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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
As I write this, scores of specially equipped vessels are scouring the sea off the coast of Newfoundland for any trace of a tiny submersible whose five wealthy occupants went to the ocean floor to examine the wreck of the RMS Titanic.
There have been more than a few comparisons to the urgency with which all these craft headed for the area and the breakneck speed with which so many ships rushed to the very same place in April 1912 when they learned that the world’s largest and most opulent transatlantic liner had struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and was foundering.
All of them, as we know, reached the spot far too late, and more than 1,500 men, women and children had died in the icy water in the middle of the night.
Perhaps some of the most awful lessons of the 1912 tragedy were related to the inadequacy of the ship’s lifesaving equipment, the foolhardiness of steaming at almost full speed into a field of drifting icebergs, and the ship’s design making it virtually impossible to steer out of the path of an obstacle at short notice.
We have all gone over these things time and again, especially the lack of lifeboats to carry all passengers to safety, a criminal ineptitude by the ship’s builders that would immediately be rectified on all other vessels, notably Titanic’s near-identical sisters, Olympic and Britannic. Watertight bulkheads would also be modified; double-hull construction would become standard; and radio signaling would be perfected.
These things, of course, were developed as a sort of fail-safe, because the people of the Edwardian age firmly believed that we had the power and the know-how to overcome the forces of nature.
Titanic and many other ships of the age were built at a time when engineering was considered at its peak, when anything and everything seemed possible, when express trains raced across the continents, when the machines of war were capable of leveling entire countries in their path, and when communications were the most advanced imaginable.
Clearly we have learned a lot in the century since.
There is one thing, however, that we may yet refuse to understand, and it is the very thing that has proven our undoing as many times as we insist we have studied the lessons of the past.
We may believe with each passing age that we are the masters of the universe and that we must surely have reached a point at which we can scale the heights and explore the depths, but we are very nearly stopped in our tracks with every disaster that befalls the brave, whether it be the overpowering force of nature itself or the shortcomings of man, only to try and try again because, well, we are an audacious and persistent bunch.
This, one must suppose, would be the thinking behind building a tiny submersible that can drop to depths of at least 13,000 feet and charging absurd amounts of money for rides in it to the bottom of the sea. Man does not belong down there. Most marine life, in fact, does not belong down there, either. It is a desolate and entirely inhospitable place, barren, yet punctuated by the collapsing steel carcass of a thing that man once built.
Down there, in the utter blackness, the little craft’s spotlight will have picked out the gently corroding details that remain of the Edwardian leviathan and, if those intrepid visitors can spy them through the single poky porthole, dozens and dozens of pairs of leather shoes and boots, curiously all lying quite close together, here and there and everywhere in that dreadful field of tarnished debris.
Shoe leather is the only remaining trace of the people who went to the bottom with the beautiful ship.
By the time you read this, we should all know what became of the little vessel that was driven down to the floor of the sea and whether its occupants have survived.
The sea did not just claim millionaires that April night so long ago. It claimed so many more of the huddled masses who would have come to build new lives in America.
Most of those shoes are theirs.
In their own pathetic way, they represent the lesson that begs to be learned.