Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Titanic, Time, and the Fragility of Human Life

Heather Cox Richardson

I have been pretty vocal about my inability to understand why people are so gripped by the Titanic disaster. Just a shipwreck, I’ve said. I don’t get it. Why not the Lusitania, which was by a torpedo in the same era, or any of the thousands of disasters that happen every day?
Titanic survivors. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Maybe I get it now.

The RMS Titanic set out from Southampton on April 10, 1912, a luxury ship carrying more than 2,200 passengers. She made port in France and Ireland before heading out to sea on April 11.

I’ve just started experimenting with ways for historians to use Twitter, and for the last several days have been tweeting snippets about the voyage, day by day: the vessel leaving port; the crew member who jumped ship in Ireland; the ten-course dinner of April 14; the radio operator’s determination to send out passenger messages as soon as he could raise the Newfoundland station late in the night of April 14; his brusque dismissal of a nearby ship’s warning of an ice field. As I trawled through little events, what I began to see was just how calm and safe and, well, unremarkable, the experience of the Titanic’s passengers was.

Until it wasn’t.

I left off in the small hours of this morning with the lookout’s sighting of an iceberg near midnight; the 37-second eternity before the collision that would sink the “unsinkable” Titanic; and the captain’s order to lower lifeboats for women and children. I fully expected to start up again today—the 101st anniversary of the day the Titanic actually sank—with the story of more than 1,500 passengers dying of hypothermia within minutes as they struggled in the frigid water, survivors recounting the tale of how the band played “Nearer My God To Thee” before the ship’s list got too steep and it broke in two, the pieces sliding beneath the ocean’s surface.

And then the bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Before 2:50, all those people, watching my city’s big party, celebrating the hard work of the runners (many of whom were raising money for charity), were spending an unremarkable day. They were watching, cheering, snapping photos, talking to the kids they had brought with them to pass an April school vacation day, safe in the knowledge that they were … safe.

But they weren’t. Any more than the passengers on the world’s safest ship were safe.

Today, just as it did 101 years ago, a second sliced the world into before and after. In 1912, in the space of a breath, young, vibrant passengers had to count their lifespans in minutes. Today, in the space of a second, runners in top physical condition became amputees. And cheering people became silent.


Maybe what I have never been able to see is that the Titanic disaster illustrates the terrible human curse that time is not even fully one-dimensional. It runs forward, but we cannot make it go backward. In 1912, no one could turn the clocks back a single hour to make the radio operator pay attention to warnings about the approaching ice field. Or even turn it back 37 seconds to stop the Titanic’s lookout from sighting the iceberg.

And today, no one could turn the clock back a single second to stop a bomb.

Maybe the Titanic reminds us that any moment, any day, could be the moment that cuts the world in two.

And maybe remembering it makes us thankful for every moment that isn’t.

My heart goes out to today’s victims, cut down on a sadly historic day.


Eric B. Schultz said...

Nice post, Heather. Thanks.

Randall said...

Thanks for this post. Hard to imagine what Bostonians are going through. I spent so much time down by the BPL. Really strange and sad to see all of that unfold.