by Terri Bey
This weekend, on April 14-15, 2018 will be the 106th commemoration of the sinking of the White Star Liner R.M.S Titanic, where 1496 lives were lost when the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Only 712 of the 2,208 on board survived. The Titanic disaster is one of the greatest stories ever told, in that the disaster inspired many books, movies, songs, poems, and other forms of media. Many of my readers know something about the Titanic. Most know that the Titanic was, at the time, the largest ship in the world, and was considered “unsinkable,” and didn’t have enough lifeboats, etc.
The Titanic disaster is tragic, yet fascinating at the same time. How could such a beautiful, well made luxury liner go down on her maiden voyage? Why didn’t Captain Edward J. Smith of the Titanic take the iceberg warnings seriously? Why didn’t the Leyland Liner S.S. Californian come to the sinking Titanic’s aid? The Titanic disaster was one huge case of Murphy’s Law: if anything could go wrong, it did. I found this tragedy incredibly fascinating, and in this blog, I will be discussing my becoming a Titanic enthusiast, and why I just love this story.
I first became interested in the Titanic around second grade, and I have my father to thank. I had received one of these short stories to read for class, and it was about the Titanic. To give a little personal background, my parents had me late in life, and my father was born in May of 1904, and was almost 8, when the Titanic sank, so he was old enough to read the papers. Anyway, he read the short story with me, and would tell me all the details about Captain Smith, and the whole story about the Titanic tragedy. My father even told me that the ship broke in two, way before Dr. Robert Ballard found the wreck on September 1, 1985. Some passengers’ accounts of the ship breaking in two must have made it into the papers.
From then on, I was hooked onto the Titanic story. I would watch the 1958 classic, “A Night to Remember,” based upon Walter Lord’s book of the same title. I also read the book. Every time there was a special on the Titanic, I would watch it. We didn’t have cable, but when a film about the Titanic came on, I watched that. I became a total addict. When I got cable, I watched plenty of specials on the Titanic. If you named me a special or film, I have probably seen it. Yes, I am a subscriber to the Titanic Channel. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a Titanic enthusiast.
There are so many aspects to this disaster that attract me. There were 2,208 people on Titanic, when she sailed. There were 706 of them traveling in steerage, or Third Class. Many of those were traveling to the United States to start new lives. Many of them had dreams of making it in America, the land of opportunity. The majority of them never made it, as only 178 Third Class passengers survived. All the passengers had their own stories to tell. The lives of the survivors after the Titanic are very fascinating. Many of them became rich, and philanthropic, but sadly some committed suicide.
The Titanic disaster has connections to industries, because of certain passengers. Businessman George Dunton Widener, who was returning on the Titanic with his wife Eleanor, his eldest son Harry, and their maid, died in the disaster, along with his son Harry, while his wife and maid survived. Widener’s youngest son, George Dunton Widener, Jr. became a prominent breeder in the racing industry. Widener was influenced by his uncle Peter E. Widener, who was the head of Belmont Park and builder of Hialeah Park. George D. Widener, Jr. owned Jaipur, winner of the 1962 Belmont Stakes, and the 1962 Travers Stakes by a nose over Ridan. Widener was the president of the National Museum and Hall of Fame from 1960 to 1968.
George Dunton Widener, Sr’s grandson, Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr. was an owner and had investments in Philadelphia’s sports teams, such as the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and the 76ers. Dixon was vice-chairman of the Philadelphia Flyers, when they won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975. In Dixon’s brief period of owning the Philadelphia 76ers, between 1976 and 1981, he brought in Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and the team went to the NBA finals twice, but didn’t win the title.
Another item that is Titanic-connected memorabilia is the Joy Ice Cream Cone. Sanini George was a Third Class Passenger on Titanic, who shared a lifeboat with White Star Line President J. Bruce Ismay. She was returning from Lebanon to join her family, after her son passed away. Her family created a mold for ice cream, and their company started in 1918 as the George and Thomas Cone Company, but eventually the George Family took it over, and it became the Joy Ice Cream Cone Company.
There is also the story of class that is fascinating to me. The First Class passengers obviously got first dibs on the lifeboats. Even in that case, just because these people were rich, it didn’t mean that their lives would automatically be saved, as the richest man on the ship, Colonel John Jacob Astor IV was denied entry into Lifeboat 4, when he asked to accompany his pregnant bride Madeline. Aston, Macy’s Owner Isidor Straus, the aforementioned Widener, and tycoon Benjamin Guggenheim, all went down with the Titanic. What I found eye-opening was the fact that Second Class men were wiped out, as far as casualties. In that time period, everyone knew their place. The Second Class men knew not to jump over the barriers to even try to get to the lifeboats. The Third Class men were much more hearty, and had jobs like farmers and such. They were more than willing to over power someone like a clerk with a Second Class ticket for a seat in a lifeboat.
I was very moved by many of the women who didn’t want to leave their husbands. That still haunts me today. I think about times when I have to make difficult choices in my life. I don’t know if I could have left my father or if I were married, my husband, had I been on the Titanic. Could I have done what the Strauses had done, and stayed together, at the time? I don’t really know? What I do appreciate about those times, was that men would do the “honorable” thing and “go down like gentlemen,” as Benjamin Guggenheim had reportedly said.
