Remembering Titanic

The sinking of the Titanic a century ago was a dramatic accident that has become almost mythical. The real tragedy is that hundreds more lives could have been saved. Words: Maggy Oehlbeck

Be forewarned: a visit to Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a real weepie. It is the final resting place of 121 of the victims of the sinking of RMS (Royal Mail Steamer)Titanic 100 years ago on April 15, 1912. An additional 19 victims are buried at Halifax’s Catholic Mount Olivet Cemetery; 10 more at the Jewish Baron de Hirsch Cemetery.

Here at Fairview, beneath grey granite headstones, a third of the occupants are known only to God. Altogether, more than 1,500 passengers and crew perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic on that still, dark, moonless night 1,000 miles due east of Boston and 375 miles south-east of St John’s, Newfoundland. Just over 700 survived.

But on this day, as we wander among rows of tombs laid out in the form of a ship’s prow, it is crisp, clear and sunny in the picturesque seaport town of Halifax. Our tour starts with a visit to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, a video screening and an inspection of the memorabilia that were retrieved from Titanic’s wreckage: a deckchair from First Class, pieces of carved wood panelling, a pair of gentleman’s gloves, a fragment of the lifejacket worn by John Jacob Astor (who did not survive) and, most touching of all, a pair of brown leather toddler’s shoes with the attribution ‘Belonging to an Unknown Child’.

Survivors were plucked from the minus 2˚C water by Cunard’s Carpathia, the only – though not the closest – ship to respond to Titanic’s distress signals. Carpathia was more than four hours’ steaming from Titanic’s position but was able to rescue the survivors and take them to pier 54 of New York City’s Chelsea Piers. Ships no longer berth here but the pier complex retains a solemn reminder of the event – a large black-and-white mural of Carpathia coming alongside with her cargo of stunned survivors.

At the time, White Star Line was vying for a share of the lucrative transatlantic traffic. Its chief rival was Cunard, whose original US home base was Halifax. Revenue came mostly from immigrant passage; however Titanic, built at a cost of US$7.5 million (in today’s costs, more like US$400 million) over three years at Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, was vigorously promoted as a luxury ship, with electric light and heating; elegant European décor; an authentic Parisian café; a gymnasium; a heated swimming pool; and a Marconi wireless station for sending and receiving passengers’ telegrams.

Bound for New York, Titanic sailed out of Southampton on her maiden voyage on April 10, 2012. At 11.40pm on April 14, despite repeated ice warnings (one despatched only about 45 minutes before impact), Titanic, steaming at about 20.5 knots, took a broadside from an iceberg that gashed her hull in several places – though some experts suggest that the damage was mostly from popped rivets.

Two hours and 40 minutes later, she had split in half and plunged into the deep. Distress signals were sent but the airways were jammed by all manner of traffic. Closest ship SS Californian’s wireless operator had retired for the night at about 11pm and never received the signal.

Designed to hold 32 lifeboats, Titanic carried only 20 on that maiden voyage – for aesthetic reasons. Though her capacity was 3,457 passengers and crew, she was carrying 2,228 (1,343 passengers, 885 crew) but her lifeboat rated-capacity was just 1,178.

White Star Line, the owner of Titanic, chartered three vessels out of Halifax, the closest port, to recover the victims: Mackay-Bennett, Minia and Montagny (along with Algerine from Saint John’s, Newfoundland). Of the 1,500-plus victims, fewer than 350 bodies were retrieved from the ocean. Those deemed unidentifiable (or who could not be embalmed before the recovery vessels docked) were buried at sea; the others were returned to Halifax.

In that era of class segregation, the recovered bodies of Titanic’s First-Class passengers were placed in coffins; those of her Second- and Third-class guests in body bags; and the corpses of crew members were either buried at sea or carried off on open stretchers. The dead were taken to a makeshift morgue set up at the Mayflower Curling Rink; the undertakers were John Snow & Co.

As we wander among the graves of Fairview Cemetery, our guide points out the grave of William Denton Cox, the heroic Third Class steward who guided groups of steerage passengers to the lifeboats. Another marks the final resting place of one Joseph Dawson – not the Leonardo di Caprio character in the film Titanic but an Irishman who had worked as a coal trimmer on Titanic’s boilers. There was no need to draw our attention to the tomb of the Unknown Child*, owner of the tiny shoes now displayed in the museum: the fluffy toys placed by sympathetic visitors are identification enough.

Perhaps the most poignant story from the Titanic tragedy is that of 75 officers and crew of Mackay-Bennett, whose hearts were so thoroughly captivated by that unknown child who perished in the sinking that they placed a medallion engraved with the words ‘Our Babe’ in his coffin and attended the anonymous infant’s funeral service.

To the sailors of Mackay-Bennett, the loss of this child was as important as those of several high-profile names of the day: John Jacob Astor; Ben Guggenheim; railroad baron John B Thayer; and George Dunton Widener, a member of the board of the bank that controlled IMM, owners of the White Star Line, and heir to what was probably the largest fortune in Philadelphia at the time.

Banker J P Morgan – the ultimate owner of the White Star Line – cancelled his passage hours before Titanic sailed. His place was taken by J Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of White Star, who copped much of the blame for the catastrophe that marked the end of the ‘gilded age’. Waiting in the wings was an even bigger catastrophe: World War I.

*In 2007, the child was identified as Sidney Leslie Goodwin, who had been travelling to New York with his parents and five siblings. All perished with Titanic.


Did you know?

•  Titanic was never christened.

•  She had just six hours of sea trials before embarking on her doomed maiden voyage.

•  Her crew received six ice-warnings on April 14.

•  She was one of the first ships to use the recently-adopted ‘SOS’ signal (as well as repeatedly signalling ‘CQD’, the former ‘official’ ship distress signal) by wireless.

•  Many of her lifeboats were launched less than half full.