Bill Eggert

April 15 marks the 108th anniversary of one of the most catastrophic maritime disasters in history. Over a thousand people lost their lives with the sinking of the passenger liner the Titanic in the early hours of April 15, 1912. Even more tragic was that many, if not all, would have survived had not gross negligence been exercised that fateful night.

Most people today are familiar with this tragedy from James Cameron’s box office smash film “Titanic,” which debuted 20 years ago. However, there were a handful of theatrical films predating the 1997 epic, including a silent film that came out a month after the actual sinking, featuring a silent film actress (Dorothy Gibson) who was actually a survivor of the doomed voyage.

In the film, she wore the dress she was wearing the night the Titanic sunk. The 10-minute film (standard time length for films in 1912) was a reenactment of her experience that was shot on an ocean liner docked in the New York harbor.

Two other noteworthy films about the Titanic disaster were the American film “Titanic” (1953), starring Clifton Webb, and a British production called “A Night to Remember” (1958), based on the Walter Lord best-seller. Still another film in which the Titanic disaster is prominently featured was “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a musical starring Debbie Reynolds, based on the life of one of the survivors.

But certainly no film can do justice to the event itself, with all of the drama that gave many opportunities to heroes as well as cowards. There were numerous stories that came to light from survivors who safely returned to land after the sinking.

“Women and children first” was the call once the ship was determined to be sinking. Many women, though, refused to leave their husbands side, ensuring their demise along with their husbands. Ida Strauss, wife of Macy’s owner Isidor Strauss for over 40 years, refused to leave her husband’s side. Molly Brown also helped with evacuation efforts, even trying to get her lifeboat to return for survivors in the water. While the ship sank, the ship’s band heroically continued to play, trying to calm passengers as the evacuation played out onboard.

On the other side of the disaster were those who behaved less than heroically, even cowardly. Most noteworthy of condemnation by the public after the sinking was White Star Line (company that owned the Titanic) chairman Bruce Ismay, who got on board a lifeboat, instead of going down with his ship as its captain, Edward Smith, did. Probably one of the most famous apocryphal stories was depicted in the 1953 film “Titanic,” based on numerous stories dating back to supposed eyewitness accounts. The story concerns a man who dressed as a woman to escape death fleeing into a lifeboat. While there are a few stories which could be the genesis of this rumor, no actual proof was ever provided to establish this story as actually happening.

A few facts about the Titanic and its sinking we need to consider. The ship was about 880 feet long, breadth was 92 feet, total height (base of the keel to top of her bridge) was 104 feet. The iceberg caused a gash in the ship’s hull (below the waterline) about 220 feet long.

By the time the alarm sounded, officers only had about 30 seconds to react before they hit the iceberg. Supposedly, had the ship hit the iceberg head on, they would have had a better chance of surviving. It took two hours and 40 minutes for the ship to sink once it hit the iceberg. More than twice as many people died (1,514) than survived (710). The water temperature that night was 28 degrees Fahrenheit, which led many who fell in the water to die of hypothermia.

Possibly most tragic of all was the gross negligence exhibited by the crew of the Titanic and the SS Californian. The Titanic could carry up to 64 lifeboats; they only carried 20.

Many of the lifeboats were only half-full when lowered into the water. The Titanic received at least six warnings about icebergs, yet proceeded full speed ahead. The SS Californian was only a few miles from the Titanic, yet failed to respond to her signal flares. Had the Californian acted promptly more lives would have been saved. The RMS Carpathia, further away, arrived about 90 minutes after the Titanic sank, to rescue survivors.

Had all involved acted more responsibly, possibly no lives would have been lost; arguably the greatest tragedy of all. No one needed to have perished that fateful night …

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident and regular community columnist for The Tribune-Democrat.​ He can be reached at WDE1928@gmail.com.

Recommended for you