Saturday, April 14, 2012

100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic

Tonight marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage.

We all know the story: At 11:40 p.m. ship time, she struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. 2 hours and 40 minutes later, at 2:20 a.m. ship time, she slipped beneath the waves, and now lies over 12,500 feet down in the deep. Of the 2,224 people on board, only 710 survived. Among the dead were some of the richest people in the world.

I admit it… I’m a Titanic buff. The story of the Titanic has always been of interest to me. I first read Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember while in high school. Then, in 1985, when Robert Ballard found the Titanic, I remember watching the National Geographic Special, Secrets of the Titanic, that documented the discovery with rapt fascination.

I was born in 1965, the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. To me, the Civil War seems almost like ancient history. Yet, as I rapidly approach 50 years old, 100 years doesn’t seem nearly as long any more, and events of 100 years ago seem much more recent.

As an amateur historian, I could not allow this date to pass without making a few comments – Musings, really – regarding the events of 100 years ago and also the place that the Titanic still has in popular culture and myth.

Safety: The Ship & Her Operation

The Titanic really was the pinnacle of coal-fired steam technology. A lot of people mock the safety features that were incorporated into her design – after all, she did sink – yet she really was the safest thing afloat at the time and she was built to the highest standards of the day. By all accounts, Harland & Wolff, the shipbuilders who designed and built Titanic were not innovators. Titanic was not designed to be cutting edge new technology, but was the culmination of 51 years experience at shipbuilding, most of it building iron and steel steamships for the White Star Line. All of that knowledge and experience went in to building Titanic. She wasn't up to our modern design standards, but neither was she a flawed design. Nor were her materials substandard. Her sister ship, RMS Olympic, the identical design, built by the same workmen with the same iron and steel, served faithfully from 1911 until retired in 1935. (Sadly, she was scrapped in 1937.)

While they had received ice warnings, Titanic’s officers were certain that any ice in her path was insignificant. None had ever seen ice that far south, and, even with the warnings she’d received, considered it highly unlikely that they were in any danger of collision. They had lookouts posted, and that was considered sufficient by all. Captain Smith even delayed his turn westward by almost an hour, taking an even more southerly path, confident that he was skirting the ice that had been reported. Radar, which would have been able to detect the iceberg ahead, would not be invented for another twenty-nine years.

There was a certain complacency to the lack of precaution, but, according to Daniel Butler’s ”Unsinkable”: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic, travel had never been safer than in the 40 years before the Titanic’s sinking.

Mr. Butler wrote:

”If the passengers believed that the Titanic was indeed unsinkable, it wasn’t because they had succumbed to the blandishments of the shipping line’s advertisements or the pronouncements of the experts: in the forty years prior to the Titanic’s maiden voyage, only four lives had been lost on passenger ships on the North Atlantic trade. Imagine how blithely air travel would be regarded by present-day travelers, who usually express little trepidation about the hazards of commercial flying, if the major airlines possessed a similar safety record. Never had any form of transportation been so save and hazard free.”

With such a history of safety, it is no surprise that people recognized the dangers involved in modern sea travel only in hindsight. They were not blithely ignoring the dangers; they were just not cognizant of the dangers at all. To the people who built, crewed, and sailed on these vessels, such an accident was simply unimaginable; therefore they didn’t plan for what they never imagined would happen. The post-Titanic changes in safety regulations were certainly needed, especially the requirement that a passenger ship have enough lifeboat capacity for the total number of people aboard, but to say there was a callous disregard for the lives of the passengers by the owners and crew of the RMS Titanic is just untrue.

The Wreck Site

It is my belief that the looting of the wreck site for artifacts is a problem. The problem is that the wreck is just too recent. 500 years from now, it’d be different, but the last survivor of the Titanic only died 3 years ago. Titanic has passed from memory into history, but it is still recent history. The raising of the cannons from Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, which sank in 1718, does not cause near the same visceral reaction that bringing up artifacts from the Titanic invokes. Also, Queen Ann’s Revenge ran aground and was abandoned, she didn’t go down with 1,500 people at the dawn of the age of modern media.

The Titanic is a gravesite, but she’s also a scientific, historic, and archaeological site. Surveying the sight, taking photographs, and collecting scientific samples are certainly acceptable, but large-scale looting of the site for artifacts for collectors is not. I understand that a large collection of artifacts brought up from the wreck are being auctioned off on Sunday. I hope they end up in museums.

Cameron’s Film

Beautiful sets, impeccable costumes, peerless cinematography, stunning special effects… and an insipid story. What’s the matter, Mr. Cameron? Not enough drama in the real events? You thought the story could be improved upon by adding cheap romance with a plot more shallow than those contained within the pages of most old Harlequin Romances?

