Just 14 years before the end of the Twentieth century, an unthinkable tragedy occurred when the Challenger space shuttle exploded on its maiden voyage. That disaster remarkably echoed another unthinkable tragedy, which had taken place only 12 years into the century when the great ocean liner, Titanic, went to the bottom of the Atlantic on her maiden voyage. Both events shook the international community, because each represented the epitome of modern technology, each was believed disaster-proof, and each forced us to pause and reflect on our fallibility.
The earlier tragedy occurred on Monday, April 15, 1912, when the largest and safest ocean liner ever built by the hand of man – a marvel of engineering taller than an 11-story building – slipped beneath the icy waters of the north Atlantic carrying almost 1500 souls to a watery grave. By 1999, the shock and horror had been largely forgotten as millions flocked to see Titanic sink twice nightly in a Las Vegas stage production, a Broadway musical based on the disaster broke box office records, and the movie Titanic became the biggest money maker to date. But then, it was always a good story!
As strange as it seems, the story fascinated the public before it ever happened. Back in 1898, a full 13 years before Titanic was built, a novel by Morgan Robertson portrayed the hopelessness of man’s obsession with technology in the face of his own mortality. Entitled Futility, it was the story of a fabulous ocean liner of 70,000 tons displacement (Titanic was 66,000 tons), and 800 feet long (Titanic was 882 feet). Both the fictional ship in Robertson’s novel and Titanic were triple screw driven, both could make 25 knots, and carry about 3,000 people. Significantly, each had life boats for only a fraction of that number since each was considered unsinkable. Robertson loaded his ship with rich, complacent passengers, and sailed it into the Atlantic in April where it collided with an iceberg and went down with a tremendous loss of life.. If it sounds like an uncanny coincidence, consider this: the name of the ship in Robertson’s novel was the Titan.
The modern fascination with this old tragedy began in 1985 with the discovery of Titanic on the ocean floor where it had rested undisturbed for 70 years. Photos of its lavish interior stirred interest in a time before air travel, when ocean liners were the only mode of travel between Europe and America, and those who traveled spent weeks instead of hours in the crossing. Accommodations were opulent, modest, or meager, based on one’s ability to pay. The wealthy traveled first class; they played shuffleboard or strolled the airy deck until cocktail time was announced in one of the luxury salons where they occupied their time until gourmet meals were served in spacious dining room. Dancing in the ballroom often capped off their evenings. First class passengers paid $4,350. for a parlor suite ($100,034. in today’s money). Second class passengers occupied comfortable, but unpretentious, smaller cabins on the middle levels of the ship, and those least able to pay were placed in steerage or third class, at the lowest level, in multiple occupancy quarters. It was a time of romance and decadence, extreme wealth and humiliating poverty, and the discovery of the great Titanic, strewn across the bottom of the Atlantic, renewed interest in the last days of that floating Shangri-la, the most luxurious liner of her time. Stories began to emerge about passengers who shared the experience: stories of bravery and cowardice, selfless love and selfish disregard, and questions about why it had to happen. Some of the stories had an Irish connection, which is only logical because the story of the Titanic began in Ireland.
Designed by Irishman Thomas Andrews of Co Down, Titanic’s first keel plate was laid on March 31, 1909 at Harland and Wolfe’s shipyard in Belfast whose workforce was known for its anti-Catholic attitude. In fact, it is claimed that the folio number of the plan of Titanic was 390904 which, when viewed in a mirror roughly read NOPOPE. Titanic was launched on May 31, 1911. Her maiden voyage took her to Southampton, England, to Cherbourg, France, to Cobh, Co. Cork, and off across the Atlantic to America. Advertised as the marvel of the age, it was said she was absolutely unsinkable – some said God himself couldn’t sink her, and those who believe in such things later claimed that such arrogance had placed a curse on her. She was built to hold a compliment of 3400 people, but fortunately only 2200 were on her maiden voyage, and that was fortunate because there were only enough lifeboats for 900. Built to carry 32 lifeboats, she sailed with only 20 because management of the White Star Line was concerned that additional boats would mar the ship’s aesthetic beauty.
Of the 2200 passengers, there were 322 in first class, 277 in second class, and 709 in third class, many of whom were Irish who boarded at Cobh. About four and a half days out of Cork, Titanic hit an iceberg; two and a half hours later, she sank. Most of those were the passengers who were trapped in steerage, where access gates had been locked to insure that first class passengers could depart on the available life boats. The White Star Line, which owned the Titanic later reported that during evacuation, women and children from all classes were given preference in the lifeboats. The fact is that from first class only 3% of the women and none of the children perished, while 45% of the women and 70% of the children in steerage were lost. Further, 34% of the men in first class survived, but only 12% from third. In all, 75% of the third class passengers perished.
When the news first came of her sinking, no one could believe it. Titanic’s hull had been divided into watertight compartments which could isolate any leak and keep her afloat. How could such a tragedy have happened? The cause of the sinking was a 300-foot gash torn in the starboard side of the ship as she scraped an iceberg, opening six watertight compartments to the sea, and listing the ship forward. Once she began to list, she was doomed for the angle of list allowed water to fill the damaged compartments, and overflow into the undamaged ones; as each compartment filled, the angle of list increased, and she took on more water. It was only a matter of time.
One of Titanic’s more fortunate passengers was an Irish Jesuit named Fr. Frank Browne, a native of Cork and later Chaplain of the Irish Guards in France. Fr. Browne’s ticket was a gift from his uncle, Bishop Robert Browne, who provided the passage from Southampton to Queenstown, where the good Bishop resided. Knowing of his nephew’s keen interest in photography as well as transatlantic liners, the Bishop purchased the ticket to give his nephew the opportunity to photograph the maiden voyage of the world’s largest ship and at the same time return to his native Ireland for a long overdue visit. Once on board, Father Browne befriended an American family who shared his table in the dining room. They offered to finance the remainder of his trip to New York and he cabled the Jesuit Provincial Superior in Dublin for permission to accept the offer. The four word reply read, Get off that ship. Years later, he would often remark that holy obedience had saved his life. It also saved some remarkable photographs, for his pictures taken aboard the Titanic during her two day voyage to Co. Cork, are the only record of the magnificent liner at sea, and were seen in newspapers around the world after the tragedy. His shots of the ship are so detailed that they were used in 1986 by the salvage crew to confirm the identity of the newly found wreck.
One of Fr Browne’s photos even led to a most heartwarming story. It seems that a wealthy Frenchman had run away with the family governess, taking his two sons, aged four and two with him, and booked passage on the Titanic under an assumed name. Both the father and his lover were lost when the ship sank, but the boys were lifted into a lifeboat and saved. Arriving in New York, they were called the Titanic Orphans, and were asked for in adoption by Mrs. Benjamin Guggenheim, widow of one of the Titanic victims. Across the world, the boys mother saw one of Father Browne’s photos in a newspaper and recognized her lost sons. Finally aware of where they’d been taken, she sailed to New York and reclaimed her sons just before their adoption became final, providing a happy ending to at least one Titanic story.
However, there was no happy ending for those who went down, carrying their hopes and dreams of a new life, in a new world, with them to the bottom. Last year in 2012, on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, several museums were opened to the Titanic tragedy; the largest in Belfast is a 6-floor, $160 million, 160,000 square foot display which even contains a full-scale replica of the ship’s red-oak grand staircase. Perhaps the next time the name Titanic is mentioned, whether it be with regard to the glamor of a Vegas production, Broadway musical, Screen epic or museum, we might breath a prayer for those unfortunates who knew the terror of that night 101 years ago, but none of its glamor.