Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Titanic Centennial: My Last Word On The Titanic

Yeah, I know the centennial of the sinking came and went but the aftermath--the investigations--were just happening 100 years ago.

I mentioned the book The Last Log Of The Titanic by David G. Brown back here, but didn't have much to say then because I hadn't read it yet.

The book is the best book I've ever read about the Titanic.

Brown does two things I admire: first, he lays out the book's plot in a chronological format--just as if log entries had been made and kept. I love chronologies and use date tags for many blog posts here (I have added year tags to every song in my iTunes library so that I can sort them by year--it's obviously an obsession). There was a chronology problem onboard Titanic and with the surrounding ships: the ship and its time frame were moving east to west longitudinally and thus time was changing much like onboard an airplane but more slowly. Each night, Titanic's clocks would be reset by a varying amount depending on how far she had travelled during the day and her reckoned position.  Passengers and crew set their watches accordingly and some were off--thus there was a 20 minute uncertainty of events. This complicated testimony during inquiries when witnesses were questioned. Brown sorts it out.

Secondly, Brown relies upon written testimony for his narrative. Not just those recorded by the official US and British inquiries into the disaster, but also eyewitness testimony from survivors not called to testify. Brown is always sure to state who and what he is relying upon. Brown also points out where the testimony conflicts with fact, as for example the ship's breaking in two which was denied under oath by several officers.  When I first read parts of the Senate Testimony, I too was struck by intimations of witness coaching.

Some other factoids and observations:

There is a paper trail showing that J. Bruce Ismay had planned a phony arrival date for Titanic in order to score a publicity coup against rival Cunard Line. The man was absolutely obsessed with the timing of her arrival. He also had de facto power over Captain Smith, some of whose actions were otherwise inexplicable. But these things we already knew or suspected and are just underscored with more clear and convincing evidence.

The coal bunker fire (mentioned here) really may have played a role insofar as its steel bulkhead--possibly heat damaged--failed to hold back water when the adjacent forward compartment filled--this was the proverbial straw on the camel's back. Thomas Andrews, the ship builder and who also died on the maiden voyage, told witnesses that if this bulkhead failed she would founder.

The ship actually ran over an underwater spar on the iceberg--doing damage to her double hull. Brown does an outstanding job describing the S-shaped maneuver Titanic executed--First Officer Murdoch didn't simply veer left--he "ported around" the berg and ended up heading northwards. Because of the direction of turning screw propellors, Titanic could turn left faster. Brown's description of Titanic "skidding" on ice is masterful and reminded me of advice I used to get for driving on ice--turning into the skid. This is all supported by eyewitness testimony from the Californian.

An aborted attempt to head north towards Halifax may have exacerbated the rate of sinking. This is the most damning (and controversial) theory put forth by Brown, and it is well supported by testimony. That the engineers restarted the Titanic's engines was attested to by several passengers--but was denied by the officers under oath.

The book is an indictment and is constructed like a brief in a lawsuit that was never litigated. If the White Star Line (J.P. Morgan ultimately) ever had to construct a response, it's missing. They may very well have faced this possibility in 1914 but they settled out of court.

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