At precisely 2:20 am on the crisp night of April 15th, nineteen hundred and twelve, the RMS Titanic, a White Star Line passenger ship, slipped beneath the North Atlantic Ocean and into infamy. Three hours earlier, she was steaming proudly toward New York City on her maiden voyage, majestic and brightly lit. At 11:40 pm, she struck an iceberg off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and began to go down.
The drama that unfolded on the decks of the doomed liner is the stuff of legend, and scarcely bears repeating. There were heroes and there were villains, there was heartbreak and there was perseverance, there was terror and there was death.
At 2:05 am, the Titanic’s forward deck was awash, and the last boat was launched with 44 aboard. A little over ten minutes later, her decks still packed with panicked passengers, the Titanic reared up and began to go down. The lights flickered once, twice, and then went out for all times. As she sank, seven hundred and five traumatized survivors watched from twenty scattered boats. Though cold and devastated, grieving even. Their ordeal was, for the most part, over…
…The same, however, cannot be said for the 1,500 souls who found themselves in the frigid waters; their nightmare was only beginning.
At least it was short. The ocean that night was 28 degrees, and as a result most of the immersed survivors quickly perished due to hypothermia.
The sea, however, did not mean certain death, as dozens who went into it lived to see another day. Many of these found refuge atop an overturned lifeboat. Six hardier men survived their time in the ocean to be saved by lifeboat number six, the only boat out of eighteen to return to the area. Two of them died during the night. (One of the four to live was an unknown Japanese man who was nearly forsaken by Sixth Officer Lowe.
“There’re others worth saving than a Jap,” he said, only to exclaim, “I’d save six more like him!” when the Asian came to and began rowing with gusto).
As dawn broke, the remaining survivors were plucked from the debris strewn sea by The Carpaithia, which had steamed fifty-eight miles to Titanic’s aid. One body was buried at sea.
Next on the scene was the Californian, which had been stopped overnight in the area by ice. Her wireless operator was asleep during the tragedy. Had he not been, Titanic might have been saved,
After ordering the Californian to remain in the area to look for survivors, Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Rostron, set a course for New York . News of the disaster quickly got out, but a garbled first report stated that all were saved, and that Titanic was being tows to port with minor damage. In the coming days, the full extent of the loss was learned, and frantic crowds gathered outside White Star’s New York offices desperate for news on family members aboard Titanic.
Daily, lists of survivors were wired from the Carpaithia to the mainland. By the time the ship reached New York , the world knew, and the world reeled.
To truly understand the impact of the Titanic’s loss, you must first understand the world of 1912. To be kind, it was an age of gross overconfidence, a time of inflated egos and of great condescension.
That’s not to say that the prevailing attitude was unjustified. No. In fact, the generation on either side of 1900 changed the world so fundamentally that it boggles the mind. In forty short years, life as it had been known for centuries came to an end. The electric light replaced candles; automobile passed horses; man was finally, finally, able to soar through the skies; and magical new machines like the typewriter and the washing machine were cropping up daily, making life easier all the time…a life that was beginning to shift away from the rural and agricultural to the urban and technological. Industrialization continued unabated, while labor unions secured workers more humane conditions and better wages. The Wild West wasn’t so wild anymore, Indians were tamed and assimilating, and many once exotic and primitive locals were coming under dominance by civilized nations.
The coup de grace was the Titanic, the largest, grandest, most defiantly extravagant ship ever constructed; a virtual palace, a monument to mankind’s total and unconditional triumph over nature. She was never described as unsinkable; a popular magazine of the day, The Shipbuilder, said only that she was “practically unsinkable.” But nevertheless, she was a wonder, a modern marvel, top of the line. That she should hit an iceberg and sink was not only a tragedy for those onboard, but also a tragedy for the world. Man was left shaken and insecure. He realized that he wasn’t invincible, that he had not reached the apex of perfection.
They called the last decade of the 1800s the “gay nineties,” and it was a fitting title. It was an era of good feelings and high hopes, an era that ended with one piece of ice on a glassy sea.
The sinking of the Titanic was first and foremost a human drama, one composed of real people who really lived, loved and lost. It’s easy for us to forget that. The story has assumed such a mythical quality over the past one hundred years that we can’t help but think of it as a tragic piece of stage art rather than an actual flesh-and-blood catastrophe. The events that unfolded that night were surreal, terrible, and frightening; the participants larger-than-life, heroes and villains, brave, hardy souls and weak, sniveling cowards. The band played on to the end; the captain stood on the bridge as the ship disappeared beneath the waves; and Ida Strauss refused to leave her husband’s side. The Titanic was the greatest epic never written, a tale that no pen, no matter how great, could have conjured.
It’s no surprise, then, that in the past ten decades, more movies, books, articles and documentaries have been produced on the subject than on almost anything else. One of the highest grossing movies of all time, in fact, was the 1997 classic Titanic, which starred Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet. Those of us who were introduced to the Titanic through this film tend to think of it as having established the legend, but in truth the fabled ship of dreams has always fascinated us.
The earliest movie about the Titanic was Saved From the Titanic, released a scant one month after the disaster and starring Dorothy Gibson, who was actually on board that night. Next was the German film In Nacht und Eis. which premiered in the winter of 1912. Every few years thereafter, a movie either based on or inspired by the Titanic appeared, notable offerings being Atlantic (a fictionalized account from 1929), the Nazi propaganda film Titanic (1943), Titanic (1953), and A Night to Remember (1958, based upon the 1955 book of the same name by author Walter Lord).
The latter half of the 20th Century saw mainly made-for-television movies on the matter, including SOS Titanic, which aired on ABC in 1979.
Books recounting the sinking are too numerous to list, even partially. The two that stand out most are the aforementioned A Night to Remember and Raise the
Titanic!, the latter being an adventure novel published by writer Clive Barker in 1976.
Interest in the sinking of the Titanic has not abated in the 21st Century; if anything, it’s grown. The terror, pain, heartache, and death that took place on April 15, 1912, has touched generations, and no doubt will continue to touch us long after the wreck itself has crumbled into eternity.