- The Washington Times - Friday, February 19, 2010

TITANIC AND THE CALIFORNIAN

By Thomas B. Williams

Trafalgar Square, $24.95

256 pages, illustrated

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Although it is now nearly a full century since the R.M.S. Titanic sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, its story shows no signs of losing its power. Movie after movie, book after book continue to tell that tale, replete with all the elements to make it irresistible to succeeding generational audiences: hubris and heroism, tragedy and folly - and incredible bad luck.

Not only did the ship dubbed “unsinkable” founder on its maiden voyage, but in trying to avoid the iceberg bearing down upon its bow, it swerved just enough to sustain fatal damage to its side while a full-on collision would have been far less catastrophic.

No matter how often the Titanic saga has been rendered, there always seems to be appetite for a fresh account. And this one, by a British investigative journalist, does have a couple of genuinely new points of view to contribute. First of all, he disputes the notion that the great vessel was unsinkable. Far from having watertight compartments that made it so, according to his investigations, it was in fact shoddily built, with insufficiently high engine room and boiler bulkhead partitions:

“Initially, these bulkheads were designed and installed in such a manner as to allow several compartments to be flooded without endangering the ship. Unfortunately, the bulkheads were not completely watertight in that they did not reach to the upper decks (D deck and Saloon deck), as was originally planned by … the ship’s principal surveyor. As the bulkheads stopped short of the overhead ceilings, there was a gap of several feet over which water could pour in the event of a serious collision. This omission meant that as soon as water would reach the top of one bulkhead, it would immediately spill over into the next. The situation would continue, in domino fashion, until all the compartments were full of water. This of course was exactly what happened on the night of the tragedy and is verified by the fact that the Titanic went down by the head.”

Scrupulously fair to both its shipbuilder, Harland & Wolff of Belfast in Ireland, and its owner, the White Star Shipping Line, the author points out that neither of them ever claimed it was unsinkable. The myth came about as a result of journalistic hype and rapidly snowballed, acquiring a life of its own. The author writes about technical matters with authority and with an admirable clarity, sweeping aside misconceptions and laying out the often complicated details and facts in an accessible manner.

He also knows how to tell a good story and realizes that in the Titanic mythology there have necessarily been villains as well as heroes. Some have concentrated on the lack of lifeboats with capacity for all the 2,000-plus souls on board. Certainly, an almost immediate result of the Titanic catastrophe was to make such provision mandatory henceforth on the high seas.

Here again, Mr. Williams takes an interestingly nuanced approach, concentrating on a couple of ancillary features of this story. He argues that the inadequate provision of lifeboats was exacerbated by the failure of the crew to fill them at first to capacity, apparently because of a fear, proved to be unfounded as events unfolded that night, that fully loaded ones could not make it safely from high decks into the water below. He also points to the lack of serious and systematic lifeboat drills enabling passengers to know where their particular boat was located, something else that became standard practice in post-Titanic liners.

Human nature being what it is, people need to find villainy with a human face. Both Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, who perished along with his ship, and Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line, who was traveling on the vessel and survived, almost immediately became the focus for blame. Mr. Williams examines the actual facts - and identifies those that still cannot be known - in order to render a split decision, apportioning some culpability, especially to the hapless captain, but again proving himself judicious and, above all, fair in his analysis.

But if the book has a particular focus, it is above all to exonerate Capt. Stanley Lord of the smaller vessel Californian, said to be lying within sight of the doomed superliner as it sank - a man who received a great deal of opprobrium at the time and for decades after.

Countless passengers spoke of seeing the lights of a ship not far off and were understandably outraged that it did not come to their aid. Mr. Williams examines all the evidence regarding Lord and his ship, ironically owned by the same conglomerate, J.P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine, as the Titanic, and comes to the inescapable conclusion that there were several other ships between the two vessels.

Californian was, he demonstrates, actually some 20 miles distant and therefore could not have been the ship seen so clearly by those on board the Titanic. There is an undoubted passion in Williams‘ mission to clear the name of Captain Lord, who died in 1962 convinced that he had done no wrong but deeply hurt by the charges against him, which had recently surfaced again in the book “The Longest Night” and its eponymous movie.

The evidence Williams has marshaled in defense of Captain Lord is compelling, and so he has succeeded in his primary mission. But he has also provided an excellent and succinct tour d’horizon of the Titanic catastrophe in all its aspects, and so this book is doubly worthy of attention.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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