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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
One hundred and ten years ago this week, the world’s most opulent ocean liner went to the bottom of the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage, taking more than 1,500 people with it.
The disaster has become one of legend, and although it was by far not the greatest loss of life in a single shipwreck and arguably due in large part to human error and misjudgment – you might call it incompetence – there remains a tragedy to it that echoes through the decades, reinforced by the eventual discovery of the massive ship in 13,000 feet of deathly cold water off the coast of Newfoundland about 37 years ago.
Tremendous loss of life at sea was not unusual in the 20th Century, although that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. While natural forces were responsible for many tragedies, human malfeasance was, alas, to blame for a great deal more.
Passing the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7, 1915, the luxury liner RMS Lusitania was struck by a German torpedo and plowed into the depths, taking nearly 1,200 passengers and crew in about 18 minutes. The sinking of the German cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff by a Russian torpedo in the Baltic Sea in 1945 cost more than an estimated 10,000 lives of refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army. The cargo ship Goya, seized from Norway and used by the German Navy to carry refugees across the Baltic was likewise torpedoed by the Russians and took 6,700 civilians and wounded soldiers. The British ocean liner RMS Lancastria being bombed by a German aircraft in 1940 may have claimed as many as 7,000 Allied troops and civilians escaping occupied France.
A ship on which I had traveled a number of times, the Townsend Thoresen Herald of Free Enterprise, keeled over after leaving Zebrugge, Belgium, in 1987, due to a combination of shocking blunders by its crew. More than 190 passengers drowned, many of them in the very lounge where I had so often sat and marveled at the peculiar idea of dividing a ship down the middle, front to back, with an ornate metal screen. When the ship tipped onto its side in the English Channel, half the lounge filled with water in a matter of seconds, and passengers on one side could not reach the air that remained in the other.
Human error in design, such as the flawed watertight compartments aboard RMS Titanic that were simply not tall enough to hold serious flooding, and the lack of sufficient lifeboats; the evil of targeting innocents and the defenseless aboard unarmed vessels; and the gross incompetence of captains who refused to take adequate precautions in a war zone or crew members who paid no attention to the hazards of sailing out of a Belgian port with a ship’s bow doors wide open; all of these things and more have contributed to immeasurable loss and grief.
It was not the iceberg’s fault that the 880-foot superliner sideswiped it at nearly full speed that night in April 1912, and certainly not nature’s fault that steel hull plates buckled along more than 300 feet below the waterline. It certainly was not by any quirk of nature that Titanic had actually been suffering a fire for days, the heat from its burning coal bunker further weakening the ship’s steel.
The true loss is not in ship tonnage but in human lives, and in Titanic’s case the tragedy is made all the more memorable by the very stack of hyperbole that accompanies the story. The ship represented a cross-section of trans-Atlantic society of the age, with the very wealthy perched at the top in gilded splendor and the oft-nameless working class and immigrants in the very bottom, unaccommodated in lifeboats, uninstructed in how to escape, and left to die in the cold dark water.
Perhaps we learned some lessons about ship design over the century, or perhaps we didn’t.
We can only hope that lessons learned about how to treat our fellow man, how to make sure that the injustices and the wickedness of the past are never repeated, and finally to appreciate our place in the order of things that doesn’t artificially place us above Mother Nature, are lessons that will make us better as a civilization.