Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Titanic--100 Years Later

I am starting to write this blog entry at 11:40 PM (EST) on the night of April 14, 2012. It seems so strange to think that it was exactly one hundred years ago that the RMS Titanic struck the iceberg which would send it to the bottom of the Atlantic in a little over two hours. It also ensured that the Titanic would become a part of history which is still remembered a century later. There are many reasons that the story of the Titanic has endured for one hundred years and why it is still so powerful today. The most obvious reason is the simple fact that over 1,500 people died that night. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in history. But the Titanic's legend is also fueled by so many more elements that it's almost difficult to believe that it could all be true. It almost seems like it has to be a work of fiction (and a pretty unbelievable one at that). The Titanic (along with her lesser-known sisters the Olympic and the Britannic) were the largest ships ever built up to that time. Titanic was referred to as the largest moving object ever created by man. Today's super-sized cruise ships would dwarf the Titanic, but her 882 foot length was an incredible feat of engineering in 1912. It was a time of great and rapid advances in science and technology. Today we tend to judge technology's progression by how things can be improved dramatically while becoming smaller and smaller. In 1912 the trend was to make things bigger and bigger. "Bigger is Better" could very well have been the motto of the day. The different ocean liner companies were constantly trying to outdo each other by building bigger, faster and more luxurious ships. It would be interesting to see what would have happened to this trend if the Titanic has arrived safely in New York on its maiden voyage in 1912.

1912 was also at the tail end of the Edwardian era, a time of rich people living very ostentatious and lavish lifestyles. The difference in the classes that was such a part of the fabric of society in 1912 could be seen on the luxury liners that regularly crossed the Atlantic. First, Second and Third Class were separated as much as possible onboard these ships. People in First Class should never even have to see the people in steerage who were relegated to their own areas, mostly deep in the ship and far away from the upper class passengers. It has frequently been said that a First Class ticket on the Titanic cost more than what most Third Class passengers would make in wages in an entire year. Some of the richest men in the entire world were traveling on the maiden voyage of the Titanic along with many people of meager means who were hoping to come to America and start a better life. The Edwardian era was already coming to an close, but the Titanic disaster really made for a very distinct end point. Two years later World War I would start and the world would become a very different place than it had been when the Titanic set sail.

There was also the audacious belief that the Titanic was "unsinkable" because it was the very apex of modern technology and safety. I have a feeling that this aspect was played up after the Titanic sank and really became part of the legend, but it was certainly rooted in fact. She was certainly considered "practically unsinkable" and it was said at least once that God himself couldn't sink her. That arrogance and the fact that the Titanic sank so fast--and on her maiden voyage--seem like something from a work of fiction. It sounds like a perfect comeuppance that couldn't really be true. She was designed so that any four of her watertight compartments could be flooded and she could stay afloat. Five of those compartments were compromised and the ship was doomed. The fact that no one thought the Titanic was also a big part of the reason that she carried only enough lifeboats for about half the passengers. Maritime regulations hadn't kept up with the rapid increase in the size of the new luxury liners. Titanic had enough lifeboats to fulfill those regulations, and obviously there wasn't any reason to clutter up the decks by adding more.

the best thing to come out of the Titanic tragedy were the much stricter regulations that explicitly required every ship to carry enough lifeboats for every person onboard. This and many other changes made after the disaster have probably saved hundreds--or thousands--of lives in the century since the Titanic went down.

Of course all the individual stories of what people did that night are also a big part of the lore of the Titanic as well. The bravery and courage of many members of the crew--and passengers as well--are legendary. Many people went to their deaths in a very dignified manner. The band played on to try to keep the crowds calm as long as they could--and then they all went down with the ship. Many men said goodbye to their wives and children as they put them in the lifeboats--knowing full well that they would most likely never see them again. Some women, realizing the true danger of the situation, opted to remain on the ship with their husbands rather than take a seat in a lifeboat. These stories contrast with some other stories of cowardice. All kinds of human behavior were displayed that night, but the majority of them seemed to be honorable.

Yet another reason for the Titanic's legacy was that no one could find her final resting place at the bottom of the ocean for more than seventy years. It seems odd to think of it now, but up until Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic in 1985 she had been one of the greatest mysteries of the twentieth century. It seemed there was just as much unknown as there was known about the ship. There was something so powerful about the fact that the worst sea disaster in history was also one of the world's greatest mysteries.

It is now 1:00 AM on April 15th, and it seems very strange to think that in the time I've been writing this rambling piece (I type very slowly) was a time of so much drama exactly one hundred years ago. By this time everyone on board must have known that the "unsinkable" Titanic was in fact going to sink. Many Third Class passengers were still trapped below deck by locked doors and gates designed to keep them away from the First Class passengers. The crew and many passengers probably were aware by now that the vast majority of souls still aboard were not going to get off--and that no help would arrive in time to save them. By the time 2:20 AM rolls around I will probably be asleep. It was at this time that the Titanic finally slipped beneath the surface and the majority of her victims lost their lives by either being pulled under by the suction, drowning or freezing to death in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

The story of the Titanic is repeated in print and on film so often that it can be hard to remember that this really was a true event. But it remains an amazingly tragic story even after one hundred years. This anniversary gives us a chance to think about it again and to try to comprehend just how many factors went into the story that cumulatively made it just such a monumental event in the history of mankind.


I've decided to stay up until 2:20 AM. It just seems like such an important moment to commemorate that it is worth not getting enough sleep for. Of course, while the Titanic went down at 2:20 and was never seen again until 1985, the stories many of her passengers continued. A lot of people went in the water when the Titanic sank. Those who were still alive spent at least a few more agonizing seconds or minutes in the freezing ocean waters before passing away. The lucky passengers who managed to get into lifeboats spent the remainder of the night trying to cope with what they had just witnessed and lived through, and trying to keep warm while waiting for a ship to rescue them. The RMS Carpathia didn't get there until the morning. Most of those survivors' lives were forever changed after the Titanic. As time went on and as the numbers of survivors dwindled, those who remained found themselves gaining a sort of celebrity status. People wanted to meet them and hear their stories. I remember the 90th anniversary commemorations ten years ago. At the time there were still a few Titanic survivors left (most of whom were too young in 1912 to really remember anything that had happened on that night). The last survivor, Millivina Dean, was only a couple months old when she was placed in one of the Titanic's lifeboats. She passed away just a few years ago in May of 2009. This means that this is the first major Titanic anniversary where there is no longer anyone left who was actually onboard the Titanic when she sank.


  1. My great grandmother didn't like it when people used nick names or other forms of names. eg William =bill or Cecilia = Cis. When my grand father was born she went out of her way to find a name that could not be nick named. She eventually found the name Delwyn from the roster of the Titanic. Unfortunately in his later years folks referred to him as Del.

  2. That's a very interesting story I never knew about "Del" (as I always knew him). Thank you for sharing that!