Sunday 8 April 2012
April 15, 2012 marks the centenary of the sinking of Titanic. One thousand five hundred and fourteen people were lost, seven hundred and ten saved. Of the one thousand five hundred and fourteen lost, only three hundred and thirty three bodies were retrieved from the sea after the event. The sinking of Titanic was the world’s largest peacetime maritime disaster, and the subsequent inquiry into the collision and aftermath, altered many maritime regulations and practices, and resulted in the setting up of an International Ice Patrol in order to keep and eye on icebergs in the North Atlantic. It is still a measure that is in force to this day.
Ever since I first heard the details of the unsinkable Titanic, I’ve been fascinated by the events and the ship. Or rather, I’ve been fascinated and terrified by the events and the ship. The tragedy of such a huge and unnecessary loss of life has always saddened me . . . a funny thing really, given that no one I knew, or was related to, was aboard her. Still, I can’t help but empathise with the abject terror that those aboard her must have felt when she went down.
James Cameron’s movie reignited a global interest and passion in Titanic, and thankfully, gave some level of attention to those who were prevented, shall I say, from making it up on to the deck and into a lifeboat. The largely untold stories of the third class passengers, who despite conventional thought, were apparently pretty reasonably berthed aboard Titanic compared to third class available in other liners, is to me, heartbreaking. It is not the stories of the first and second class, who in comparison to the third class passengers, lived lives of privilege that interest me, but those in third class, those who might have battled, and scrimped and saved to get themselves a ticket for Titanic’s maiden voyage, and who would later be prevented from boarding half-empty lifeboats so as to not affect the sensibilities of the first class passengers.
When I researched some of the details for this story, I actually learnt a couple of things I had not previously been aware of, the first of which was that shortly after setting off on her maiden voyage, Titanic narrowly avoided a collision with the SS City of New York liner. The New York was moored at the time, and as Titanic passed her and the SS Oceanic, her huge displacement caused both of the smaller liners to be lifted up by a large wave of water. The New York’s moor lines couldn’t take the strain, snapped, and sent her swinging towards the Titanic. The collision was very narrowly avoided by about 1.2 metres (approx. 4 ft).
The second piece of information that I garnered concerned the role of the SS Californian, which sent out pack ice warnings to the Titanic, but she never responded. Over the course of the night, and the sinking of Titanic, many distress flares were released. The crew and captain of Californian saw them, but for reasons only known to the captain, chose to ignore the flares. The Californian also did not, apparently, pick up the distress calls from Titanic. Eventually, when the Californian’s Chief Officer, George Stewart, received news of the Titanic’s loss, the ship set out to render assistance, arriving well after Carpathia had rescued all of the survivors.
Less than a third of those aboard Titanic survived: some from hypothermia; some from drowning; and others died shortly afterwards, from carrying injuries sustained during the sinking, or from the effects of exposure. The last remaining survivor of Titanic, Millvina Dean, died aged ninety-seven, in May of 2009. She had been the youngest passenger aboard Titanic.
The characters that I have written about in A Grand Memory are fictional, and I have deliberately left gaps in Henry’s story. He is an old man with failing body and mind, but possibly the most traumatic event in his life, I’d imagine, would have been emblazoned in his memory, particularly given the number of times Charlotte would have made him recount that night. Well, maybe realistically he wouldn’t have wanted to recount the events of April 14 – 15 1912 however, I needed my Henry to tell his tale. Side note: I did meet one woman who told me that her father had been aboard Titanic, and had survived. He, however, was a man of very few words where Titanic was concerned, and never spoke about the disaster other than to mention that he had been aboard her and survived that night.
Sadly, scientists and researchers are unsure how long Titanic will remain on the ocean floor. She is slowly being consumed by rusticles, iron-eating bacteria that is munching away on her hull. It has been estimated that within the next fifty years, her hull and structure will collapse completely. She will be a pile of rust, debris, and interior fittings on the ocean bed. Another sad fate awaits Titanic and those who sailed on her.
A lot about the story of Titanic, her survivors, and those who were lost to the sea has stayed with me over the years since I first heard about it. But what has stayed with me most prominently, is a sound – the sound of her metal straining under the pressure of five flooded compartments, the sound that would have been heard for miles across that calm ocean as she broke apart, the screaming of the metal of Titanic.
P.S. Neither The White Star Line nor ship builders Harland and Wolff ever said Titanic was unsinkable . . . they only mentioned that she was virtually unsinkable.
The ‘official’ website for Titanic is http://www.rmstitanic.net and is administered by RMS Titanic, Inc. the official salvor-in-possession of Titanic. It’s a neat site to check out for feeds of the wreck, photos, and other information . . . including some rather commercialised merchandise.