lead by Wallace Henry Hartley, who famously played until they couldn’t play anymore. Their last tune is unknown but many reports placed it as the hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee” (which seriously, is the best part of the movie, and if you didn’t get slightly choked up then you have a soul of iron and I hate you).
One of the things about Titanic wasn’t just that a lot of people died, it was that a lot of prominent people died. Perhaps that shouldn’t make any difference, but the fact of the matter is that it does. Two survivors, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, who boarded lifeboat 1 early in the night (and rumored, likely erroneously, to have bribed the crew not to go back for those flailing in the water), and J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, who climbed into lifeboat C when no more women were present to take the space, were both ostracized throughout the rest of their lives for not giving up their seats to one of the hundreds of women and children who went down with the ship.
Then, of course, there’s what I keep hearing over and over in all these documentaries: the disaster of the Titanic was a perfect example of the times. More than fifty years after the end of the Industrial Revolution the world was still plugging away at new technologies, faster travel, new ways to get rich quick. The world was moving so fast and so much hubris had been installed in the human race. Labeling a ship as ‘practically unsinkable’ might seem to be inviting fate, but the truth was just like the banks we recently bailed out, just like the mortgage crisis, just like the oil companies, and tech firms they thought it was just too big to fail. They used the best shipbuilders, they brought in linen and china, they made the staterooms, for all the classes, more luxurious than any other liner. They created watertight bulkheads, two of which, or the first four, could be flooded and the ship would still float, they put in a double bottom. They thought that even if something happened the ship could stay afloat long enough for rescue to come. They wrote it in the press, it was lauded, everyone knew. But then they didn’t give the lookouts binoculars, it was a calm night where waves didn’t crash at the base of any bergs, the rudder was slightly small for the liner’s bulk, they used weaker iron rivets instead of steal. So when Titanic sideswiped an iceberg at 11:40pm on the night of April the 14th, 1912 they waited with baited breath. Four bulkheads could be flooded, but not five. Two hours and forty minutes later, at 2:20am on the morning of Monday April the 15th, 1912 the Titanic foundered. And no one was prepared for it.
One of my favorite stories about the sinking is that of Collapsible B.
Titanic had well above the required number of lifeboats for standard code in 1912. Sixteen was all they needed. Titanic had twenty; sixteen standard lifeboats and four collapsibles located on the top of the crew’s quarters. These had canvas and cork, ideal for storage purposes, and could hold forty-seven (as opposed to the regular sixty-five). Collapsibles C and D were launched from the aft part of the quarters without a hitch but as A and B were being lowered to the ship deck the water from the bow started to make it’s way to Boat Deck. Collapsible A was partially swamped but usable, but Collapsible B fell from the roof upside down and was not able to be overturned before the water reached it. When the forward funnel broke from it’s ties the lifeboat was swept out into the ocean where several dozen men clamored into it’s overturned surface; including Second Officer Charles Lightoller, wireless operators Jack Phillips (who did not make it the night) and Harold Bride, Colonel Archibald Gracie, and John ‘Jack’ Borland Thayer Jr (the latter two of which wrote down their experiences in book and pamphlet form). As the night wore on the air pocket trapped underneath the overturned lifeboat started to disipate and the men where forced to stand up, leaning to and fro against the waves until they were transported into other lifeboats several hours later.
I think, perhaps, surviving this disaster would warrant the worst sort of survivor’s guilt in the world. Less than half of Titanic’s passengers made it onto lifeboats. Most of which were launched half full. Those on board would certainly be relieved to escape with their lives but then they had to watch at this already legendary ship rose out of the water with people clinging to the stern in swarms and when it disappeared under the waves they listened as fifteen hundred people screamed, a sound survivor Jack Thayer described as “like the high-pitched hum of locusts back home in Pennsylvania” until they succumbed to hypothermia. And then it was quiet. I can’t even imagine what it would be like, waiting in the cold, until the Carpathia arrived, too late to make any real difference.
So yes, the story of Titanic is old, one hundred years old. But it’s also timeless. The ship was a thing of beauty and within five days of it’s launch on it’s maiden voyage it was gone to the bottom of the ocean where it remained for seventy three years until the wreck was discovered in 1985. I was four years old. I can’t look at the wreckage without considerable psyching up. I can’t stand submerged things. And I think this, at least partially, is why. But there it sits, four hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland, two and a half miles under the surface. There is steal and iron, there’s coal, there’s bathtubs and boilers. But there are also tea cups that people drank from, there’s the case of rockets sent to alert other ships of their peril, there are shoes. The story of the Titanic is a fantastic one. It couldn’t have been written better if someone made it up. It’s romantic and tragic and everything a great story should be. But it’s also something else, something that has bothered me my entire life and continues to bother the people who it touches, it’s real.
(Last photograph of Titanic as she departs Queenstown [now Cobh] Ireland)
* Marconi operator Jack Phillips to the Cunard steam liner Carpathia who picked up survivors on April 15th, 1912. Phillips, himself, was not among them.