WASHINGTON, April 4, 2012 – “RMS Titanic” she was and titanic the story remains, even one-hundred years after her sinking, alive with its mix of adventure, tragedy, mystery, and romance.
It is is one of the greatest tragedies, and one of the most epic films, of the 20th century.
April 15, 2012 marks the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable ocean liner. As the date nears, it is impossible to not pause and think of her story. The tragedy’s anniversary comes just as the movie, crafted by James Cameron, is rereleased, enhanced by 3D, Real D, and iMax, all to make the memorable scenes more spectacular.
Which leads to the question: do we really need the drowning scenes made more intense?
The 1997 movie is considered a cinematic tour de force — the sinking of the ship is as much fact as legend — and like most really big stories, the Titanic’s tale has its heroes, villains, romance and tragedy.
At the center of the story is the beautiful ship, the short-lived queen of the White Star Line, standing head and shoulders above every other ocean liner. She was built at Wolff and Harland in Belfast and designed to carry 2,244 passengers on her maiden voyage from London to the United States.
Then there is the loss of 1,514 lives: the fate of the poor steerage families, mother, fathers, children, trapped below deck, and the terribly rich ones above. They died in the icy waters equally, regardless of status.
The villain in this tale is the iceberg, Edward Smith’s antagonist surprising the ship’s captain in the clear dark night. Smith had been warned by telegraph several times that the icebergs were lurking menacingly, hidden in the still waters of the silent ocean.
Murder that night was committed when the ship collided with the iceberg, slicing the ship down the side so mercilessly that far too many watertight compartments gave up their protection.
Why does the story of the Titanic endure? Why do we celebrate not her christening but her sinking beneath the icy cold waves of the Atlantic Ocean, where her severed hull and detritus still lie?
Why does the Titanic’s tragedy continue to fuel movies, explorations, museums, and books written about the mighty behemoth of the seas?
The story of the Titanic endures because it is the soaring story of courage and cowardice. It is the story of the men and women that managed to endure, the selfless officers and crew, and the band of musicians who played almost to the end.
Titantic’s story carries the sad realization of a number of “ifs” to be endlessly debated. If only she had had more lifeboats; if Captain Smith and J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line, had not pushed the engines to their utmost capacity; if their corporate arrogance hadn’t forced the speed to break some existing record.
If only she had collided with the iceberg head-on, there would have been a chance for more survivors, but the side cut made it a tragically different story.
The biggest catalyst of the enduring tale is all the ”ifs” that led to disaster that dark April 1912 evening.
Since 1985 when Explorer in Residence Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel discovered the wreck, several deep-water explorations have taken place. Numerous artifacts have been brought up, leading to arguments between those who would like the ship and its unrecovered dead to remain inviolate, and those who want to extract everything of interest and value that can be recovered.
Modern sonar, robotic devices and computer imagery so clear that every nook and cranny is visible have brought the RMS Titanic alive again.
The ship’s remains (after a century there are no human remains to be found) are spread over a distance many acres in size. Current technology has permitted a sort of mosaic to be stitched together as a result of the thousands of individual graphic images, which together produce a clearer picture of the ship and how she fell apart.
That equipment, using both side-scan and multi-beam sonar, sweeps back and forth across the ocean bottom, a three by four mile area, taking multiple pictures as it travels.
It is difficult to parse exactly the intense interest that has continued over the past one-hundred years. Very few other sites or experiences carry such a fascination for people.
Ninety years from now, Ground Zero may be such a place. The memorial at the Arizona site at Pearl Harbor invokes strong passions.
The many stories that came from the sinking have implanted themselves as almost personal experiences in us.
There is the very real and very beautiful love of Isidor Strauss (founder of Macy’s) and his wife Ida, who dressed in their best and lay down on the bed in their cabin, so that they might die together, holding hands.
While the love story of Jack Dawson (Leonardo di Caprio) and the lovely Rose (Kate Winslet) is pure fiction, the love story of the Strauss couple is factual.
As is the story of the “Titanic orphans,” the small brothers who survived the catastrophe.
Michel Navratil, the father, was traveling under the name of Lewis Hoffman with his two- and four-year old children. Navratill had kidnapped the children without the mother, Marcelle’s knowledge or consent.
At the time of the sinking, he wrapped the toddlers in blankets and handed them to someone in lifeboat Collapsible D, hoping they might survive.
Fortunately the children, Michel and Edmond, did survive, and when the rescue ship Carpathia docked at Halifax, they were turned over to the authorities.
When the body of Navratil was found, his false identity was determined, and the children’s mother was reunited with her little ones after a voyage on the sister ship “Olympic,” courtesy of the White Star Line.
Other stories are not as well-known. The “Titanic” was built with a full complement of modern kennels, and dog lovers will mourn the loss of the 12 dogs who died on that fateful voyage. Mostly the pets of First Class passengers, they included Airedales, a Great Dane, Newfoundland, and a Chow along with some smaller breeds.
Sadly only a few of the dogs survived, two Pomeranians and a Pekinese. There was even a puppy handed to a young girl in a lifeboat.
Another canine survivor, who was a hero himself, was Rigel, a First Officer’s pet. After spending three hours in the freezing waters, he was picked up by the Carpathia. When his intense barking could not be stilled, it led seamen to find another collapsible by its starboard side and to save those passengers within it.
One writer says that First Class passenger William Carter of Pennsylvania brought with him a group of polo ponies, and that they all perished. That can’t be confirmed, but the wealthy gentleman did bring along a 35 hp Renault automobile, for which he claimed a loss of $5,000 after the sinking and which can be seen in the expedition videos.
So many stories have survived Titanic, whose memory is also irretrievably interwoven with Celine Dion’s rendition of the haunting “My Heart Will Go On and On,” created almost a century after the sinking occurred.
Two new books have come out concurrently with the anniversary, but unfortunately reviews are mixed on both and maybe we have seen the last of Titanic’s good storytellers and novelists, at least for a time.
While the fictional “Heart of the Ocean” sapphire and diamond necklace worn by the fair Rose never existed in reality, the story of the tragedy of Titanic lives on in the hearts and minds of those who love the sea and its ships.
And if ever you are on board a cruise ship, you will, most likely, find yourself standing up near the prow looking out into the endless ocean as the winds echo the words “I’m the king of the world!”
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