Sunday, April 14, 2013

Titanic - A Timeless Tragedy - Repost

This poster was my first encounter with the Titanic. It was in 1958 and my parents took me to see the film. I was awestruck at the luxury of the ship and the wealth of the travelers aboard her. It was, I believe, the start of my lifelong love affair with ships and all things nautical.
Today marks the 98th anniversary of the sinking of that great ship. The Titanic went down on a cold, moonless night in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. The belief that she was "unsinkable" did her no good. And with lifeboats for less than half of the passengers aboard, the loss of life was tremendous.

At 4 years old I was already familiar with the ocean, having been born less than a mile from the Atlantic Coast in Brooklyn, New York. The fact that the Titanic's survivors had been taken to New York aboard the Carpathia only made those waters more holy to me. I would stare out to sea at night, trying to decipher the meanings of those red and green lights called "bouys" and wonder what lay beyond. Eventually I would find out.

The Titanic was one of those grand affairs conceived at the end of the 19th Century and built in the early years of the 20th Century. It was built with the notion that we were now the Masters of our fates. There was no undertaking that man could not achieve. There was a belief that there was no element which we, as human beings, could not conquer.

Sailing from Southampton on her maiden voyage, she left on April 10th, 1912 for New York City with 2,207 passengers aboard. The ship would never arrive and only 700 or so passengers ever made it to their destination.

I remember watching the film and the scene in which the water comes up the ladderways from the mailroom still leaves an impression upon me. My parents made a lesson of that film, instilling in me that nothing is ever a sure thing. There are forces that are constantly working against us. False pride, greed, visions of grandeur are always lurking and waiting to take us down, just as they did the Titanic.

Through the years, much has been written; and filmed; about this fabled ship and her untimely demise. Some of the stuff is quite informative and lends an even deeper meaning to the tragedy of that cold and fateful night. Some are fictitious versions of the event. It took me almost 10 years before I would even see Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Titanic." It seemed so silly to attempt a dramatization of such a powerful and true event.

The stories of the sacrifices made that night are legendary, but well documented. This book, "A Night To Remember" by Walter Lord was first published in 1955. Most of the survivors were still alive and Mr. Lord interviewed them all in preparation for the book. This paperback copy was a gift from my parents when I was 11 years old. As you can see, I still have it. Inside are news clippings from over the years, each one documenting the death of yet another survivor. Morbid; perhaps; but my fascination with this event has shaped a good portion of my life.

The sinking of the Titanic marked the first use of the new wireless distress code "SOS." Ships as far away as Cape Race heard the call. Some attempted to assist in the rescue - others, such as the California, less than 10 miles away, merely watched her sink. The rockets, flares and wireless messages all went unheeded. Only the Carpathia made it, although she arrived after the Titanic had sunk. Plucking the remaining survivors from the water, she raced back to New York. From there the crew was taken to a hearing in Washington D.C. before the Maritime Safety Committee. A separate inquiry was later conducted upon the crews return to England.

As a result of these hearings changes in safety regulations were made; all ships would henceforth carry twice the number of lifeboats needed. This is necessary because when a ship lists too far to port or starboard, half of the boats are incapable of being launched. The number of lifebelts required was increased. Ice warnings became the normal procedure, rather than the exception. The use of the wireless, and mandatory wireless "watches" were also instituted as a result of the Titanic’s loss.

But of all the stories told from that night, none has stayed with me in the way that the story of Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus has. They had risen from the ashes of the Confederacy to found a small China business in Philadelphia. From there they went on to make Macy's the world's largest department store.When she was told by her husband to get in the lifeboat along with the other women and children she answered, "We have been living together many years. Where you go, I go." When Hugh Woolner tried to persuade the aging Mr. Straus to get in the boat with Mrs. Straus, he replied, " I will not go before the other men." They were last seen lounging side by side in deck chairs, confusion reigning all about them as they sat, calmly awaiting their fate.

So many stories abound from that night. For the best insight into this remarkable tragedy I can suggest no other source which is better than Mr. Lords' two books on the Titanic. The first is "A Night to Remember", which was filmed twice, the British version being the best. And his follow up "The Night Lives On", published in 1986.

This is Molly Brown, aka the "Unsinkable Molly Brown." A would be socialite from Colorado; she had been snubbed by all the women in her community. She was returning from Europe aboard the Titanic as a way to gain acceptance in the social circles of Denver. In the lifeboat when some of the inexperienced crew members were failing to do their duty, Mrs. Brown rose to the occasion and took command of the boat. When she returned to Denver she snubbed all the "fair weather" friends who now clamored for her company.

An interesting note on the collision is that the sinking was avoidable. Had the ship simply continued on course, rather than making that fateful turn to port in a futile effort to avoid the iceberg, the damage would've been limited to the bow section and the pumps would have controlled the flooding. She would have arrived late, but with all passengers and crew safe.

The other interesting note to this story is the fate of the Carpathia, which had rescued the survivors. At the outbreak of World War One she was pressed into service as a troop ship. She was torpedoed in 1918 enroute from England to Boston. An ignominious end to such an important piece of maritime history, but, such are the ways of the sea...

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