“Iceberg! Right ahead!”
These words, called from the crow’s nest of the great ship Titanic 110 years ago, still resonate today. It’s part of a story that has been told many, many times, a story that stems from the hubris of man and ends in tragedy, whose events have been called out over all those years with astounding clarity. It’s the story where grand luxury literally collides with an unmoved Mother Nature.
The sinking of the Titanic is the most famous maritime disaster in history. So many aspects of the story make it so compelling that even schoolchildren (yes, even those of those who were the age of schoolchildren years before the famous 1997 film was released) know the basics of the tale. It instilled what will continue to fascinate people for many generations to come. It is the subject of several films released before and after that big-budget 1997 film, and it doesn’t end there. Plenty of documentaries, interviews, museum exhibits, computer-generated recreations of the sinking, and even video games, have all delved into every facet of the story of the R.M.S Titanic. At the time of the disaster, the Titanic was the largest, most luxurious, and most sophisticated ocean liner ever built. So its loss (on its maiden voyage, no less), along with the lives of over 1,500 people on board, is nothing less than a watershed event in history.
Of course, everyone points to the irony that, at the time it was built, it was dubbed “unsinkable.” The ship was designed with multiple watertight compartments that, even if four of these compartments had been breached and were flooded with water, the vessel would still remain afloat; it was as sturdy a ship as could be made. There was a lot of talk about the passengers and crew. It was to be the final voyage for Captain Edward Smith before his retirement, and the ship carried some of the wealthiest notable people of business and industry (such as John Jacob Astor and Isador and Ida Strauss) on board. All of these factors make the story of Titanic’s maiden voyage play out like the backdrop for the perfect fictional melodrama, and that is before the key events that began late on April 14, 1912, and continued on to the early morning hours of April 15. The many individual stories that occurred during that time frame – the familiar tales of the “band playing to the very end,” the idea of “women and children first” (a concept that originated before the sinking but was made famous during this event as people gathered aboard the boat deck to evacuate), and of course the fact that, even if the lifeboats had all been filled to capacity, the ship was carrying too few of them to save all the passengers. It took just over two hours for the ship to slowly sink beneath the ocean, and in that time, the stories of the brave crew, the selfless fathers and husbands who stayed on board in order to save their loved ones, and the frantic desperation of those who clung to the ship as mother nature violently tore the ship in two, are stories that continue to resonate to this day. Not just historians but regular people from all over the world have looked to this famous event to try to discern what went wrong as well as what might have been done to save more people. It’s a story of the human condition itself: “what would you have done if you were on the great ship when it sank?”
There can only be humility as humanity looks to those events from a century ago. Pick any of Titanic films (for there is multiple made for each generation since it sank), and take some time to watch a documentary on everything up to that fateful maiden voyage and what transpired during the sinking, and realize that there is no human invention that is flawless, and – furthermore – not more prevalent than the human spirit itself.
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