“I think it is no exaggeration to say that those who read of the disaster quietly at home and pictured to themselves the scene as the Titanic was sinking had more of the sense of horror than those who stood on the deck and watched her go down inch by inch,” Beesley concluded in his book. “The fact is that the sense of fear came to the passengers very slowly _ a result of the absence of any signs of danger.”
Beesley and others talked about how no one at the time thought the Titanic was going to go under. At first, they joked that they had to stop for a fresh coat of paint to be applied to where the iceberg scrapped the hull. After all, the Titanic was “unsinkable,” they figured. “The improbability of such a thing ever happening was what staggered humanity,” Beesley wrote.
“That phrase `unsinkable’ became notorious,” Foster said. The phrase was originally “practically unsinkable” and was from an obscure engineering journal, but after a while it didn’t matter. On top of that, someone claims to have heard ship Capt. Edward John Smith say “Even God himself couldn’t sink this ship,” Foster said.
So early 20th century society, especially in Sunday sermons, spun the disaster in religious terms _ “you can’t cheat God in that way,” said Biel, author of the book “Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster.”
Now, Biel said, people look at the Titanic sinking and other man-made disasters as technological hubris, the misbegotten belief that something could be too good, too fail-safe to fail. The space shuttles were portrayed as such until Challenger exploded in 1986. Then the oil industry bragged that deep water drilling was safer than the space shuttle; the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 proved otherwise.
Every disaster inspires investigation. There were two high profile competing government probes of the Titanic. The British thought the American investigation was too hostile to the British officers and the Americans thought the British inquiry was too much of a whitewash, said Belfast’s Foster.
The American press went looking for a villain and found him in the owner of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay. Not only did they fault Ismay for scrimping on safety, such as the number of lifeboats, in favor of luxury, but they blamed him for surviving the sinking. Unlike Capt. Smith, he didn’t go down with the ship. He was chastised, much as Costa Concordia Captain Francesco Schettino has been branded a coward for leaving his ship when it sank in January.
Initially, news reports told of selflessness of the rich men in Titanic’s first class who sacrificed themselves to allow women and children on the lifeboats, Biel said. While there were some brave rich passengers who nobly stepped aside to let others survive, the numbers show that the poorer you were, the less likely you were to live. Sixty percent of the first-class passengers survived, 42 percent of the second-class passengers survived and only 25 percent of the third-class, or steerage, passengers lived.
“It’s quite often the case that the less privileged suffer disproportionately in disasters,” Biel said. “That was certainly true in the case of Titanic.”
And it happened again most noticeably in Hurricane Katrina, when the predominantly black sections of the city seemed to suffer more, with less government help, Biel said.
In the first few decades after the Titanic, the disparity in survival of the third-class passengers wasn’t mentioned. It wasn’t until Walter Lord revived the tale of the Titanic in his best-selling book “A Night To Remember” that the issue of class fairness was revisited, Biel said. And by the time Cameron’s movie came out in the 1990s, the story had gone from the helpful rich to the mostly despicable first-class passengers.
Biel said no blacks were aboard the Titanic, although others claim there was one black family. Blues pioneer Leadbelly sang of how black boxing champ Jack Johnson was denied passage on the ship: “Black men oughta shout for you, Never lost a girl or either a boy. Cryin’ fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.”
It was not the first or last song about the sinking _ and in fact, one of the enduring story lines of the Titanic is about music. The band on Titanic did play as the ship went down. Experts disagree on the song, but they agree that there was a soundtrack to the disaster.
Survivor Archibald Gracie, in his popular account, described the lowering of lifeboats into the water with women and children, saying “it was now that the band began to play and continued while the boats were being lowered. We considered this a wise provision tending to allay excitement. I did not recognize any of the tunes, but I know they were cheerful and not hymns.”
And the band played on.