Saturday, April 14, 2012

Who Can't Sink This Ship?

File:RMS Titanic 3.jpgOne hundred years ago, almost to the hour as I write this, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland and sank two hours and forty minutes later.

I've been fascinated by this story and all of its chapters for decades.  Have read dozens of books on the sinking, the first and best of which is “A Night to Remember,” by Walter Lord.  I’ve seen a number of movie adaptations my favorite, under the philosophy of never obtaining history from movies, being James Cameron’s Titanic.

Which begs the question, why?  Why does the sinking of a ship hold imaginations hostage a century later?

The answer I think comes down to the one word most associated with this worst maritime disaster ever:  hubris.  Extreme pride or arrogance.  Overestimating ones skills or competence, particularly among the powerful.

Countless stories have emerged from the wreckage, many true, many maritime legends, but all branch out from the ship like tentacles, even from more than two miles under the Atlantic.

Here are a three of my favorites.

The ship was built to be “virtually unsinkable.”  We all know that in advertising strong words like unsinkable are often paired with what are known as weasel words that neuter the other word like “virtually.”  What does “virtually unsinkable” mean?  It means that it can sink.

But even Titanic’s officers bought the “unsinkable” tag.  The following story has several versions.  Here is one.

When Titanic docked at Queenstown in Ireland before heading out over the Atlantic, a woman emerged from her cabin and flagged down an officer.  She expressed her concerns about safety.  The officer, in the presence of witnesses, said, “Madame, God Himself couldn’t sink this ship.”

Three days later, an iceberg did.

A tragically romantic story surrounds Ida and Isidor Straus.  Isidor was one of the owners of R. H. Macy and Company.  He urged his wife to get in the boat, but she refused, saying “We have lived together many years.  Where you go, I go.”  They sent Mrs. Straus’s maid instead.

Both were swept into the ocean.

Captain Edward J. Smith ignored ice warnings which contributed to the sinking.  He paid with his life by going down with the ship.  The architect Thomas Andrews also paid, though he did nothing wrong, except design a sinkable ship.  Many of the officers died, too.  But what about the Chairman of the White Star Line, the man urging the Captain on to higher speeds, the man who pressured the Captain to keep steaming ahead even after Titanic hit the iceberg.  That action probably caused the ship to sink faster.

J. Bruce Ismay.

He slipped into a lifeboat and saved his own skin despite the more than 1,500 people who died, including children.  Though known after that as the “Coward of the Titanic,” he did live another twenty-five years.

Ah, there are so many more, and I’ll get to them at some point, I’m sure.  But what find most compelling is to hear the stories from the survivors themselves.  Check out the following link.  It may lead you to others.

And tonight I'll think for a bit of those who died at the hand of hubris.

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