Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The World That Woke

Ninety-Eight years ago on this date, the Titanic sank.

 The RMS Titanic departing from Southampton, England for the first--and last--time, April 10, 1912.

In 1912, steamship was the mode of overseas travel, and the Atlantic shipping lines were veritable freeways of steel hulls and massive engines traversing the divide between Europe and America.  These were the last days of the Golden Age, the Age of Innocence--when men dressed in silk hats and fine cravats and ladies wore corsets and gloves as a matter of course.  Immigration from the Old Country to the New World was in a boom; hundreds of thousands made the long journey with little more than what they could carry on their backs, brimming with optimism at the promise of starting anew in a prosperous land that welcomed everyone. To do it on the most famous, the most beautiful, and the largest liner ever built was something of a coup, even for the third-class passengers.  It was a marvel of human ingenuity: miles of deck and cabins and luxurious recreational facilities, restaurants, even a Turkish bath.  You could walk the length and breadth of it and still not cover the same ground each time.   Even Charles Lightoller, the Second Officer, said that it took him nearly two weeks to navigate its layout with any confidence, and he was a veteran of many voyages and many ships.  Such was the immensity of Titanic that it seemed nothing could ever hurt it. 
"The history of the R.M.S. Titanic of the White Star Line, is one of the most tragically short it is possible to conceive. The world had waited expectantly for its launching and again for it's sailing; had read accounts of its tremendous size and its unexampled completeness and luxury; had felt it a matter of the greatest satisfaction that such a comfortable and above all such a safe boat had been designed and built- the "unsinkable lifeboat"- and then in a moment to hear that it had gone to the bottom as if it had been the veriest tramp steamer of a few hundred tons; and with it fifteen hundred passengers, some of them known all the world over! The improbability of such a thing ever happening was what staggered humanity."
-Lawrence Beesley, Titanic Survivor
The whole period was full of optimism, full of supreme confidence in the domination of man over any and all obstacles, including nature.  Looking back in hindsight, we might judge society then as being almost naively arrogant, almost asking for a good ass-whooping.  Hubris is something we usually only see after the fact, while we're picking up the pieces of the latest disaster.  It was no different on that night, when over 1500 people died in the cold water of the Atlantic, and a world was paralyzed by shock, disbelief, and grief.
"There was peace, and the world had an even tenor to it's way. Nothing was revealed in the morning the trend of which was not known the night before. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub it's eyes and awake, but woke it with a start, keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912."
-Jack B. Thayer, Titanic Survivor
I don't need to go into the specifics of the sinking--unless you've been wrapped in cotton wadding and sealed inside a hyperbaric chamber all your life, you know how it all happened.  How there were so many "ifs".  If the crew hadn't misplaced the binoculars.  If the captain hadn't gone to bed early that night.  If the radio operators had relayed the iceberg warnings more quickly to the bridge. If the Californian hadn't turned their radio off.  If J. Bruce Ismay hadn't insisted on increasing speed across an ice-infested course.  If the Titanic had changed course. If Frederick Fleet had seen the iceberg just an instant sooner; if the bridge had hit the berg head-on instead of sideways. If Thomas Anderson had won the fight to have more lifeboats on deck. If, if, if.
"I still think about the 'might have beens' about the Titanic; that's what stirs me more then anything else. Things that happened that wouldn't have happened if only one thing had gone better for her. If only, so many if onlys. If only she had enough lifeboats. If only the watertight compartments had been higher. If only she had paid attention to the ice that night. If only the Californian did come. The 'if only' kept coming up again and again and that makes the ship more then the experience of studying a disaster. It becomes a haunting experience to me, it's the haunting experience of 'if only'." -Walter Lord, Titanic historian and author
None of that mattered, of course, to those who followed Titanic to the bottom, two miles below the surface. Or to the survivors, who struggled with grief and guilt for the rest of their lives.  Some endured international and unforgiving censure--most particularly J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line, who climbed aboard one of the last lifeboats at the very end and paid for it until he died a quarter-century later.  He defended himself at the inquest, insistent that he had done nothing wrong.

