Titanic disaster a reminder of our mortality

Even after a century, people are still fascinated by the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the wreck of the giant British ship, which sank less than 400 miles south of Newfoundland four days into its trans-Atlantic voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. The ship was the largest in the world at the time and carried more than 2,200 passengers. Of those, 1,514 died, making it one of the deadliest maritime incidents ever in a time of peace.

The story has been told countless times, most famously in the 1997 motion picture written and directed by James Cameron that grossed more than $1.8 billion in worldwide sales. The ship was traveling through icy North Atlantic waters about 11:40 p.m. April 14, 1912 (ship’s time) when it struck a glancing blow against ice on its starboard side.

There were only enough lifeboats to accommodate less than 1,200 people, but many of those were only partially filled when they were lowered into the freezing waters. Many stayed on the ship, not believing that this wondrous feat of human engineering could be dangerously damaged by the collision with the ice.

The ship seemed to be surviving the wreck for a while. Then, just before 2:20 a.m. on April 15, Titanic broke up and quickly sank, taking more than 1,000 of her passengers to a frigid, watery grave, one more than 2.3 miles below the oceans surface that was discovered in 1985.

A ship as mighty as the Titanic sinking sent a shock around the world. There were inquiries made and theories suggested. Recommendations came out of those inquiries, such as having adequate lifeboat capacity for everyone on board, conducting lifeboat drills and keeping someone at the radio transmitter and receiver 24 hours a day. Maritime regulations, which had gotten lax, started playing catch-up. Two results of the inquiries are still in force today — an International Ice Patrol checks the presence of icebergs in the North Atlantic and international maritime safety regulations were developed through the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

Though the reason for the disaster seems straight-forward — Titanic Capt. Edward Smith ignored ice warnings, the ship was traveling too fast in a dangerous area and the lifeboats were inadequate in number and improperly loaded when disaster struck — we still have a fascination with what “really” happened. Even today, new theories are offered on why this remarkable ship suffered such an ignoble fate.

The day of the wreck, the Titanic got seven heavy ice warnings, including one from another ship less than an hour before the crash. The message from the Californian: “We are stopped and surrounded by ice.” The Titanic’s reply: “Shut up. We are busy.”

Had the Titanic captain stopped his ship also and waited until daylight to proceed, all 2,200-plus people on board almost certainly would have enjoyed a grand welcome in New York instead of a frightening night of pain and death.

The fact is the world is a big, dangerous place, but there is no malevolence to nature. It does what it does, whether it is rogue sea ice, a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, a giant wave or a wildfire. We forget that, impressed by our ability to adapt and to engineer great machines and structures. We run into trouble is when we lose perspective and exercise poor judgment based on our own arrogance. It is as deadly a combination today as it was 100 years ago in the North Atlantic.

And that should be the lesson that we take to heart.