The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 7, 2012

BILL EGGERT | Tragic Titanic memories still linger

Bill Eggert
For The Tribune-Democrat

EBENSBURG — This month marks the centennial of one of the most catastrophic maritime disasters in history.

More than 1,000 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 gross negligence not been exercised that fateful night.

Most people today are familiar with this tragedy from James Cameron’s box office smash film “Titanic,” which debuted

15 years ago and returns to theatres this month in 3-D.

However, there were a handful of theatrical films pre-dating the 1997 epic, including a silent film that came out a month after the actual sinking featuring an 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 sank. The 10-minute film (standard length for films in 1912) was a re-enactment of her experiences 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 bestseller.

Still another film in which the Titanic disaster is prominently featured is “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’ sides, ensuring their fates along with their husbands’.

Ida Strauss, wife of Macy’s owner Isidor Strauss for more than 40 years, refused to leave her husband.

Molly Brown helped with evacuation efforts, even trying to get her lifeboat to return for survivors in the water. While the ship sank, the 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 was Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Line, which owned the Titanic. Ismay got on board a lifeboat instead of going down with the ship, as Captain Edward Smith did.

One of the most famous apocryphal stories was depicted in the 1953 film and based on numerous stories dating back to supposed eyewitness accounts.

The story concerns a man who dressed as a woman to escape death by fleeing into a lifeboat. While there are a few stories that could be the genesis of this rumor, no actual proof was ever provided to establish this story as having actually happened.

A few facts about the Titanic and its sinking are worth revisiting.

The ship was about 880 feet long, its breadth was 92 feet, its 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, it 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) as 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; it had only 20 on board. 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 Californian was only a few miles from the Titanic, yet failed to respond to her signal flares. Had the Californian acted promptly more lives could 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 native. You can read his blog at

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.