Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Tragedy of the Titanic, a Century Later

From time to time, man persuades himself that he has conquered nature.

A century ago tonight, the passengers on the Titanic's maiden voyage probably believed they were safe from any danger. Whether that really was how the people of that time saw it or not, Titanic came to be known in popular lore as unsinkable — even though it had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic.

But that reputation for being unsinkable, reports Rosie Waites of BBC News Magazine, "is perhaps the biggest myth surrounding the Titanic" — according to Richard Howells of Kings College London, who calls it "a retrospective myth." Sort of like the Camelot characterization of the Kennedy years that arose following the assassination, I suppose.

If the people of 1912 really did believe Titanic was unsinkable, their faith proved to be misplaced as the great ship sank after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic only minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912.

Everyone knows that story, I guess. It's one of the great "ooops" stories — and certainly one of the great tragedies — of all time. More than 1,500 people lost their lives.

The great tragedy of Titanic, as Chris Berg writes for The Wall Street Journal, is that the "ship of dreams" had a nightmarish flaw that was created by regulations of the time, regulations that were followed to the letter by the White Star Line but which proved to be wholly inadequate.

That flaw was in the number of lifeboats on board, and that number was based on regulations that were "written for a different era and enforced unthinkingly."

It is, asserts Berg, "the most iconic regulatory failure of the 20th century."

As Berg writes, "There were a host of other failures, accidents, and mishaps which led to the enormous loss of life," but the lifeboat capacity is a glaring one reduced to cold, hard numbers: There were more than 2,200 people on board, and the lifeboats, even when filled to capacity, could only accommodate about half.

Unfortunately, many of the lifeboats were allowed to leave the ship with empty seats. Consequently, more than 1,500 people perished.

"From the moment the Titanic scraped the iceberg," Berg writes, "the casualties were going to be unprecedented." But, obviously, more modern appraisals of the needs of seagoing vessels could have limited those casualties.

Titanic was a prescient name, in many ways, I suppose. Surely, the grandiose nature of the name contributed mightily to the ship's image of invulnerability.

And, when it sank, the loss of life, the reporting of the catastrophe and the ramifications were, indeed, titanic.

For a long time, it was thought that Titanic was too far below the surface ever to be found. But, in the mid–1980s, Robert Ballard and his crew re–ignited a wave of Titanic hysteria with their discovery of the ship's remains some 2½ miles down.

But, as Andrew Wilson writes for the Smithsonian magazine, fascination with Titanic's compelling and tragic tale has never really gone away. It has just gone through "waves of Titanic mania."

"The public's appetite for information and details — accounts of suffering, bravery, self–sacrifice and selfishness — seemed insatiable" at the time of the sinking, Wilson observes.

That much was obvious from the first newspaper reports that screamed of the loss of life aboard the allegedly unsinkable ship. It was as if the people of the time refused to believe that they had been wrong about the great ship.

For days — weeks, even — subsequent newspaper headlines reminded readers of the number of casualties. I've seen such an insatiable fascination with such a macabre subject a few times before — for example, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded — but nothing that I know of (short of, perhaps, an act of national aggression, like the attack on Pearl Harbor) has had the staying power of Titanic.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking, the movie based on the event, 1997's "Titanic," which won 11 Oscars, has been re–released in 3–D. Even though it has been nearly 15 years since that movie was released — and everyone already knew how the story would end when it came out the first time — it continues to get positive reviews and, as I understand it, pretty good box office numbers, too.

A commemorative cruise, with descendants of Titanic's passengers on board, set sail earlier this week with the intention of following the route Titanic took and being at the crash site for tonight's anniversary.

That's staying power.

Daniel Mendelsohn makes an interesting point in his article in the New Yorker, even if it is a point that was made by another (unnamed) historian: "It may not be true," Mendelsohn writes, "that 'the three most written–about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War and the Titanic,' as one historian has put it, but it's not much of an exaggeration."

Now, in my studies of history, I have had the opportunity to study the story of the Titanic. That's something that many of those who saw that movie 15 years ago likely had not done, given that so many were in their early teens and were smitten with co–star Leonardo DiCaprio and saw the movie countless times simply to drool over him.

(Actually, as the Washington Post recently revealed, there are people out there — not necessarily teenagers, either — who do not know that Titanic struck an iceberg and sank a century ago.)

But I had read accounts of the sinking, and I was impressed with the attention to detail in the movie. The sets, the costumes and the facts were mostly correct. The Grand Staircase, for example, which played a prominent role in the movie, appeared to be precise in its re–creation.

Many of the people who saw the movie back in 1997 probably did not know the name of the man who captained the ship.

For the record, his name was Edward Smith, and it is acknowledged by just about everyone that he died in the disaster, but no one really knows how he perished.

Many historians claim he was seen on the bridge a few minutes before the ship sank beneath the waves. There are tales that he was in the ship's wheelhouse, others that he was in the radio room.

A heroic — although improbable — account holds that he saved a child's life, carrying it to a lifeboat before urging the surviving crew members to "[b]e British" and swimming off to die in the sub–freezing waters.

That, in fact, is probably how many of the Titanic's passengers and crew died that night. There was a popular misconception for a long time that many of the victims drowned when they were pulled below the surface in the wake of the plunging ship or trapped in its bowels, but the film actually helped set the record straight.

The frigid waters of the North Atlantic caused many of the victims to die of hypothermia or cardiac arrest. The upper portions of their bodies remained above the surface, thanks to the lifejackets they wore, but the cold water (reportedly 28° F) took their lives within a few minutes.

To be sure, some did go down in the sinking ship — and almost certainly died from the pressure well before the vessel came to rest on the sea floor.

I don't know if any passengers' remains are still entombed in the ship after a century. I doubt that any would have made it to the bottom in the initial sinking, given the pressure at that depth. But stranger things have happened, I suppose.

And there are all sorts of analogies to be drawn from the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy and the withdrawal of Rick Santorum from the Republican presidential race or the dismissal of Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino.

But even without those contemporary tales, the Titanic story seems to be alive and well in the 21st century.

"The Titanic has never been bigger," writes Joel Achenbach for the Washington Post.

I suspect that is true.

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