"What do you think I am? Do you believe that I'm the sort that would have left that ship as long as there were any women and children on board? That's the thing that hurts, and it hurts all the more because it is so false and baseless. I have searched my mind with deepest care, I have thought long over each single incident that I could recall of that wreck. I'm sure that nothing wrong was done; that I did nothing that I should not have done. My conscience is clear and I have not been a lenient judge of my own acts."  -- J. Bruce Ismay
Certainly Stanley Lord, captain of the Californian, whom the world blamed for retiring early and leaving the Titanic's increasingly desperate calls for help unheeded, was regarded as a pariah and, if not heartless, a bumbling goon.  It didn't matter, in the aftermath, that he had rushed to join the Carpathia the next morning, as soon as he heard of the sinking.  He never recovered from the debacle of blame and recrimination and retired, in disgrace, never to sail again.

The morning of April 15, 1912 marked the beginning of a harsher, more hardened outlook on life by a society that had suffered a devastating blow.  It was hard not to be cynical; a goddess had been toppled on her maiden voyage--a goddess that had been built over four years by the love and mastery of Irish shipbuilders, conceived by the demigods of the time, and borne into solid reality with the finest minds in construction, innovation, and engineering.  No wonder people had so much confidence in her; she was a stunning, sleek, luxurious behemoth who carried such luminaries of the day that it seemed ludicrous that anything could possibly go awry. 

"I thought her unsinkable and I based my opinion on the best expert advice."
-Phillip Franklin, White Star Line Vice President
"You weren’t there at my first meeting with Ismay. To see the little red marks all over the blueprints. First thing I thought was: ‘Now here’s a man who wants me to build him a ship that’s gonna be sunk.’ We’re sending gilded egg shells out to sea."
-Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards
Control your Irish passions, Thomas. Your uncle here tells me you proposed 64 lifeboats and he had to pull your arm to get you down to 32. Now, I will remind you just as I reminded him these are my ships. And, according to our contract, I have final say on the design. I’ll not have so many little boats, as you call them, cluttering up my decks and putting fear into my passengers."
-J. Bruce Ismay, Director of the White Star Line
"The press is calling these ships unsinkable and Ismay’s leadin’ the chorus. It’s just not true."
-Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards
To his credit, poor Thomas Anderson tried.  He really did.  He was an excellent design engineer who would constantly carry around a little notebook, marking down improvements and correcting flaws right up to the day of sailing.  He was onboard the Titanic, and was jotting stuff down even then, when most engineers would have sat back and basked in the glory of their accomplishment.  He lamented the fact that he had been overruled on his proposition to carry more lifeboats--a decision he regretted not fighting harder, even as the ship was sinking underneath him--and one that the White Star Line never lived down. It was also the decision that prompted a maritime law stating exactly that--each ship had to carry enough lifeboats for ever single soul on board. No exceptions.  Andrews would have applauded that, if he had lived, though I think he would have been bitter at the fact that over a thousand people had to die to make it so.