The setting makes the story more than it is. Still, it's a beautiful production, and it gives you a pretty darned good look at the ship.

Some Final Thoughts

In many ways, the 20th Century didn’t begin on January 1, 1901, but on April 15, 2012. The sinking of the Titanic marked the end of an era of unbridled optimism. It was followed, in quick succession, by World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. There was a certain innocence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that was forever shattered when the Titanic hit that iceberg. It wasn’t a perfect time, but it was one of those almost mythical “Golden Times” when life seemed especially good and hopeful. But, like other times which we tend to romanticize and idolize from the distance – the High Middle Ages, the Old West, etc. – the reality was, no doubt, not nearly as idyllic as we imagine.

Another reason why the Titanic story is so compelling is the senselessness of it. The ship wasn’t sunk in some grand battle for a cause deemed worthy of such sacrifice. These were just people traveling from one place to another, totally unaware of the great risk that they were taking. We all, individually and collectively, still take such risks today. How often do you think about what might happen every time you walk across the street or drive to the corner store?

Tracking the Events of Today

If you wish to note the exact times of the events that took place 100 years ago, you need to know a bit about ship time. Ship time is based on the ship’s exact position east to west, and not on what “time zone” the ship may be in. Therefore, when the Titanic struck the iceberg, it was 11:40 p.m. ship time, which would make it 11:07 p.m. on April 14 in New York and 3:07 a.m. on April 15 in London. She sank 2 hours and 40 minutes later, at 2:20 a.m. ship time, or 1:47 a.m. in New York and 5:47 in London. For the more technically minded, Titanic’s ship time was GMT/UTC -3:27.

As I said at the beginning, this has been just some random musings, things I've been thinking about as we mark the anniversary of this tragic but historic occasion.

Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave, Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep Its own appointed limits keep; Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea!

post signature

11 comments:

CAPTSteveHardy said...

Hey Gene,

Good thoughts on so many of the issues that have surrounded the sinking of this particular ship. For the first half of my Coast Guard career of 28 years, I was primarily a Marine Inspector, examining commercial ships from 20' to more than 1,000' in length, either as they were constructed or periodically as they were built. Many of our safety standards for these ships could be traced directly back to this event, especially lifesaving and vessel construction standards, but watchkeeping, radio monitoring and use and others. And the International Ice Patrol, lead by the Coast Guard, was established in 1913 and has had an unblemished record since.

You cited one of my favorite hymns at the end of your write-up; each of the armed services has a verse written for this song and the one you included is commonly considered the US Navy hymn.

Steve

The Squirrel said...

Capt. Hardy,

Thanks for stopping by, and thank you for your service to our country and to seafarers everywhere.

I was going to talk about the needed safety reforms instigated by the Titanic's sinking, but the post was already a bit longish.

It is interesting to look at the pictures of Titanic's sisters, Olympic & Britanic, after April, 1912, with more and larger davits and a full row of lifeboats down each side of the boat deck.

Squirrel

Bennett Willis said...

While I am convinced that we do better now than we did with the Titanic, it is still a function of crew/passenger cooperation and training--and good decisions on the part of "management."

As you look at the recent cruise ship lying on its side and listen to the stories that came off that ship--think how many lives would have been lost if the ship had actually disappeared beneath the waters rather than ending with most of it out of the water.

We found that the crew and even the captain were far short on their performance when it came to getting people into the life boats. The decision to evacuate the ship was made way too late. A substancial fraction of the boats were rendered useless by the severe list that developed before they were filled with people and launched.

While we might not have had as large a number of people killed as on the Titanic, we well might have put that many into the sea in their life jackets.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Costa_Concordia_disaster

We like to think that we do things better, but it is still "iron men" that make the difference--even with iron ships. The number of these on the Costa Concordia was far lower than desirable.

The Squirrel said...

I think that Captain Smith would never have gotten the Titanic into the same mess that Concordia's captain got her into. By all accounts, E. J. Smith was an excellent captain. Concordia was not in compliance with current practices and procedures when she ran aground, whereas Titanic was operating in accordance with the established practices and procedures of her day.

Bennett Willis said...

If I had a point in my previous comment (doubtful, at best) it would have been that while we have safety reforms that came from the Titanic's sinking, we are not out of the woods by any means. Bad performance and bad decisions can overcome any reforms and we were a lot closer than we think on the Concordia.

The Squirrel said...

Bennett, I wasn't taking issue with anything you said, but was simply adding to it. The Concordia incident could have been much much worse, and happened in spite of all the safety regulations that are currently in place. Part of what led to the Titanic disaster was an ignorant complacency, whereas the sinking of the Concordia was the result of rank incompetence.

Squirrel

CAPTSteveHardy said...

