Saturday 14 April 2012

In Memory of the Titanic

It is one hundred years to the day since Titanic sank and I’m sharing some thoughts and trivia.

The television has been inundated with specials and series.  The movie has been rereleased in 3D.  Titanic is everywhere.  There’s probably no one in Western society who doesn’t know about this ship and its testament to humanity’s arrogance.

I watched Titanic: the Aftermath, talking about what happened after.  I knew the people in Halifax played a crucial role in recovering the dead and sheltering the survivors.  But I didn’t know that the fishermen set out with their decks and holds filled with coffins to recover the bodies.  They cleared out all the morgues and brought in undertakers from around the province so that no one would have to wait for proper burial.  I didn’t know they’re still trying to identify some of the dead from Titanic.

John Henry Barnstead, a county record keeper in Halifax, was determined not to let history repeat itself.  In previous wrecks, identification of bodies was almost impossible and personal effects were stolen, leaving grieving families with nothing.  He came up with a threefold plan: identification, number and effects.  All bodies would be numbered and that number with a description and list of effects will always stay with the body.  He had the sailors sew sailcloth bags with numbers to hold the contents of each corpse’s pockets.  Two people worked on each body to prevent theft and inventories were made for each body.  He was also the first to take photographs of the dead and use them for identification.

I didn’t know the life preservers had drastic design flaws, snapping people’s necks as they jumped for the presumed safety of the water.  I didn’t realize it took three days for boats to reach the wreck site and thus bodies drifted up to 75 kilometres from the original site.  Or that other ships passing through the steamer tracks said they had to pass through great masses of them.  A newspaper account said there were too many to count, the sea was carpeted with bodies.

Facts: only one third of passengers and crew made it onto the lifeboats.  The rest were left, dead and dying.  Only 306 bodies were recovered out of almost 1500.  Of those, 116 were buried at sea from the deck of the recovery ship, 60 of them not identified.  Of the 190 brought back to Halifax, 125 were not identified.  150 were buried in Halifax.

The White Star company refused to ship bodies home to their families unless the families paid for it.  Contrast that with the crew of one of the recovery ships.  They got a $10 000 reward for recovering John Jacob Astor’s body and used part of that money to pay for the individual church burial of a three year old child who was never identified.

There is a de-motivational poster showing Titanic sinking, entitled: History.  The quote is: Sometimes your role in history will be to serve as an example to others.  I keep it as a reminder not to get too confident and arrogant in my assumptions.  When it comes to a battle of humanity’s work versus the forces of nature, nature wins every time.  Without breaking a sweat.  Nothing we do is invulnerable to attack.

The White Star Line is a classic example of a corporation driven more by short-term profit than long-term consideration.  I will grant potential ignorance about the frailty of the steel used to make Titanic’s hull, although I wonder if it was chosen because it was cheap.  The design flaws of the watertight compartments is inexcusable.  They knew the compartments only extended a few feet above the waterline.  The lack of sufficient lifeboats was a combination of sheer arrogance and uncaring cruelty.  That’s the setup for disaster.

The crew were effectively handed a loaded gun and then their decisions pulled the trigger.  Racing through the night when visibility was low and icebergs were present was a foreseeably stupid decision, likely done because of pressure for a grand gesture to gain publicity.  Choosing to underload the few lifeboats available cost precious lives.  Locking the third-class passengers below decks was just cruel. 

The loss of life sickens me.  Especially because it was absolutely unnecessary.  But most of all because I think we still suffer from the same arrogance.  We reduce safety measures, believing the worst cannot happen to us.  We are still more impressed by a grand gesture, even if risky, than a well-thought out and carefully executed plan.  We dismiss and decry those who try to warn us as alarmist.

So take a little time today to think about what you will do if disaster strikes.  A house fire, a car wreck, pick something and think about it. 

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