First Chapter 160 Minutes The Race To Save the RMS Titanic

Apr 20, 2021 by

Titanic Mythology

On July 29, 1912, Alfred Marsh from Plainfield, New Jersey, was
out fishing for bluefish with friends when he saw a brown glass bottle
float up behind the gunwale of his boat. According to the Plainfield Courier News, Alfred fished out the whiskey flask with his net and noticed
some white paper inside. He uncorked the bottle and read the note,
scrawled in pencil: “The Titanic is sinking. Goodbye. John James. Fergmaun Road, Cornwell England.”1

The bottle was covered in slime, but the note was dry. Obviously, John James, seeing the ship was going down,
threw this bottle off into eternity. A great story. The only problem was,
there was no John James on the passenger list of the Titanic. John James
Ware was listed in second class, and a John James Borebank was in first
class. Neither man was from Cornwall, England, which the author of the
note misspelled with an “e.” Still, the mythology of the last note from the
Titanic in the bottle persists, and the questions are neatly disposed of.
Forty years later, a young thirtysomething copywriter named Walter
Lord put an ad in a local newspaper requesting to speak to any Titanic
survivors for a book he was writing. Many survivors from the famed
wreck were getting on in years, but Lord managed to get a glimpse of
that night in April before they slipped away. The last survivor of the
Titanic, Millvina Dean died in 2009, at age ninety-seven. The book A
Night to Remember came out in 1955 and became the Bible of the Titanic.
Up until then there had been a slow-building interest in the fate of the
“unsinkable ship” that slipped into the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912.
But, in 1955, Lord’s book came out and became a bestseller and—more
than that—established the floor for all Titanic books to come. It is where
every Titanic scholar, writer, author begins, and many times ends. It is
here that Lord’s precious gift of being able to interview survivors of the
Titanic is on display. He was able to capture the motherlode of personal
recollections of that night. And that is the bulk of the book. The experience of the survivors is front and center and here all the balloons are
set flying that would populate every book to follow. Even the heavy-duty
tomes on the Titanic have the breakers set up in the safe harbor of Titanic
mythology. And so, like the Wright Brothers, where every book was
based on the skewed Wright biography by Fred Kelly, little has deviated
from Walter Lord’s original thesis of how that night unfolded.
It’s not that Lord’s depiction of events is wrong. Far from it. It is
valuable as a firsthand account of what the survivors went through, and in
this way, it is a good resource. More, it is where Walter Lord set his camera and the events he held up as important. You can hardly blame him.
No one really knew what happened on the Titanic before it sank. Lord
filled in gaps for a public hungry for the personal interest stories of the
survivors. It was the ultimate voyeur’s paradise. A you-are-there account
of those 160 minutes from when the liner struck the iceberg to when
she slipped under the icy mill pond that was the Atlantic that night. The
problem is that by focusing on these survivor stories told directly to Lord
and repeated countless times in every book to follow, the other elements
of that night are either ignored or treated to a quick glance before returning to the plight of the doomed and the lucky survivors. And because
of this, an airtight mythology was erected that kept everyone within
the buoys that mark Titanic lore for over a hundred years. But there is
another story, and it has a shocking epilogue, which is this: Everyone could
have been rescued if human will had not failed. I will say it again: Everyone
could have been rescued if it were not for human failing.