Bennett and Squirrel,

All the regulations, standards and plans only go so far; from my former vantage-point as a Marine Inspector and later Officer in Charge Marine Inspection/Captain of the Port on three occasions, it became readily apparent that the weak link in maritime safety was too often the people involved. Historically, designs often contributed as much to casualties as crew. The Coast Guard traces its role in vessel inspection to all the boilers that blew up in the 1800s. Even these casualties were a mixed bag of design limitations and engineers exceeding those limitations to get more power out of the propulsion systems. While designs and materials have both vastly improved in the last 150 years, there are still limitations to both as they're all compromises for strength, longevity and characteristics as diverse as weight and cost. Various human factors have always had a major role in both safe operations and marine accidents; the decisions people make in sailing ships, like most everything, matter. It's basic risk management. And, frankly, the biggest factor is usually complacency; there was a big element for RMS TITANIC, or the SS EDMUND FITZGERALD, or MV COSTA CONCORDIA. Ice bergs aren't found this far south to keep the turns up, no need to dog down the cargo hatch covers and ensure they're watertight, all the cruise ships run out of the marked channel to show off the ship......and so on. One of my other assignments during my career was Marine Casualty Investigator; did that for about four years at two different units and was the Senior Investigator at one of them. Very few of the incidents I saw or knew of were solely failure of some hardware. They were almost uniformly traceable to something someone did or failed to do; that decisionmaking/risk management process.

Steve

Bennett Willis said...

Same thing applies to chemical plants. We try hard to make things fool proof, but fools are very ingenious.

The Squirrel said...

"The trouble with building a better mousetrap is that someone else is busy building a better mouse." ~Robert Heinlein

Bennett Willis said...

http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fnationalpostnews.files.wordpress.com%2F2012%2F01%2Ffo0121_cruisesink.pdf&h=RAQEJ30fG
If all this link works, it leads to a very nice picture of what happened to the Costa Concordia. Coming this late relative to the posting, it should not be considered a highjacking of the topic. :)

It was 70 minutes between the collision and the call to Abandon Ship. I'm not quite sure when she "fell over." It might have been a good thing to open the doors between the sides of the ship and let the water into the "high" side in an effort to keep her upright--if that had not already happened.

caucazhin said...

U said u were a titanic buff so here goes my 2 cents on the matter.
For me the titanic is a prophetic picture of the history of humanity ( especially in the modern age ) heading toward its prophesied confrontation ( the DAY of the LORD / The Day of JUDGEMENT ) with its creator Jesus the ROCK / ICEBERG.
The titanic represents the LOST world of humanity @ large throughout history with the rich & powerful on the upper decks, the middle class on the middle decks and the lower class stuck in the lower decks just as it is in life and just as it was on the ship and in the film.
At the peak of the " Gilded Age " the rich thought that they had conquered the world economically and were well on their way to conquering nature @ large. Now with an " UNSINKABLE " ship that could cross the ocean in no time flat mans pride soared to new heights ........." Pride cometh before the fall "
To me this is the same spiritual pride that fuels the shuttle missions, missions to the moon, mars and so forth.
" Instead of of believing in and serving the one true God they created idols from their own pride and imagination. "

Jeremiah 51:53
Even if Babylon reaches the sky and fortifies her lofty stronghold, I will send destroyers against her," declares the LORD.

OBADIAH 1:4
Though thou mount on high as the eagle, and though thy nest be set among the stars, I will bring thee down from thence, saith Jehovah

Amos 9:2
Though they dig into Sheol, thence shall my hand take them and though they climb up to heaven thence will I bring them down.

Isaiah 14
12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O day-star, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, that didst lay low the nations!
13 And thou saidst in thy heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; and I will sit upon the mount of congregation, in the uttermost parts of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.

With the advent of the railroad in the 1830s and the beginning of the turn of the 19th century modern man has believed that science and technology will save him from the uncertianties of life & death much as the Egyptians did with their pyramids and sorcery. The Greeks with their myriads of false Gods & philosophy and the Romans with their sheer political might and power.
In the modern age man started thinking he was his own savior and with technological " progress " that he would triumph over nature and eventually creation itself.
Well read Psalm 2 because " He who sits in the Heavens Laughs "
I think the Titanic and the shuttle crashes are a perfect picture of mans arrogance on a collision coarse with his Creator.

Just watch this 1958 version A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWU9voTgrBA

And for another strange twist there were also many premonitions about the Titanic sinking one of them came in a book form in
the title THE WRECK OF THE TITAN written in 1898

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futility,_or_the_Wreck_of_the_Titan

http://www.amazon.com/Futility-Or-The-Wreck-Titan/dp/1468133233

http://redicecreations.com/article.php?id=11716

http://www.cracked.com/article_18421_6-insane-coincidences-you-wont-believe-actually-happened.html