In 1898, a poorly acclaimed novel called Futility was published about a luxury, “unsinkable” Atlantic liner — the largest ever built — carrying wealthy and famous passengers on its maiden voyage before careening into an iceberg one cold April night. Because there were not enough life boats, the Titan went down with many people still on board. Perhaps had Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, read this novel, he would not have tempted fate by naming a ship that was nearly the exact same size in length, displacement, and passenger capacity the Titanic.
Walter Lord opens his classic work A Night to Remember with the chilling coincidence of this prophetic novel published just 14 years before what is still arguably one of the biggest news stories of modern times. This April will mark the 110th anniversary of the tragedy in a world that is still obsessed with the Titanic to the point of its having become a cultural legend with a cult following. Countless novels and movies abound, and yet the story still grips us anew with each successive release in a compulsive fascination that will not let go.
Walter Lord’s 1955 account of the Titanic’s catastrophic sinking launched this feverish trend. As Nathaniel Philbrick writes in the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition, “Amazing as it may seem today, even though the Titanic had sunk forty-three years before, A Night to Remember was the first significant book about the disaster.” Lord was able to interview more than 60 survivors and reconstruct what happened that night piece by piece from their personal experiences. With the acumen of a true journalist, Lord adeptly includes interesting details from his sources in such a way that it reads almost like a novel. But perhaps more incredible is the volume of detail he must have inherently excluded in such a project to keep the story moving forward, refusing to get bogged down in the minutiae that so often make more scholarly historians inaccessible to the average reader.
He begins with the lookouts’ first sighting of the iceberg and the gently fatal crash about 30 seconds later. By page 90, the Titanic is down, but the story is not over. What were people experiencing on the lifeboats as they waited those long, dark hours for the Carpathia’s arrival? Why did only one lifeboat return to look for survivors in the water? How did the news break, and what was the public’s response? And what did people aboard the Carpathia experience in abandoning their course to streak faster than anyone thought possible to the rescue?
Humanity seems to be possessed by an inexplicable, perverse fascination with disasters. My senior year in college, one of my English professors published a book on this phenomenon entitled Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away. Whatever our twisted attraction to the macabre, I think one reason we all want to know the details of “what happened” in any catastrophe is to reconstruct and fully understand what went wrong in an illogical attempt to rewrite the ending in our minds and somehow prevent it.
• If only the Olympia’s repairs had not delayed the Titanic’s voyage to April when the seas were icier. And if only the subsequent shuffle in crew had not resulted in the key to the binoculars case for the lookouts going missing. For that matter, if only the bridge had sacrificed their binoculars for the lookouts.
• Due to the binocular problem preventing their seeing the iceberg even just 15 seconds sooner, if only the lookouts had not seen it until 15 seconds later; had the Titanic smashed into the iceberg head on, she would not have sunk.
• If only it hadn’t been such an astonishingly calm night, with the ocean glassed out like a millpond. Or if only there had been a bit of moonlight instead of the pitch darkness of a new moon. If only ice conditions had been normal that year.
• If only one of the three urgent but ignored telegraph warnings about ice from the California that evening had made its way to the captain, for a total of six warnings that day.
• If only the third officer aboard the California had known how to properly turn on the wireless as he listened just for practice after the operator had gone to bed … while the Titanic was signaling SOS. If only the officers aboard the California had roused the wireless operator to find out what was going on as they watched the Titanic shoot rocket after rocket with inexplicable insouciance a mere 10 miles away.
• If only they had built the watertight bulkheads one deck higher.
• As modern investigation has discovered, if only the shipyard in Belfast had ordered the industry standard for the best and purest wrought iron, number 4 grade, in making rivets instead of number 3 grade filled with brittle flaws, the side of the Titanic would not have opened like a zipper at the seams from such a glancing brush against the ice.
• And if only they had had enough lifeboats. If only they had filled the ones they had to capacity.
“Had any one of these ‘ifs’ turned out right, every life might have been saved,” writes Lord. “But they all went against her — a classic Greek tragedy.” Such is the frustration of 20/20 hindsight, but perhaps therein too lies much of the source of our fascination with the Titanic.