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Sunday, 15 April 2012





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100 years since its sinking:

RMS Titanic: The legend lives on

The Titanic as it lies beneath the ocean

One hundred years ago, airplanes were still in their infancy. There was only one method to cross the oceans – the great ocean liners. Although steam ships sailed all over the world, the most popular ‘run’ was the busy Southampton-New York route.

In 1912, the world witnessed the birth of a new ship, the like of which had never been seen before. It had all the comforts imaginable, including electric lights, intercom telephones, two wireless signalling stations, a grand staircase, swimming-pool and modern toilets. And it was big – 269 metres long and 29 metres wide with nine decks. The designers were so certain that the ship could stay afloat whatever happens – they called it ‘unsinkable’. For good measure, they added just 20 lifeboats for a ship that could carry 3,340 people. The pride of the White Star Line, it had a name that said it all – RMS (Royal Mail Steamship) Titanic. It was the sister ship of the White Star liners The Olympic and The Britannic.

Exactly 100 years later, the Titanic is still in the ocean that it hoped to conquer. It is a story that still haunts us, for the ‘unsinkable’ ship never completed its maiden voyage. New York never saw the Titanic. Instead, it saw another ship called RMS Carpathia that carried 710 people who were on the Titanic.

This part of the Titanic story is so well known that it will never fade from humanity’s collective memory. When the ship began its voyage on April 10, 1912 with Captain John Edward Smith at the helm, there were 1,317 passengers and 885 crew on board. They had no inkling whatsoever of what fate and nature would have in store for them, just four days into the voyage of a lifetime.

Sinking of ship

The Titanic struck an iceberg at 11.40 on the night of April 14 and sank around 2.20 am on April 15 with the loss of 1,517 people who pinned all their hopes and dreams on a grand ocean liner that would take them to a new land. Just 710 people survived to tell the harrowing tale of the sinking of a ship that never lived up to its name.

The voyage that never happened

The details of those final few hours are fading in the waves of time, but it is generally believed that at least 500 more people could have been accommodated in the 20 lifeboats. Captain Smith was apparently so strict with his ‘women and children first’ order that many men simply stayed behind. Moreover, the class system on board the Titanic meant that most passengers in Steerage or Third Class never made it to the lifeboats. Many of them perished, trapped in the lower decks as the water gushed in. But drowning itself was not the main cause of death – it was hypothermia.

The temperature in the iceberg-infested water was -2 degrees Celsius. Death took just a matter of minutes. Only a very few survivors were picked up from the water itself – the Carpathia rescued only those who were already in the lifeboats. Incidentally, there was another ship called The Californian which was much closer to the Titanic.

It never responded to the Titanic SOS because its wireless operator had shut down for the day.

There is no one alive who can actually remember those final moments – Lilian Asplund, the last person who did, died in 2006. And Millvina Dean, the last survivor (who could not remember anything because she was the youngest passenger on board at nine weeks) passed away in 2009. But that has not prevented us from remembering and reliving those final few hours of the doomed liner.

Who does not know the story of the valiant band members who played on to soothe the passengers until their lives were engulfed by the icy cold waves? Can we forget the engineers who bravely stayed at their posts, stoking coal so that the Titanic had lights? The ship went dark only minutes before sinking, and all the engineers were lost. There are countless other tales of bravery by crewmen and passengers who helped others, risking their lives. Only a few of them survived. Captain Smiths body was never found.

Discovery of wreck

Capt. John Edward Smith
Millvina Dean with her mother

The Titanic, too, survives - at a depth of 3,784 metres on the Atlantic Ocean floor. Ocean explorer Robert Ballard found the wreck of the Titanic nearly 600 Km off the coast of Newfoundland in 1985.The wreck is in two sections – the forces at work during the sinking were so immense that the ship broke in two.

Since 1985, many artefacts have been salvaged from the Titanic and some of the most valuable items were auctioned recently. One of the most interesting items was a menu card depicting the last meal served on board for First Class passengers.

There is a raging debate on whether more items should be recovered from Titanic and under what conditions. Should we disturb the final resting place of 1,517 souls? Or isn’t it better to salvage whatever items we can for posterity? These are questions for which there are no easy answers.

However, naval experts unanimously agree that salvaging the entire wreck of the Titanic is impossible even if funds are available. But there is a glimmer of hope for the further preservation of the wreck, which has now come under UNESCO protection. (Historic shipwrecks which are more than 100 years old are eligible for UNESCO protection).

Nevertheless, the biggest threat to the wreck of the Titanic may not be Man, after all. Scientists have discovered a new strain of iron-eating bacteria that feast on the Titanic’s hull. They fear that the entire wreck may be devoured by these microbes in just 20 or 30 years. That would be a sad event, but the only silver lining is that more areas of the interior would be exposed to research vessels and robots as the microbes work their way in. The Titanic is not giving up its secrets so easily.

Movies and books

Many have attempted to tell its secrets through movies and books. Two of the most well-known movies on the Titanic are James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and Roy Ward Baker’s docudrama A Night to Remember (1958) based on Walter Lord’s book with the same title. The Titanic is being shown in 3-D in cinemas across the world to commemorate the Titanic centenary while A Night is out on blu-ray for the first time.

From a critical point of view, A Night is thought to be the better film for its accuracy and quality production values. However, the Titanic features better special effects in the sinking scene itself. This year, there will be a series of TV specials, including Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and countless books to mark the Titanic centenary.

Events, religious services and exhibitions will be held all over the world today to remember the Titanic and its victims. The Titanic is still a subject which stirs deep emotions in cities such as Southampton (which lost 594 residents), Belfast (where it was built), Cherbourg (France) and Cobh (Ireland) where the Titanic called at before heading to the open ocean, Halifax (the final resting place of many Titanic victims and artefacts – it was from here that four recovery ships sailed to the site of the sinking to recover bodies and personal effects) and New York, the intended destination port.

The highlight of the memorial events is a Titanic Memorial Cruise by MS Balmoral, which itself is connected to the Titanic. Its operators Fred Olsen’s parent company Harland and Wolff built the Titanic in Belfast.

The ship is carrying 1,309 passengers including relatives of Titanic victims and survivors. Two special memorial services will take place over the weekend on board at the exact spot where the Titanic went down: The first near midnight April 14, when the Titanic hit the iceberg, and the second early April 15, when the ship sank.

The whole world will join them in mourning those who perished.

The Titanic is a legend that time will not forget. There will never be any other ship called the Titanic. There was only one, and it will sail on forever in our hearts and minds. Our hearts will indeed go on.


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