Titanic: 100 Years Later, Still The World's Most Tragic Maritime Disaster

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The ocean liner RMS Titanic, which sunk 100 years ago, on April 15, 1912 -- killing 1,514 people -- remains seared in the U.S. popular culture's consciousness, and on the minds of others around the world. 

Many have reasonably asked, Why has the tragedy of the Titanic remained a subject of interest and fascination, decades -- and now a century -- after the incident? After all, there have been bigger civilian maritime disasters and other civilian accidents in which more people were killed. Why, then, all the media and popular culture attention to the Titanic?

Some younger adults, particularly those with exposure to Hollywood and Europe movies, would likely cite the 1997 film Titanic, director James Cameron's blockbuster epic about the ship's maiden and only voyage. 

No one should underestimate Hollywood's power to form a popular culture attitude, but the movie industry's promotional and consciousness-raising power does not account for the Titanic's imprint: Fascination with the Titanic long predated Cameron's film -- grade-school kids in the United States from the 1930s to the 1950 to the 1970s grew up reading in school or watching documentary shows about the Titanic.

Rather, the incident has been remembered, and studied, and discussed, perhaps due to three event dimensions: 1) the injustice/avoidableness of the tragedy, 2) the grandeur of the ship, and 3) the implied arrogance of the ship's owners, and by extension, of humans, when they exhibit the preferred stance.

1) The Titanic Tragedy Should Not Have Occurred

The foremost reason the ship is remembered is the avoidableness of the event. Simply, the tragedy of the Titanic's sinking should not have occurred. A combination of mind-numbing mistakes -- from operating the ocean liner at too fast a speed for iceberg-laden waters, to an inadequate number of lifeboats -- the ship had enough life boats for only 1,178 people but an estimated 2,224 passengers and crew were on the maiden voyage -- to delays in deploying the lifeboats, to a totally inadequate and poorly managed evacuation system, among other errors and acts of irresponsibility -- caused a far greater loss of life. 

Historians and maritime experts have and will no doubt continue to debate how many lives would have been saved had one or several of the monumental errors not occurred, but one fact is certain: Even after striking an iceberg, many more of the 1,514 who perished would have been saved. More than 1,000 people were still on the ship when it broke up and sank bow-first.
In other words, those who perished on the Titanic were victims of a gross injustice and massive operational failures -- and the elimination of just one of the mistakes could have saved hundreds of lives. The combination of mind-numbing errors doomed 1,514.

2) The Titanic Was The Grandest Ship Of Its Era

Titanic was the world's largest luxury liner -- a veritable palace on the sea, for those with means, and the maiden voyage's passenger list included many with means.

Some the wealthiest people in the world took the ship's first trip and enjoyed the luxurious accommodations, which, in addition to plush cabins, included a gymnasium, libraries, upscale restaurants, numerous living rooms/social rooms, a barber shop, Turkish bath and a swimming pool. The VIP guest list included U.S. millionaire John Jacob Astor IV and wife Madeleine Force Astor, industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, Macy's owner Isidor Straus and wife Ida Straus, millionairess Margaret Molly Brown, and businessman John Borland Thayer, among others. 

In other words, travelling via the Titanic was a status symbol -- a badge that, for first-class travelers, indicated wealth and prominence. A trip in this class was roughly equivalent to dining at New York's Four Seasons restaurant, booking a seat on a supersonic plane (such as the discontinued Concorde) and appearing at a National Football League Super Bowl party, all rolled into one. So superior were Titanic's furnishings and accommodations that second-class travel was roughly equivalent to first-class travel on other, typical ocean liners; third class was equal to second, etc. 

In short, the Titanic was the grandest ship of its age and a happening for those with the means to travel first class.

3) The Titanic Owner's Attitude Symbolized Humanity's Arrogance and Hubris

Further, perhaps due to that grandeur and the ship's size / modernness, perhaps due to an overly enthusiastic and ambitious marketing strategy, the stance of the owners of the Titanic more than smacked of arrogance and hubris.

The grandest ship of her age, Titanic was also the largest (882 feet or 269 meters long) and the White Star Line owners would take the two credits -- and add a third -- to deploy what they believed would be a very successful marketing campaign, to increase awareness of the ship -- and obviously encourage more people to use the ship for transportation across the Atlantic.

White Star Line's third modifier for Titanic? The nearly unsinkable ship. Titanic's designer concluded that the ship was nearly unsinkable because of its 16 bulkheads -- upright partitions that divided the ship into 16 compartments. Newspapers of the day, deploying the shorthand that's typical but also frequently inaccurate in the popular press -- conveniently left-off the nearly qualifier, such that the ship's descriptive became the unsinkable Titanic, or Titanic: the unsinkable ship.

If ever there was a factual error in journalism it was the above: It was not true.

The reason? Although the watertight bulkheads extended far above the water line, they were not sealed at the top. This, ultimately, was the most serious design flaw in Titanic and the reason she was not unsinkable -- the notion that water would not enter the ship sufficient to submerge enough bulkheads, such that the weight would submerge the ship to the point that water would flow above the top of the unsealed bulkheads -- spilling water from one bulkhead, to the next, and next, roughly in the way an ice-cube tray with compartments fills.

What's more, Titanic could float with any two compartments flooded, and it could remain afloat with selected combinations of three compartments flooded, or if the first four compartments leaked. However, if five compartments flooded, the tops -- or open/unsealed areas of the bulkheads would be exposed, and the ship would continue to take on water, and sink. Titanic's glancing blow with the iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean opened leaks in five of her 16 bulkheads: at the moment the iceberg opened the fifth compartment, the ship was destined to sink.

Hence, the unsinkable descriptive for the ship was not supported by engineering.

But beyond the promotional and descriptive inaccuracy -- and the false sense of security it probably instilled in many -- there is behavioral arrogance and hubris involved in asserting that a ship is unsinkable.

Today, ship building in the early 21st century has advanced tremendously -- cruise ships and certainly contemporary U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are very safe ships, but anyone who has been at sea during even a mild storm would not assert that a given ship is unsinkable and can withstand all that nature can throw at them. (Hurricanes, other storms.)

The owners of Titanic did assert that. To say that Titanic's owners did not display arrogance and hubris would not be correct. It was arrogance and hubris because as far as humanity has progressed -- as great as our technology is, and it is capable of wonders -- human modifications are still very modest compared to nature, and human energy is small compared to the energy force in nature. Consider: According to NOAA, the energy force released in a typical hurricane is equal to 200 times the world-wide electrical generating capacity! That's an enormous amount of energy -- from just one hurricane!

No one can incontrovertibly predict what technology humans will discover in the decades and centuries ahead; for now, know that no ship is unsinkable, and claiming so is a human flaw of the worst sort: it is arrogant and hubristic. Titanic, promoted as 'unsinkable,' never completed it first commercial voyage.

The Souls Of The Just

There have been larger maritime disasters since 1912, but Titanic's grandeur, the implied arrogance of the ship's owners, and the injustice of 1,514 dieing from an event that was completely avoidable are, arguably, the primary reasons people still talk about the ship today. One hundred years after the calamity, Titanic is still the world's most tragic maritime disaster.

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