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Tom Harbold: Titanic's allure remains strong

Shortly before midnight on the night of April 14, 1912, RMS Titanic, on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic.

Within hours, the great ship, touted as unsinkable, had foundered in the icy waters. Of its 2,200 passengers and crew, only slightly more than 700 were rescued. The remainder, some 1,500 souls, perished.

This coming Saturday, and into the wee hours of Sunday morning, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, and interest seems as strong as ever. I myself have been intrigued by the story since I first read Walter Lord's book on the subject, "A Night to Remember," many long years ago. More recently, several events have served to bring Titanic into the forefront of popular consciousness once again.

The first of these was the discovery of the remains of the doomed ship by explorer Robert Ballard in 1985. Ballard's discovery of the wreck brought new attention to the Titanic story, and many striking photographs of the remains. It also brought controversy, as salvagers brought up artifacts that many believe should have remained with the ship in what was, in effect, a mass grave.

The second major event in recent years was James Cameron's blockbuster 1997 movie. "Titanic" smashed box office records like the iceberg had smashed the original's hull, while technology pioneered for the movie gave the public still more glimpses, both of the wrecked Titanic and of Cameron's masterful reconstruction. The fictional Jack and Rose story further humanized the disaster for many people, adding still more layers of romance to the incident.

Why is the story of Titanic so gripping? In part, perhaps, because it is a story of superlatives. The Titanic was not the fastest liner on the sea, but with its sister-ship, RMS Olympic, it was the biggest of its time, and the strongest, though not, as it turned out, strong enough.

The Titanic's passenger list included some of the wealthiest and most powerful men of the age, called captains of industry by their supporters, and robber barons by their detractors. Its demise marked the beginning of the end of the Gilded Age they bestrode like the Titans for whom Titanic was named.

Heroes abounded in this disaster, not least Capt. Arthur Rostron and his crew on the much smaller liner Carpathia, which steamed to the aid of Titanic. Their courageous journey, racing at top speed through ice-choked waters that had just claimed the supposedly unsinkable Titanic, deserves much more attention and appreciation than it usually receives.

Titanic's story is also one of deeply human pathos. Multimillionaire John Jacob Astor IV tucked his young and pregnant wife safely aboard a lifeboat and then stepped back; he would go down with the ship. Isador Strauss, owner of Macy's and a noted philanthropist, was unable to convince his wife Ida to enter a lifeboat without him; they were last seen quietly sitting in deck chairs, waiting for the end. There were many other such tales, and there was also the sad fact that many of the lower class steerage passengers were unable to escape due to gates separating their section of the ship from the upper class quarters.

Thus Titanic is also a symbol of the limits of power and prestige, and also of the limits of technology; a symbol also of the gross inequities which existed between, shall we say, the 1 percent and the 99 percent of their time. Perhaps the story of Titanic can be seen as a metaphor, and a cautionary metaphor at that, not only for its own time, but ours as well. Perhaps that, too, is part of its appeal.

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