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The Titanic in Truth

adventures are the stigmata of incompetence

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, November 20, 1996.

Next summer, a new movie on the Titanic hits the screen. It will cost somewhere between one hundred twenty and one hundred fifty million dollars. Mostly, this is a marketing ploy to coincide with the deep sea pillage of the wreck, started by - surprise! - the French but more efficiently done by a new corporation. They’ve brought up over six thousand items, including a pocket watch that belonged to a male passenger who had cheerfully waved goodbye to his wife and daughter during the early evacuation. The engraved watch was given to the daughter, now one hundred years old, in what even on paper seems like such a contrived, Gothic, and corny twist of fate. After eighty-four years two and one half miles down, the watch obviously remained atop the biodegrading corpse for awhile, preventing it from being covered. I mean, a watch was found belonging to one of the very few survivors. Can you imagine the thoughts of that woman holding her beloved father’s heirloom?

The problem with all this is best illustrated by the fact all these movies - there was a new one on television this week - feel the need to contrive love stories to go with it, preferably a first class/steerage type to illustrate the class distinction thing. There will be heart wrenching set pieces about the Astors and Guggenheims, and William Stead, and the Strauss’. It will be a scary movie, heavy on fear and fate. But the true story of the Titanic is much scarier and less elevating.

The fact is, the Titanic was about as good as the British could make a ship, and in 1912 that was pretty bad. For years we were told the iceberg tore a hole in the side. There is no tear. Then we were told the outside rivets were torn off by the berg for three hundred feet of curving hull. The truth is that the ship glanced the berg - bumped it - and all the plates popped. It reflected the same bad construction that bedeviled the British fleet four years later at the Battle of Jutland. But because this is so embarrassing, we’re stuck with those massive tears.

As to what the ship was doing going twenty-four knots through a known ice field at night with no radar, that’s even worse. A British ship owned by Americans, the big T was Britain’s latest weapon in the war against Germany, who had a fleet of excellent liners and was a heavy competitor. The Titanic was on fire in one of the coal bunkers, maybe by spontaneous combustion or maybe by sabotage, since England was beset by a coal strike and she had to coal up from three other ships using union labor. People have loved to bemoan the big T as the last act of a dying age, with the opulence of its first class standing for decadence. Aspects that suggest it may have been the first act of this century’s terrorism are less cherished. In any event, the fire could not be allowed to fester, and the ship had to do a good time to New York.

The less said about the California, a ship parked about five miles away as the Titanic sank the better.

Newsweek describes the event as a confluence of bad luck, bad timing, and bad navigation. Its was more like an example of what happens when a badly built ship ruled by out of date regulations, captained a man whose greatest qualification was seniority, at risk from cranky union labor, and on fire, runs foolishly through an ice field about which the ship had been warned. Instead of tsk, tsk, the proper exclamation should be “duh.”