The story of the Titanic has maintained a prominent place in world history and has captured imaginations for decades. In essence, the magnificent ship was a symbol of decadence, luxury, and ultimately, human arrogance and tragedy.
That iconic luxury liner, which one crewman allegedly referred to as a ship that “not even God could sink,” will mark its 100th anniversary this weekend. Mystery still shrouds the event, in which the ship sank on April 14, 1912, over a span of almost three hours until it was completely buried by the sea in the early hours of April 15, 1912. Many media outlets have already begun to run feature articles on the anniversary, and the Titanic once again emerges from the pages of history to today’s headlines.
The Titanic was the biggest news source of its time and was celebrated as the grandest ship ever built. It was heralded a “floating palace” and boasted every luxury item one could imagine, from gilded staircases to the finest china to rooms that would rival those at any 5-star hotel. It began its first (and last) voyage on April 10, 1912, setting sail from Southhampton, England, and stopping at Queenstown, Ireland, with New York City as its unreached destination.
After sailing through quiet waters for its first few days at sea, one of the lookouts spotted an iceberg at approximately 11:40 pm on April 14, . While he issued a warning, it was too late, and the Titanic slammed into the iceberg. Within about ten minutes, water had already risen about 14 feet in the front of the ship, and the captain was informed that the ship would only stay afloat for two hours. As we learn from our history books, there were only enough lifeboats available for about half of the approximately 2,227 passengers. Women and children were given first consideration, meaning that most men did not survive, and even worse, because many lifeboats remained partially empty, only about 800 passengers actually survived. The rest went down with the ship into the icy, eerily dark waters that night. By 12:20 a.m. on April 15, the ship was gone.
Personally, I have been fascinated by the story of the Titanic since childhood. Even before the film with Leonardo DiCaprio and the nauseatingly sweet Celine Dion song, “My Heart Will Go On,” came out, I was fascinated by the story. (I admit it, I saw the movie about three times in the theater and cried every time, not to mention that I bought the soundtrack and listened to it repeatedly). Before the “Kate and Leo” hysteria–when I was in the sixth grade–I submitted a story about fictional characters on the doomed voyage to the McKinney PTA’s annual writing contest, subsequently won, and had my picture published in the McKinney Courier-Gazette. I remember thinking that millions of stories could have been written about possible characters on the Titanic and how they responded during that fateful night.
What made the McKinney PTA react positively to my little story was the same thing that was mentioned in a 1985 National Geographic documentary on Bob Ballard’s expedition in which the shipwreck was discovered after years of failed attempts–because the Titanic sank over such a long period of time, people had time to respond to what was happening. Some acted with bravery, and others with cowardice. Heroes were made, as were villains. Subsequently, it is possible for people in modern times to wonder what they would have done if faced with the same situation.
To this day, stories of passengers aboard the Titanic continue to enthrall. There is of course the story of the Strauses, a wealthy older couple who owned the Macy’s department store chain; when Mrs. Straus was in the lifeboat and realized that her husband was not allowed to join her, she voluntarily left her guarantee of safety and perished alongside him. There was also the young man who had just turned 18 years old, who declined a spot in a lifeboat because, as he said, “No, I’m a man now. I’ll stand with the rest.” And, of course, there is the iconic image of the orchestra members who played their music on the ship’s deck until they were claimed by the sea.
New attention is being paid to the Titanic, as the story still strikes a chord a century on. Even this week, new photos are being published of the wreckage site, and some related artifacts (such as a handwritten account by the captain of the Carpathia, the first ship to arrive after the Titanic issued its distress call) are set to be auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars.
Titanic exhibitions and memorials of the disaster also exist around the world. I was fortunate to have the chance to visit Cobh, Ireland (known as Queenstown when the tragedy occurred), a few years ago to see the place where Titanic docked for the last time before sailing towards New York. I also had the opportunity to visit a Titanic exhibition in Belfast a few years ago. There was also supposed to be a memorial cruise this week, reenacting the ship’s trajectory (people even dressed in period costumes to get the “real feel” for things, apparently), but the trip has reportedly been delayed due to rough weather and a passenger’s evacuation for medical treatment.
There are also some new theories as to what caused the ship to hit the iceberg in the first place. One new theory, for instance, states that a rare astronomical event (i.e. a full moon and freak tides) in 1912 might have caused icebergs to detach from their usual positions and float into shipping lanes. Another claims that crew members could not see the iceberg until it was too late because, on account of the unusually cold sea air that night, light bended abnormally downward and caused a thick haze. That same downward light could have also distorted the Titanic’s distress signals, rendering the captain of the USS Californian (the ship that was closest to the sinking site, but whose captain did not take action after being alerted by staff) unable to recognize the signal as that of the Titanic.
These theories are, for now, being debated in academic circles, and time will tell whether or not they are generally accepted as plausible. Either way, the story of that “unsinkable” ship remains a real reminder that human creations are not invincible, and leaves us to wonder what kind of character we would exhibit under such horrific circumstances.