The Titanic, 100 Years After the Wreck

The Titanic sank exactly 100 years ago today. The Titanic sinking is of course synonymous with cruise ship disasters; indeed, the Titanic wreck is synonymous with disasters in general. It is one of the great tragedies of history, with the allegedly unsinkable Titanic sinking in less than three hours, claiming the lives of over 1,500 passengers and crew members, nearly three-quarters of the people on board. That the Titanic sank must never be forgotten, nor must we cease to learn from the many lessons this wreck has taught us. The Titanic wreck is enraging because it was unnecessary and unfair because of the disproportionate of number of Second-Class male passengers who perished, but most of all it is deeply heartbreaking. And so a century after the Titanic sank, it is only fitting that we recount what happened on the night that so dramatically altered the course of maritime history.

When the Titanic set sale from Southampton, England, no one had any reason to doubt that the ship would safely land in New York City after its voyage across the Atlantic. At the time, it was a state-of-the-art vessel with advanced security features, like remotely activated watertight doors. Moreover, when the ship left from England for its maiden (and last) voyage, it was the largest vessel afloat in the world. The ship was the epitome of luxury, and no extravagant comfort – plush cabins, multiple libraries, high-end restaurants, a swimming pool, etc. – was spared during the making of the ship. Surely such a fine craft couldn’t sink, especially not on its very first time at sea, or so the common thinking went.

The Titanic hosted passengers from all levels of society. Some of the wealthiest people in the world were on the ship, but there were also over a thousand (comparatively) poor emigrants on board who were on their way to North America, where they hoped to build a new life. Many of these emigrants were the breadwinners of the families they left behind in Europe, making their deaths doubly catastrophic: the families not only had to cope with the lose of a loved one, but also had to find a new way to support themselves in the wake of tragedy.

The events that occurred on the night the Titanic sank, which transpired four days after the ship set sail, are fairly well-known, thanks in large part to the blockbuster film Titanic. Late on April 14th, at around 11:40 PM (ship’s time), the Titanic hit an iceberg 375 miles south of Newfoundland. The iceberg caused severe damage to the starboard side of the vessel (i.e., the right side relative to a passenger facing forward), puncturing five (of sixteen) watertight compartments. For approximately two and a half frantic hours, the ship filled with water. In less than three hours, at about 2:20 AM, the Titanic broke apart and sank below the surface. There were over 1000 passengers on board when this occurred.

Of the 2,224 people on board, only 710 survived. These are the fortunate few – overwhelmingly women and children – who escaped using the lifeboats available. This left a disproportionate number of men, particularly from the ship’s Second Class, behind to die. The Titanic wreck inspires such outrage because of the reckless confidence with which it set sail. There were only enough lifeboats to rescue 1,178 people – an instance of hubristic misplanning if there ever was one – and, outrageously, many of the lifeboats were launched only partially filled. The people who didn’t make it onto lifeboats either went down with the ship, locked in the fragmented vessel that would become their tomb, or died quickly in the freezing sea from hypothermia.

The Titanic wreck, like other tragedies of history, demands to be remembered because its victims cannot tell their own stories. However, the tale of the Titanic sinking is of particular relevance today because of the recent cruise ship disaster that rocked the industry: the Costa Concordia disaster. While no where near as tragic as the Titanic wreck, which robbed the lives of nearly 50 times more people, the Costa Concordia debacle taught us a similar lesson: overconfidence can be fatal. The organizers of the Titanic’s voyage should have never planned so poorly for an evacuation, and the captain of the Costa Concordia should have never deviated from the course his ship was supposed to follow (and reportedly just to show off the vessel to people on the Italian shoreline!). On this matter, we can do no better than Proverbs: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” On the 100-year anniversary of the night the Titanic sank, and forever after, this is worth remembering.

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