The disaster and the blame game is one of the most fascinating parts of the entire story to me. I have been studying the disaster on and off for a little over 40 years, and I have gone through a ton of changes concerning my thoughts on how the disaster happened. From reading different materials, and watching different documentaries, I find it to be a good idea to get different perspectives. There are concepts about the Titanic that I used to believe about the Titanic disaster that I do not believe any longer.
I want to start with the Californian Incident, which is still a rather touchy subject some 106 years later. The story that is told is that the Leyland Liner, the S.S. Californian, led by Captain Stanley Lord was 10 miles away from the sinking Titanic, and refused to come to the stricken ship’s aid, and allowed 1500 people to die. Had he come, all of the 2,208 passengers and crew would have been rescued. I used to be what is called an “Anti-Lordite,” which is someone who believes this over 100-year-old narrative. Well, needless to say, I don’t believe it anymore. I feel that Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian became an easy scapegoat for both the United States Senate and British Inquiries into the Titanic. No one wanted to blame the British Board of Trade for their hopelessly outdated regulations concerning lifeboats, so Captain Lord was the easy target.
Here are a couple of more reasons why Captain Lord is a scapegoat. I find it hard to blame Captain Lord for the loss of life on the Titanic, when Titanic’s lifeboats were being sent down half full, especially near the beginning of the evacuation. There was a total of 465 seats on those lifeboats that were empty. In one particular Titanic lifeboat that was supposed to take 40, only 12 people were put into it. My point is that while Captain Lord is an easy target, the Titanic crew and Captain Smith should have been filling their lifeboats that they DID have. While I realize that The Californian’s officers saw the rockets, she was stopped in an ice field. Even if Captain Lord and his crew realized it was the Titanic in trouble, her top speed was 13 knots, and by the time his vessel got there, Titanic likely would have been under water. I just don’t think the Californian would have been able to come in time to save all on board, like many people think. I also realize that the Californian’s wireless operator was asleep. It is worth noting that at that time, ships did not have to have 24 hour wireless operation. I don’t think Captain Lord acted perfectly. I do think he should have come to pick up what passengers did escape, but I certainly do not think that he and the Californian could have saved everyone.
The cause of the disaster that I buy into is the “Mirage Theory.” In essence, two fronts caused a mirage, which caused a haze, so the Titanic lookouts didn’t see the iceberg, until they had 37 seconds to avoid it. What is happening here is that Titanic is traveling from the Gulf Stream, and then when it goes into the Labrador Current, the cold air cools the air, and goes under the warm air, creating this mirage. The night of April 14, 1912 was said to be a clear night, no moon, and a blanket of stars. Well, this mirage creating this specific weather condition for the Titanic disaster to happen, as the horizon is “pushed” up by the distortion of light rays, and the iceberg is hidden, and draped in the blanket of stars, until it comes out suddenly. It is this same mirage which makes the Titanic look like a steamer to Captain Lord, and the scintillation of the lights of the Titanic and the stars which makes the Morse Code of both the Titanic and the Californian rendered useless.
For more, watch this National Geographic Special by Titanic expert, Tim Maltin: https://youtu.be/UxQvij8Ttug
Briefly, I want to kill a couple of other myths. About the Titanic going too fast, she wasn’t built for speed, wasn’t as fast as the Cunard’s Lusitania. Captains testified at both hearings that they would have been going that fast on a clear night. The Titanic was built for size and luxury, not speed. Another myth I want to kill is that the Titanic was poorly built, using “brittle steel” and the iron rivets were terrible. I want to remind my readers that Titanic’s sisters, the Olympic and Britannic were also built the same way. The Olympic had a career as a passenger ship, and was commissioned in WWI. The Olympic had even cut a U-Boat in two, and had a torpedo stuck in her hull. The Britannic was a hospital ship in WWI, and when she sank in 1916, divers have discovered that her structure is still as intact today as it was over 100 years ago. Sure, metallurgists have done tests on Titanic’s steel, and I respect their scientific tests. However, science must be put into its proper context. Titanic’s main wound is at Boiler Room #6, and the ship’s boilers were hot, and the ship was traveling for 4 hours in that 28 degree water, before she hit the iceberg. If you put it all in proper context, the hole in the ship opened up because of physics, not because the rivets or the steel were weak.
In conclusion, I love discussing and researching Titanic. The story is as heartbreaking and compelling a story as any. I have learned to be more compassionate to those who are making difficult choices. I have been made to be more aware about class, as even when the recovery ships the Mackay-Bennett and the Minia came to recover bodies, the First Class passengers were given better treatment. Even though I understood that, I found that sad. There is no such thing as First Class Heaven or Second Class Hell. I am saddened for the victims, and I think about them and all the passengers every day. I also feel sad for the loss and waste of a beautiful ship. Titanic was the most beautiful object, never mind ship ever made, in my opinion. There is no airplane, hotel, resort or any other ship, not even those eyesores, they call Cruise Ships, that can compete with the Titanic.
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