Even now, most people think that those who perished on Titanic drowned.  Not so.  The majority of them died of hypothermia.  The waters of the North Atlantic are paralyzingly frigid, and in April, the bergs are thawing after a long winter's sleep, breaking free and sliding in to drift along the massive currents.  It's like dropping an ice cube into a drink, only on such a leviathan scale that it's almost incomprehensible to imagine being submerged in it.  But the passengers, desperate to escape the groaning tonnage of iron in its final death throes, found out very quickly just how devastating it was to the human body.  At the end, when the ship rose out of the water at a terrifyingly steep angle, it was impossible to hold on any more. 
"Just then the ship took a slight but definite plunge - probably a bulkhead went - and the sea came rolling along up in a wave, over the steel fronted bridge, along the deck below us, washing the people back in a dreadful huddled mass. Those that didn't disappear under the water right away, instinctively started to clamber up that part of the deck still out of water, and work their way towards the stern, which was rising steadily out of the water as the bow went down. It was a sight that doesn't bear dwelling on - to stand there, above the wheelhouse, and on our quarters, watching the frantic struggles to climb up the sloping deck, utterly unable to even hold out a helping hand."
-Charles Lightoller, Second Officer aboard Titanic
"Striking the water was like a thousand knives being driven into one's body. The temperature was 28 degrees, four degrees below freezing."
-Charles Lightoller, Second Officer aboard Titanic
That's the kind of temperature that will kill you in minutes, and they didn't have survival suits back in the day.  Most people didn't even know how to swim.  Those passengers fortunate enough to find floating debris or a remaining capsized lifeboat clung on for dear life, hoping that help would arrive before they succumbed.  Those passengers even more fortunate to have boarded lifeboats two hours earlier floated a distance off, unwilling to return and help those in the water, screaming for someone to return and pull them out.  It was a sound that haunted survivors ever after.
The agonizing cries of death from over a thousand throats, the wails and groans of the suffering, the shrieks of the terror-tricken and the awful gaspings for breath of those in the last throes of drowning, none of us will ever forget to our dying day."
-Colonel Archibald Gracie, Titanic Survivor
"The sounds of people drowning are something that I can not describe to you, and neither can anyone else. Its the most dreadful sound and there is a terrible silence that follows it."
-Eva Hart, Titanic Survivor

"The partly filled lifeboat standing by about 100 yards away never came back. Why on Earth they never came back is a mystery. How could any human being fail to heed those cries."
-Jack B. Thayer, Titanic Survivor
The Cunard Line Carpathia charged steaming through the early morning hours towards Titanic's last known position, 58 miles away.  His was the only ship in the vicinity besides the long-suspected Californian, and even then he was nearly four hours away.  Captain Arthur Rostron had ordered an immediate change of course as soon as he heard of the disaster and, mindful of what had befallen the Titanic, put extra lookouts on the bow of the ship, scanning anxiously for more icebergs even as he rushed at a then-breakneck speed towards the survivors.
"Icebergs loomed up and fell astern and we never slackened. It was an anxious time with the Titanic's fateful experience very close in our minds. There were 700 souls on Carpathia and those lives as well as the survivors of the Titanic herself depended on the sudden turn of the wheel."
-Captain Arthur H. Rostron, Commander of Carpathia

It was only at daybreak, in the light of the morning sun, that Rostron saw the ocean was littered with bergs--small and large--through which he had steamed over the previous hours.  "I shuddered," he said, "and could only think that some other hand than mine was on the helm that night."

The arrival of the Carpathia was almost too good to be true for the survivors who had endured the cold, shock, and uncertainty of the night.  Passengers aboard the rescue liners gave up their own cabins in order to house the refugees, and when the last was rescued, Rostron turned for New York, leaving the now-aware Californian to keep looking for more survivors, if any.

By the time the Carpathia arrived in New York Harbor, the entire world of course had heard of the disaster, but hoped against hope that it was only a rumor, or at least that most had survived.  But instead of a triumphant liner completing her maiden voyage and docking in her designated sloop, only the lifeboats were lowered in tribute to the water--the last remains, as it were.  Then it was real. 

The sixteen lifeboats at Titanic's empty dock in New York Harbor.

Let the Truth be known, no ship is unsinkable. The bigger the ship, the easier it is to sink her. I learned long ago that if you design how a ship’ll sink, you can keep her afloat. I proposed all the watertight compartments and the double hull to slow these ships from sinking. In that way, you get everyone off. There’s time for help to arrive, and the ship’s less likely to break apart and kill someone while she’s going down." -Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards 

The infamous bow of the Titanic, where it has rested for 98 years, two miles below the Atlantic surface.

No comments: