Titanic Disaster Still Teaching a Century Later

April 15, 2012
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The Titanic disaster that ripped the collective soul of the planet a century ago is till teaching lessons today.

At 20 minutes before midnight passengers felt a slight shudder as the starboard side grazed the ice, rivets popped, plates separated and water began pouring in. By 2:20 am. the end arrived and over 1500 souls were lost.

And such was the fate of the R.M.S. Titanic, her passengers and crew one hundred years ago today. A fate that created more myths, kept more secrets and created more conjecture than any disaster at sea in all of human history.

And why not? For before her tragic demise that April night, the Titanic was the technological marvel of her time.

Dubbed “unsinkable” by the press due to her “water-tight” compartments,(her builders, Harland an Wolff never actually crossed that line of arrogance) she was almost 900 feet in length, rose over 60 feet above the waterline and yet still had a top speed of 23 knots.

Compared to the frigates of 1812 from her own centennial previous she was the Saturn 5 to the Sopwith Camel.

She was the epitome of the “industrial revolution”, the crown jewel of man’s manufacturing prowess, yet it took only a 12 square foot opening and less than 3 hours to send her to her grave over two miles below the surface. And there she remained, undetected and undisturbed for 74 years.

And just as the advancement of technology brought forth the birth of Titanic, so too has that advancement now shed light on her death. For the past 26 years, since first being discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard and his team, the she has ever so slowly been giving up her secrets and unraveling the mysteries and myths that have surround her.

From the first dives we learned that she did not slip quietly into the sea as depicted by early movie accounts but rather had a most violent and tortured end as her bow sank, her stern rose and keel snapped. From hundreds of dives since we have learned just how small the breaches that brought down such a marvel of a ship.

But while science has now revealed the technical details of how she sank, we well never know the full details of the personal that transpired while she sank.

I was lucky enough to get a first hand glimpse of that “personal” when the first exhibit of artifacts opened at the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England in ’94.

The plates, silverware, and ship artifacts certainly touched the amateur historian in me but it was the personal effects that got to my soul.

A shaving kit, a cigarette case with smokes still intact, a handwritten letter still legible, all brought home the humanity and terrible agony that overcame so many on that most horrific night.

I am also lucky enough to have in my personal library, two books put to print that same year that compile first hand accounts, the memorial services and the subsequent investigations.

No video, no sound, just printed words on paper as told by the survivors and reported by the purveyors of the period. Each story, each recollection to be filled in by the reader’s own mind and interpretation.

And I swear, if you sit down with those pages on a dark night, illuminate them with the glow from an old hurricane lamp, and allow yourself just a bit of belief in things unknown, you will find yourself in the middle of the trauma, the sorrow and the tumult.

No living survivors remain on this centennial anniversary but their legacy lives on. For the Titanic was far more than just another disaster at sea.

Her sinking and the devastating loss of life rippled through the global conscious like nothing before.

Humanity would never again look at technology as infallible, indestructible, the cure of all ills. While the Titanic disaster did not stop our advancement of science and technology, that per-tragedy attitude of arrogance has been forever replaced with the diligence and skepticism demanded by it.

I leave you today with words pulled from one of those hundred year old pages earlier referenced. It is an an editorial from the Chicago Sunday Examiner entitled,            No Hero Dies in Vain:

For the rest of the world, for the millions whom the disaster did not touch personally, the lasting thought will be this:

Every great disaster, every great affliction, rightly interpreted and rightly used, is a lesson and a help to all of the human race throughout the future.

No martyr, no hero, dies in vain. The safety and the progress of the world are built upon the afflictions and the sufferings of those that have gone before us.

The children of the men and women that died on the Titanic will find the last expression of their duty in Lincoln’s immortal words of dedication upon the battlefield of Gettysburg: (click here to read the full dress as printed in the original editorial)

Life is one great battlefield. This earth has been a field of battle through all the thousands of centuries of life here. And for many centuries to come it still must remain a field of battle.

Those that survive must find their comfort in the heroism of the dead. And the race must find its lesson and its growth in the experiences and the suffering of the past.

Far out in the Atlantic ocean there is a dreary spot, with hear and there, perhaps, a broken oar, or a floating body. Desolate and wide, the ocean spreads beneath the dark sky, at the spot where the great ship sank.

But in all space that ocean and the planet upon which it rolls are but a speck.

Time is the real ocean, the ocean that has no limit to its depths and that has no boundaries.

The brave men and women of the Titanic are added to the heroes of that great ocean of time – the ocean that covers all the past, the ocean beneath whose waves brave men and women lie at rest, all the brave spirits that have lived honorable and died courageously on this planet.

It is a glorious thing for a man or a woman to have his name added to the list of those consecrated by time and by courage.

Every noble death does its good work. Other human beings will travel more safely and many thousands of lives will be saved as a result of the disaster so needless, so cruel. –Chicago Sunday Examiner.

“So needless, so cruel”, yet in the end so critical in how we travel today.

God rest the souls of the Titanic and may he protect the myriad of maiden travelers yet to come.

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One Response to Titanic Disaster Still Teaching a Century Later

  1. anson burlingame on April 16, 2012 at 7:28 am

    Geoff,

    “Going down to the sea in ships…..” is dangerous and always has been so. I am currently reading a history of the Ottoman Empire. Part of that is the conflict at sea in the 14th and 15th Centuries between the Ottomans and Venice, the supreme sea power at that time, a time of some sail power but mostly oars manned by slaves. Care to hazard a guess of how many thousands died in such events in those years alone? Might it be hundreds of thousands?

    I was a midshipman in college when we lost our first nuclear submarine, USS Thresher, in 1963. Four years later I was on board my first ship, a diesel submarine when USS Scorpion went down in 1967. My roomate from college was on aboard that ship. How many died aboard USS Arizona during Pearl Harbor? When one drowns to death it makes little difference whether the sea is 40 feet deep or 2 miles deep. Imagine beinging trapped in a water tight compartment as the level rises to the “overhead”.

    There were some 55 U.S. submarines “lost at sea” in the Pacific alone during WWII. And then we can consider the number of U Boats also going down in the Atlantic during that war.

    Then consider the “personal tragedy” of the men and women aboard Challenger, a space craft in a new frontier of technical challenge as well as grave danger.

    And then we can recall, “Let’s roll” aboard United Flight ??? on 9/11, or the final moments of those aboard three other aircraft slamming into the Towers and Pentagon with the loss of all onboard.

    The Titanic is a mere speck on the wall of the human history of seafaring men (and a few women) and now “spacefaring”.

    Ever wonder WHY people “do it” today and have done so since the first “man” figured out how to build a boat, or now a space craft?

    Anson

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