This past weekend, April 14 and 15th represented the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. There were many truly special Titanic events this last week that were tasteful and fitting for the occasion. I actually learned a number of things this weekend I did not already know about Titanic, and like most ship enthusiasts I thought I knew it all.
One of the best things I saw over the weekend was the movie A Night to Remember made in England in 1958. Turner Classic Movies (the TCM channel) ran it commercial-free in its entirety (over two hours) on Saturday night, and even managed to time it so the ship hit the iceberg very close to the exact time of night the event occurred 100 years ago.
If you have never seen this movie (as I had not) it is surprisingly good, especially in terms of accuracy – equal to the one made by James Cameron who was lauded for the accuracy of his 1995 movie, but A Night to Remember seems far more interested in depicting the actual events of that night from the viewpoint of second officer Charles Lightoller. We see everything from the Belfast ship yard to actual footage of the real Titanic making calls at Cobh, Ireland and Cherbourg, France. There is no "Romeo and Juliet" subplot depicted in the movie – just the facts.
Most dramatically, we see in detail the ongoing actions of the wireless operators not only on Titanic, but also on the ships in its vicinity as the night wore on. We hear the discussion of the officers on the sinking ship as they try desperately to raise help from the fully capable Californian which was idle, engines stopped, within sight (10 miles) of the sinking ship. The Californian had stopped for the night precisely to avoid the ice, and had sent a warning to Titanic about the bergs and even pack ice in the vicinity just before it turned off its wireless. Unfortunately, the wireless operator on the Titanic interrupted the signal from the Californian because (1) it was so close it was too loud, and (2) he was busy sending out personal messages from all of the prestigious passengers onboard.
But after the ship started sinking, naturally the only signals is started sending were distress calls, yet only one ship took them seriously enough to respond, the Cunard Liner Carpathia, some four hours away. Unfortunately, Titanic only had two hours between the time it hit the berg and sank, and even with life jackets the amount of time a person could live in the 32-degree water before hypothermia took over was only 10 to 15 minutes.
At the time, 1912, Cunard Line did not yet own the White Star Line; they were two formidable competitors from Britain. The British government forced Cunard to take over White Star Line in the 1930s, and Cunard has maintained the slogan "White Star Service" ever since.
Peter Shanks, the current president of Cunard Line wrote a very touching article about the role played by the Carpathia that fateful night at the wearecunard.com blog titled "Guided by a Greater Hand."
"The story of the Carpathia is a fascinating one and one for Cunard Line to be proud of. Carpathia was a workhorse; she wasn't one of the glamorous express transatlantic liners built to compete for the Blue Riband and designed to resemble Versailles. Only once was she met by hordes of photographers with flashbulbs popping when she arrived in New York."
Shanks goes on to tell the entire sequence of events from the viewpoint of the Carpathia, including raising the captain from his bed and his order to turn off the hot water and heat in order to get more steam to the engines. This ship ended up traveling faster than its design dictated, arriving at the scene at 4:00 a.m. and getting the first survivors aboard by 4:10.
This sequence of events on the Carpathia events as well as the discussions that took place on the Californian as she sat only 10 miles away but did not realize the Titanic was sinking are depicted very accurately in the movie A Night to Remember.
Even James Cameron pays homage to A Night to Remember in an interview with Good Morning America when he says the movie, which he saw as a child, started his fascination with Titanic. Indeed, for 1958 the movie has surprisingly realistic special effects including the raising of the aft section of the ship just before she went down – very similar to the Cameron version.
But one aspect A Night to Remember depicts in a far more realistic way is the panic that ensued after the third class passengers were finally released from their locked corridors only to rush to the top deck and discover that all but a few lifeboats had already departed.
I personally did not know the full sequence of events surrounding the lifeboats – the first and second class passengers were mustered immediately, but only women and children were allowed into the life boats. Even though there were many seats left men were not allowed in the boats (except for enough able seamen to row and navigate). The film shows the White Star Executive Bruce Ismay from the moment he decided not to include enough lifeboats in the building of the ship up until the time he jumped into an empty seat on one of the lifeboats while first class passengers remained on deck prepared to die.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the story of Titanic is the fact that huge icebergs and even pack ice could descend as far south as Cape May in Massachusetts. James Cameron also created a special show "Last Mysteries of the Titanic" which also aired during the anniversary weekend in which he and his team speculate on what they have learned since he made his film, and what Titanic could have possibly done differently that night to save more lives.
He speculates about keeping the ship moving and possibly even unloading passengers on the pack ice. But Titanic apparently was not aware of the actual location of the pack ice that night.
Another confounding occurrence was that the Titanic did not receive the final message from the Californian that it was stopping for the night because of the amount of ice in the seas. Captain Edward John Smith and other officers on Titanic could have headed towards the Californian if they had known it was stopped, but by the time they realized the Californian had stopped the bow of Titanic had already started filling with sea water, lifting its propellers out of the water.
Of course - all of the problems of the Titanic - not seeing pack ice, limits on life boats, radios getting turned off, would never happen in this age because technology has improved so much and the Titanic resulted in newer safety standards that have become even more refined in the last 100 years. Cruising still remains the safest form of transportation possible.
Titanic Memorial Cruises
Also worth mentioning are the two memorial cruises that stayed just above the actual remains of the Titanic for a memorial service Saturday night. The "Titanic Memorial Cruise" ships are the Balmoral which sailed from the U.K. and the Azamara Journey which sailed from New York. The Balmoral, sailing from England was the more popular ship – since interest in Titanic is even greater in Britain than it is here in America.
Titanic was built in Ireland and largely staffed by residents of Southampton. Many of the more recognizable names of people who perished belonged to American industrialists; Benjamin Guggenheim, John and Madeleine Astor and Isidor and Ida Strauss, but most of the victims were poor immigrants from throughout Europe from steerage who never had a chance to get on a lifeboat. The bravest were the British and American husbands and fathers who stayed onboard while their half empty lifeboats went down bearing their wives and children.
Aftermath of Titanic
Personally, as a cruise reporter I am very happy to see that the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic disaster was treated with due respect despite the recent sensationalism of the Concordia disaster. Yes, with both events terrible mistakes were made, but lessons were also learned.