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The Titanic Disaster – Have 100 Years Made a Difference?
Titanic's Last Moments
The Costa Concordia
An Anniversary To Remember
The survivors of the Titanic sinking, as well as the dead, were taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the closest major port to the site where the Titanic went down. One hundred and twenty one of the victims are buried at the Fairview Cemetery in Halifax. The tombstones are arranged in the rough outline of a ship. At the “bow” of the array is a marker known as the grave of the unknown child, the remains of an unidentified two year old. It is a place that causes sadness and anger. The anger comes from a simple truth: “This did not have to happen.”
The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912 is the subject of more books, articles and dramatizations than any other disaster in history. Because journalism is the “first draft of history,” many myths about the tragedy persist to this day, but there are certain hard truths that will no go away, and if these truths don’t get you angry you are a stoic.
With all of the facts debated over all the years, the sinking of the Titanic boils down to a few major errors:
1. There were no binoculars. To be very accurate, there were binoculars found in the wreck – in a locker in an officer’s cabin, but not on the crow’s nest, the tower where the lookouts scanned the sea for signs of trouble. Would a recreational boater dream of setting out without at least one pair of binoculars. But that would never pose a problem, because any boater with an ounce of brains has a checklist of items to review before leaving the dock. Historians and mariners still debate whether binoculars could have prevented the disaster. The ship collided with the iceberg 30 seconds after it was sighted. Tests showed that at a speed of 20 knots it would take the ship about a half a mile to stop. The ship was doing 22 knots. Many historians have suggested that the ship should have been sharply turned, without any reversing of the engines, and that such an action might have averted the disaster. Whether or not it was the actual cause of the collision, the lack of binoculars showed a serious lapse in basic seamanship.
2. The Weather. The temperature was 43 degrees Fahrenheit, the sea was dead calm and there was no moon. The lack of waves, which would have splashed against an iceberg and made it visible, was a major contributing factor in the collision. The lookouts (without binoculars) had a wind of about 24 mph in their faces. It is likely that their eyes were tearing from the chill air. The iceberg that the ship hit was known as a “Black Berg,” with a dark blue or gray appearance, making it even more difficult to spot. The water temperature was 28 degrees Fahrenheit. For the unfortunate passengers who wound up in the water, death from hypothermia was likely in a few minutes
3. The Ship’s Speed. Myth has it that the Titanic was trying to set a speed record. This is simply not true, as the Titanic was not built for speed, and it could never have broken a record. But it was traveling at about 22 knots or 25 miles per hour. This speed, on a pitch dark night with no waves, was simply reckless, given the iceberg warnings. This was in the days before radar or sonar. The only way to know if there is something in front of you is to see it and avoid it, or hit it.
4. The Iceberg Warnings. Given the warnings, the collision itself should have come as no surprise. Messages, whether personal, commercial or navigational warnings, were sent and received by Morse Code. This required the operator to listen carefully to the beeps and jot down what they meant. There were six Morse Code telegraph warnings on April 11, five on the 12th, three more on the 13th, and seven on the 14th. Not all of these were directed specifically to the Titanic, and historians dispute how many of the warnings actually made it to the bridge. But it is unbelievable that the captain and his staff were caught completely unaware. This one, sent to the Titanic by the ship Mesaba, never got to the bridge: “…saw much heavy pack ice and a great number of large icebergs….”
5. The Lifeboats. This aspect of the disaster makes you want to reach back 100 years and smack somebody. There were only enough lifeboats to accommodate 1,178 people, around a third of Titanic's total capacity of 3,547or about half of the 2,223 people actually aboard. Now this isn’t complicated. The purpose of a lifeboat is to transfer people from a ship to a boat because the ship is sinking or is otherwise in danger. The law at the time only required 16 lifeboats for ships over 10,000 tons. But in 1894, when the law was written, nobody could foresee a monster like the 46,000 ton Titanic. Apparently the clowns in charge of fitting her out did not think that the lifeboat capacity should equal the number of people aboard, but relied on an idiotic rule based on gross tonnage.
6. Lack of Training. The Titanic sank over a period of two hours and forty minutes. It did not list or capsize, but sunk bow first. There was ample time to load the lifeboats with as many passengers as could fit. The problem was that the crew, despite notable acts of bravery, was not drilled in the procedure for loading and lowering the lifeboats. Not only was the crew poorly trained but the passengers were never instructed about the location of their lifeboat stations.
Edward John Smith, the charming avuncular captain of the Titanic went down with the ship. He was 62 years old ready to retire. He planned that the voyage of the Titanic was to be his last. It was.
The real tragedy of the Titanic disaster is that it did not have to occur. It could have been avoided—easily.
The Costa Concordia – Another Night to Remember
The capsizing of the Costa Concordia on January 13, 2012 is inevitably compared to the sinking of the Titanic, just shy of 100 years after the Titanic went down. Although it is too soon to reach a definitive verdict on the Concordia disaster, what we know now makes for eerie comparisons.
Just as the Titanic could have avoided the iceberg, the Costa Concordia could have avoided the rock that pierced its hull. The recklessness of steaming at almost full speed through known iceberg fields on a dark night compares to the recklessness of the Costa Concordia steaming too close to shore near a marked reef. Larger than the Titanic, the Concordia also carried more passengers and crew, about 4,200 compared to the Titanic’s 2,223. In the Titanic disaster 1,514 perished; the Concordia saw the loss of 32 people, including those not accounted for and presumed dead. Although the final report has yet to be released, it appears that the ship’s momentum carried it out to deep waters after striking the reef. Had the wind not blown the ship back toward shore, it would have sunk in deep water and the loss of life would have been much greater. Just as the list of errors doomed the Titanic, the Captain of the Costa Concordia has given maritime history another list of mistakes in seamanship
1. The Ship Was Too Close to Shore. The reason Captain Schettino took his ship so close to shore was what may be described as a marketing opportunity. The close-in maneuver even has a name: it is known as a “close sail-by,” the purpose of which is to give the folks ashore a grand sight (and perhaps entice them to book a voyage?). Schettino admitted that he disabled the automatic alarm system that is part of the navigation system. The alarm would have sounded when the ship approached too near to shore. But Schettino turned it off because he was familiar with the waters and was navigating by sight. When he saw waves breaking on the killer reef he abruptly turned the vessel causing the ship to scrape over a rock, tearing a 230 foot hole below the water line.
2. The Captain Delayed Giving the Abandon Ship Order. Although he knew the ship had lost power and was taking on water, Captain Schettino didn’t give the order to abandon ship when he first knew the situation was hopeless. Many crew member were heard to tell people that there was only an electrical problem. There was: the ship’s engines and generators were under water, causing all electricity to fail.
3. Lack of Training. The lifeboat station drill was scheduled—for the next day. Language difficulties added to the mayhem. Many of the crew spoke no Italian, the language of the majority aboard.
The Costa Concordia disaster is still under investigation, and many facts have yet to be made public. Captain Schettino has been charged with manslaughter.
We learn a lot in 100 years. Or do we?
For an excellent article describing the size of the Titnic with reference to modern cruise ships, click here.