"The last voice I heard was a man shouting, 'My God! My God!'"
Lady Cosmo Duff-Gordon, Titanic survivor
Titanic. The very word inspires awe and dread. One hundred years after her plunge to the bottom of the sea, she still looms out of the haze of a star-strewn April night and penetrates our unconscious like a portent of impending doom.
No amount of hype, sentimental dramatization or overblown balladry can break her chilling spell, nor permit us to forget the heart-wrenching tragedy of that terrible night.
The facts, simply stated, are these: A state-of-the-art passenger liner, 11 stories high and four city blocks long, set sail on her maiden trans-Atlantic voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City and collided with an iceberg nearly a hundred feet high, halfway to her destination. She struck the iceberg at precisely 11:40 p.m. and slipped under the waves less than three hours later, at precisely 2:20 a.m. Of her approximately 2,223 passengers (of which 891 were crew), more than 1,514 were drowned and only 710 survived. Tellingly, all 29 first- and second-class children survived, while only 23 of 76 in steerage did.
Much has been written about the disaster, but when all is said and done the essential horror alone remains: 1,514 men, women, and children were suddenly dead and their loved ones left to cope with the grief of their inconceivable passing.
The last of Titanic's survivors, Millvina Dean, died three years ago at the age of 97. She had been an infant of scarcely two months when she was carried by her mother into one of the precious lifeboats. With the severing of that last human link to the event, devotees of all things Titanic are left to contemplate National Geographic photographs of the haunting wreckage and assorted relics of the ship that have been snatched up by submersibles. To view them, as many thousands have in any one of several traveling Titanic exhibitions, is to steal a fast-fading glimmer of the vanished era once inhabited by Titanic's passengers. And yet ultimately one walks away no wiser for the experience and no nearer to the heart of what simultaneously attracts and repels us when we contemplate the tragedy.
To come closer to the true "meaning" of the Titanic disaster one must consider, dispassionately, several disquieting "coincidences" surrounding the ship's sinking:
The Titanic was a solidly-built ship, with 16 watertight compartments stretching her entire length. She was considered virtually "unsinkable" because she was built to stay afloat with any two of her watertight compartments completely flooded.
Her builders never imagined a collision with an iceberg that could flood more than two of those compartments. Titanic, as it turns out, scraped along the iceberg rather than striking it head-on, slicing open no fewer than five of her compartments. It is believed that had she not attempted to avoid the iceberg, but instead struck the mountain of ice head-on, she would have sustained considerable damage, yet remained afloat.
Outdated safety regulations required that the Titanic carry only 16 lifeboats, enough for just 962 people, while the huge ship had a capacity of approximately 3,000 passengers and crew.
The Titanic had been warned no fewer than five times on the night that it struck the iceberg that a dangerous ice field lay directly in its path, yet an unusually clear and still night (the surface of the ocean was said to have been as flat as glass) led its captain — who had delayed his retirement in order to take the Titanic on her maiden voyage — to ignore these warnings and maintain a speed designed to get his passengers to New York in record time.
At the time that it struck the iceberg, another ship, the Californian, was stopped in an ice field just 10 miles away. It could easily have steamed to the Titanic in time to take on all of her passengers, but her radio operators switched off their equipment at 12:15 a.m., just minutes before the Titanic sent out its first distress call.
Later, as the Titanic was sinking, the California's crew mistook distress flares launched by Titanic for holiday fireworks.
In 1898, 14 years before the Titanic sank, an obscure novel was published in Britain by one Morgan Robertson titled, "Futility," about an enormous ship almost exactly the size of the Titanic which strikes an iceberg one frigid April night while carrying insufficient lifeboats for its passengers.
This fictional ship was also deemed "unsinkable" and is called, due to its great size, the Titan.
As inevitably happens when a great natural disaster strikes or when scores of people are inexplicably killed, the hand of God was said to be behind the sinking of the Titanic. Noted Walter Lord in his classic account of the disaster, "A Night to Remember": "Scores of ministers preached that the Titanic was a heaven-sent lesson to awaken people from their complacency, to punish them for top-heavy faith in material progress."
If they were right, and who is to say that they were not in light of the above "coincidences," then one is left with the disturbing notion of a stern and vindictive God who would, in the act of punishing His errant children, allow Titanic's passengers to playfully toss about chunks of ice from the lethal iceberg at one moment, only to be plunged into the icy Atlantic the next. (The sensation, as described by one very lucky survivor, was as though they were being "stabbed by a thousand knives.")
We are asked, then, to contemplate a God who would refuse to intervene as the gigantic hulk of the Titanic now standing impossibly on its end, a tremendous roar escaping its groaning and twisting hulk, began its descent beneath the wave, the cries of the dying, according to one survivor, sounding "like the high-pitched hum of locusts on a midsummer night in the woods back home in Pennsylvania."
Let us hope that the ministers were wrong and that at worst the fate of the Titanic that haunts us to this day is in fact a merciful reminder of what the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in that part of his great poem, "The Waste Land," entitled "Death by Water":
Phlebas, the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
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Michael Blatty of Salem has written previously for the opinion pages. His most recent contribution (Feb. 7, 2012) was on the bicentennial of British author Charles Dickens' visit to the United States.