100 years after the Titanic disaster

A century ago this April 15, Baltimoreans, like the rest of the world, awakened to the news that the great White Star Liner RMS Titanic, on its maiden voyage to New York, had been in a collision late the night before, hitting an iceberg about 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland in frigid Atlantic waters.

In a Sunday, April 14, dispatch from Cape Race, Newfoundland, The Baltimore Sun reported that at 10:25 p.m. (Baltimore time) the Titanic had struck an iceberg and had called for "immediate assistance."


There was some initial confusion about the fate of those aboard the Titanic. A Reuters dispatch confidently reported: "The Titanic sank at 2:20 this morning. No lives were lost."

And then the sobering and undeniable truth came Tuesday morning in The Baltimore Sun: GIANT TITANIC GOES DOWN; 1,506 PERISH; 675 ARE SAVED.

Even though it remains one of the greatest North Atlantic maritime catastrophes ever, the horrendous brutality of World War I, which came two years later, wiped the Titanic from the world's collective conscience.

Then the Great Depression arrived, which was followed by another world war. John Maxtone-Graham, considered the dean of trans-Atlantic chroniclers, and Baltimore-born author Walter Lord both observed that as the years went by, the Titanic's name faded, surfacing, briefly, in memoirs of retired Atlantic sea captains who once plied the great circle route between the New World and the Old.

And then came Lord's 1955 blockbuster "A Night to Remember," which kicked off the Titanic craze that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

With the 100th anniversary comes a bonanza of new Titanic books, along with numerous newspaper, magazine, TV and radio specials examining various aspects of the wreck.

"Succeeding generations of Titanic obsessives will surely take our place," writes Maxtone-Graham in his recently published book, "Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner."

In his preface, Maxtone-Graham lays out the tone of what he hoped to accomplish with his book, and the results are fascinating.

"I am less concerned with clearing up loose ends than with creating what might be described as historical stepping-stones, documenting events and episodes leading up to and emanating from the disaster," he writes.

Deep in the book, the author makes a poignant assessment of all the "ifs" that surround the Titanic and resulted in its sinking two miles to the ocean floor. He writes, "On such minor trivialities do great events turn."

First off, he states unequivocally that those who survived the Titanic disaster certainly owed their lives to Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code, and Guglielmo Marconi, who made long-distance radio practical.

These two major technological advances in communication technology allowed ships on the high seas to communicate with one another as well as with land stations.

He makes the historic connection that Marconi operators were the "first texters," speaking in a code that in 1912 was called "cablese," which resembles what we do today with text messages. Some examples would be "STBI," which meant "standby," or "GE" for "good evening."

Sending cables was somewhat of an expensive undertaking, a novelty, and primarily a toy of the wealthy traveling in first class. "Half the fun of cables dispatched in extenso from a new ship in mid-ocean was showing off," writes Maxtone-Graham.

When fellow New Yorkers and friends Maxtone-Graham and Jenny Lawrence, an historian and writer who was Walter Lord's biographer, lectured middle-schoolers at Gilman School a year ago, it was Maxtone-Graham who beautifully fixed in their minds the concept of how deadly an iceberg could be, especially when the Titanic plowed into it at a speed of 221/2 knots.

He told them to place an ice cube in a glass of water, and what did they see? Most of the ice lies beneath the surface. This is exactly what happened when the Titanic collided with an iceberg that left a 300-foot mortal wound down its starboard side.

"Icebergs combine awe and menace in paradoxical tandem," he writes. "How bizarre that something so extraordinarily beautiful should be so lethal, the maritime equivalent of tropical blossoms that are poisonous."

For those in search of actual Titanic sites, Maxtone-Graham points to the nearly demolished Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, which is being redeveloped. There the Titanic and the sister ships Olympic and Britannic were outfitted in the surviving 900-foot-long Thompson Graving Dock, which could comfortably accommodate the vessel's 850-foot beam.

Another is Southampton's Ocean Dock, which was specially built in 1908 by the London and Southwestern Railway Co. to handle the liners. It also transformed the port, as the preferred trans-Atlantic port and the closest to London.

The Ocean Dock is not some inactive prehistoric relic but is still used today, and for students of the Titanic, it is holy ground indeed: It is where the ship departed for New York on its maiden voyage.

The author writes that it is "Titanic's last living survivor."

White Star Line managing director J. Bruce Ismay, who was traveling on the ship's maiden voyage, left the sinking vessel in collapsible C, which was later nicknamed the "millionaire's special."

Ismay survived while his manservant did not, and disgraced, he eventually resigned from White Star. He withdrew from "public life into self-imposed exile," writes Maxtone-Graham, to a home in Costelloe on the west coast of Ireland.

Maxtone-Graham tells the eerie tale of a couple who passed a pair of ruined gateposts and then entered the property. They drove down the driveway past the remaining foundations of a large house that once stood on the site and overlooked the sea.

They followed a path that led to a gazebo and a bench, and then enjoyed a leisurely lunch and a bottle of wine, while both experienced a "distinct and unpleasant chill, a kind of ghostly tremor," writes the author.

Returning to the home where they were staying, they were informed by their host that it had once been owned by Ismay.

"And, it was said, almost every day until his death in 1937, he would walk down that path and sit in the same gazebo, starring disconsolately out over the unforgiving Atlantic," he writes.

The author also tells the story of Harold Phillimore, a bath steward, who was struggling to stay alive in the frigid sea, clinging to a collection of deck chairs that had been tied together with rope to create a makeshift raft.

Suddenly, an Englishman dressed in black tie approached and hung on for dear life. As the Titanic plunged from sight, Phillimore's friend relinquished his hold and said, "What a night! What a night!" and then swam out of sight.


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