On its maiden voyage in April 1912, the steamship Titanic, the largest, most luxurious passenger ship in the world, crashed into an iceberg in the North Atlantic. A stewardess named Violet later described it as "a low, rending, crunching, ripping sound, as the Titanic shivered a little before her engines gently ceased."
It didn’t sound like a fatal collision. Yet within a few hours, hundreds were freezing to death in the icy waters, and the ship that had been called unsinkable was lying on the ocean floor. A century later, fascination with the disaster seems bottomless. There are exhibits, talks, plays, documentaries and new books coinciding with the anniversary, as well as a 3D release of one of the most popular films ever, James Cameron’s Titanic.
Visitors pour into an exhibit in Las Vegas displaying replicas of rooms in the ship and some of the thousands of objects found in the sand around the wreck. On display are jewelry, perfume bottles, faucets, a cook’s cap and china plates that came to rest neatly on the ocean floor. Most striking is a vast piece of the rusted steel hull itself, with shards of glass still in some portholes.
Only 710 of more than 2,200 people aboard were saved, for the simple reason that the Titanic did not have nearly enough lifeboats. Most seats went to women and children and to 220 crew members - less than one-quarter of the officers and shiphands. The rest of the crew died, along with more than half of all women and children in third class, and male passengers in every class.
Richard Davenport-Hines is author of Voyagers of the Titanic, about the people aboard the ship, from the immigrants in third class - Irish, Armenians, Lebanese and Russian Jews - to American-born John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest person aboard.
"The decks represented a microcosm of society in the U.S. and across Europe and the Middle East," Davenport-Hines said. "The third-class passengers - and it’s not steerage on the Titanic; the quality of accommodation was way above [steerage] - included huge numbers of people buying into the American dream, trying to escape from economic privation, fleeing religious or racial persecution."
He said those who survived often suffered from what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and that there were more suicides and deaths on the anniversary of the disaster than would be expected in an average population.
"One thing the survivors remembered," Davenport-Hines said, "is the sound of the people who didn’t get into the lifeboats in this freezing cold mid-Atlantic ocean in their lifejackets, slowly dying of cold. One 11-year-old boy much later in life lived a block or two from the Detroit baseball stadium. He said the sound of the [crowd's] roar when someone hit a [home] run there always made him involuntarily shudder, because it sounded uncannily like the sound of a thousand people freezing to death."
There were also stories of courage. Isidor and Ida Straus, prominent New Yorkers, were traveling in one of the finest staterooms on the Titanic. But as the ship sank, Isidor refused to take the lifeboat seat offered to him as an elderly man. A great-grandson, Paul Kurzman, tells the story: "Isidor said, 'So long as there is a single woman or a single child aboard this ship, I as a man will not enter a lifeboat.'"
Ida Straus then left the lifeboat, Kurzman said. "Ida said, 'We have lived together, and it is my wish that we die together.’ And they were last seen, reported by one of the rescued passengers ... embraced in each other’s arms, on the deck, when a large wave came over the ship, as it went down."
Kurzman carries with him a watch fob, recovered from his great-grandfather’s pocket when the body was found weeks later, with photographs of his elder son and daughter still inside. He also cherishes the story of his great-grandmother giving her fur coat to her maid, boarding a lifeboat, saying that the maid would need it more than Ida would.
In the years since the shipwreck was discovered in 1985 by oceanographer Robert Ballard, numerous expeditions have photographed it rusting away, four kilometers below the surface. Except for the section of hull on display in Las Vegas, salvagers have retrieved only objects found in the area around the wreck.
"In respect to the memory of this tragedy, and those who lost their lives there, nothing has been removed from the ship itself, which is viewed as a sacred object," explained Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey’s, a New York auction house.
Guernsey’s is selling the entire collection of 5,500 objects, including the 350 artifacts on view in Las Vegas. The buyer will be required to keep at least some of the collection on public display.
"Before long, the ship will be gone because of brutal conditions under the north Atlantic where she rests," Ettinger said. "So this collection really does embody the memory of the Titanic.
It is a memory that might have faded by now. Yet the disaster still fascinates in part because it evokes contemporary concerns, according to Davenport-Hines.
"We still live very much with the issue of the arrogance of technologists and the failures of apparently 'fail-proof' technology. The Titanic was a stunning example of this: It was thought to be an unsinkable ship [so] it was speeding through ice-bound waters much too fast - dangerously fast - because people thought it was invulnerable," Davenport-Hines said.
In fact, engineering scientists say the grandest ship of its time may have been doomed by its humblest parts. Studies of the wreck have found that the wrought-iron rivets holding the steel hull plates together were too weak to withstand the impact of the iceberg, and so the hull ripped open easily, like a tin can along a seam.