The story we have been told is that the Titanic was out there in the
North Atlantic all alone. That it was amazing anyone was rescued at all.
The truth is that she wasn’t alone, thanks to the advent of wireless telegraphy, and more incredibly, there were ships crisscrossing the Atlantic at
the time, and two were in visual sight of the Titanic as she was sinking.
Both ships had come upon the ice field that Titanic had stumbled into,
and both were ten miles away or less. The story of the Titanic is not one
of catastrophe in an isolated oasis of darkness. Captain Smith and others
saw the lights of ships on the horizon and directed passengers in the
lifeboats to row toward them as well as morsing the ships and sending
up rockets to catch their attention. Titanic’s fate was not preordained, it
was ordained by the failings of men in critical moments.
But let’s start with the Titanic myth that has been handed us. It goes
like this. The band played “Nearer My God to Thee” while the White
Angle Saxon Protestant inheritors of male privilege, nay the titans of
their time, the Guggenheims, the Vanderbilt’s, gloriously threw down
the gauntlet for all that was good and decent in the world of White
Male Privilege and saw off their wives and daughters in lifeboats before
having a final cigar, a dash of brandy, dressed in their finest like gentlemen, and when the icy Atlantic came for its due they shook hands
all around and stepped off the last good ship of the Gilded Age and
plunged to their icy fate to be forever memorialized in song, books, and
film, and then stapled to the cultural moniker of all that was decent in
the good old Edwardian world. Even Captain Smith does a last-minute
cameo rescuing a baby and sending off his men with the admonishment,
“Be British,”2
before swimming up to a boat that is full and then telling
the men, “All right boys, good luck and God bless you,”3
then swimming
off into the glorious mythology of the sinking of the Titanic. It does
make for a great movie.
The mythology started right away. The New York Times headline on
April 19, 1912, anchored Titanic’s place in the pantheon of the heroic.
“744 Saw Titanic Sink with 1595. Her Band Playing; Hit Ice Berg at 21
Knots and Tore Her Bottom Out; “I’ll Follow the Ship Last Words of
Capt. Smith Many Women Stayed to Perish with Husbands.”4
The story
of lone surviving Titanic Marconi operator Harold Bride also ran on this
day under, “Thrilling Story by Titanic’s Surviving Wireless Man.”5
What
was not to like here. The truth was Captain Smith never said anything
close to I’ll follow the ship; in fact, what is notable is Captain Smith not
saying much of anything at all and then disappearing. A few women
stayed with their husbands, but most got into the lifeboats and left. One
could not blame them. But the Great White Christian ideal demanded
the sinking of the Titanic be painted in the orange hues of a Swinburnian
sunset, with women standing by their men and Captain Smith standing
on the stern toward the end proclaiming, “I’ll follow the ship!”6

The only truth in the paper was that Marconi operator Harold Bride’s story was
thrilling, and it was the first true account of the sinking.
The real story on board the Titanic is one of straight-up survival
and a race to rescue people stuck on a giant ship that would sink in less
than three hours. It is more of an Ayn Rand novel than one by E. M.
Forster, depicting the primitive, naked, primal impulse to survive rather
than the gilded patina of heroic Episcopalian men who suddenly grew a
conscience after exploiting millions during the post–Civil War industrialization of America. Just ask the third-class passengers whom nobody
bothered to interview after the sinking, mostly because a large number of
them (537 out of 709)7
never made it to the half-filled boats of first-class
passengers, and if they had, they would have been met with an oar or the
sight of the stern receding from their view as the wealthy of America
beat it away from the struggling masses thrashing in the water, fearing
they might be swamped by this unwashed humanity. Is there a better
metaphor than wealthy people sitting in their evening dress in boats half
empty while poor and middle-class people who would have ended up in
their factories drown all around them? If one took all fifteen hundred
who perished and put their income against just a few of the first-class
passengers, it would not even be close. First-class passenger John Jacob
Astor IV was worth $150 million, or $3.7 billion today, while Benjamin
Guggenheim came in at $95 million and Isidor Straus, the man who
created Macys, was worth $50 million.8
The people on the Titanic saw their fate. The ship was being lifted
into the sky with its bow gulping water and the propellors emerging as
giant windmills from the ocean. Even before the ship split in two people
knew what was in store for them. The icy dark Atlantic was death. Period.
So, people began to fight for survival. Stories have leaked out. Officer
Lightoller brandishing a gun and firing to keep people away from the
last lifeboat. Other officers shooting third-class men dead to keep them
from the boats. People running along the ship and taking wild plunges
into lifeboats that were descending. Crew gathering hands to keep men
away from a collapsible lifeboat so that women and children might enter,
then having to punch men who jumped in anyway. This is sandwiched in
between the bread of self-sacrifice and Christian martyrdom.

So, the mythic Walter Lord patina of the heroic patrician class
bravely facing death must still be scratched away to find out who the
heroes of that night really were and who were the villains, or at least the
unchivalrous, even as underwater robots plumb the depths of the Atlantic
over Titanic’s corpse. It is fitting that as of this writing there is a plan to
bring the wireless cabin of the Titanic to the surface and find out if there
are any secrets in the Marconi gear that wireless operators Jack Phillips
and Harold Bride labored over until literally the water was sloshing
around their ankles and the room was tilting toward a forty-five-degree
angle. For if we are going to sweep away the detritus of mythology, then
we have to look at the nuts and bolts of what people did do to try and
save the 2,229 (exact number not known) people of the RMS Titanic.
And more importantly, what they didn’t do. And one could start with that
decaying wireless shack three miles down on the floor of the Atlantic
Ocean.

One Hundred and Sixty Minutes

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Born in Richmond, Virginia, and carted back and forth between Virginia and Baltimore, I blame my rootless, restless personality on my father. He was and is a traveling salesman with a keen gift of gab, great wit, a ready joke, and could sell white tennis shoes to coal miners. [read more...]

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