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April 10, 2012

“Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage”

by Anne Paddock

One hundred years ago today – April 10, 1912 – the Titanic left Southampton, England on its maiden voyage stopping at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown, Ireland before continuing across the Atlantic Ocean towards New York.  Four days later on April 14, 1912 at nearly midnight, while maneuvering through the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Titanic hit a massive iceberg causing enough damage for the ship to sink 2 hours and 40 minutes later on the morning of April 15, 1912.

There were 2, 209 passengers aboard the Titanic; 712 were rescued and the remaining 1,497 perished in the icy waters primarily because there were not enough lifeboats and the lifeboats that were launched were not filled to capacity.  Who lived and who perished has been both a source of joy and pain for family and friends of the passengers.

Numerous books and articles have been written about the ship that was billed as “unsinkable” with the most recent publication of “Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage” by Hugh Brewster offering a look at the Titanic’s first class passengers: who they were, the lives they led, how they were saved or died, and what happened to them after that fateful night.

There were 329 first class passengers on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, many with  recognizable names: Astor, Guggenheim, Gracie, Bucknell, Gibson, Brown, and Millet whose lives and activities were constantly reported by the press and there were those whose names were less well-known but who led equally colorful lives. Among this group were two world-class tennis players, a Presidential advisor, a fashion writer, an actress, authors, a doctor, journalist, several wealthy merchants and businessmen  – and their mistresses, theater producers, the owners of Macy’s and the daughter of the owner of Saks Fifth Avenue along with several heirs to family fortunes.

The story begins on April 10, 1912 and continues chronologically to April 18, 1912 through 17 chapters and a postscript.  The travelers are introduced and their lives unfolded in both words and pictures chapter by chapter. The stories are both fascinating and heartbreaking as there was no sense of fairness (nor could there ever be) in who lived and who died.  More women survived (74%) than men (20%) primarily because of the “women and children first” rule that was adopted when the lifeboats were filled. On a percentage basis, more first class passengers survived than those in second and third class.

Brewster shows us a side of human nature we’d rather not see. First class passengers were clearly given a priority to board the lifeboats and most of those in the lifeboats rowed away from the Titanic for fear of getting caught in a “suction” of the sinking ship. There were nearly 1,500 passengers still on board the Titanic when the great ship reared upwards, broke in half and sank causing most of the passengers to be thrown into the icy water and perish from hypothermia but not without cries for help. “The failure of all but two of the eighteen lifeboats to go to the aid of the dying remains another of the great “if only’s” of the Titanic story,”  for clearly hundreds more could have been saved.

There are a lot of “what ifs” presented:  What if the captain and crew paid more attention to the iceberg warnings? What if the captain and the crew weren’t making the ship move so fast in an attempt to reach New York sooner than was expected?  As the author indirectly points out, had the Titanic been traveling at the slower projected speed, the ship wouldn’t have hit the ice field until daylight on April 15th when the icebergs could have been easily seen and avoided.

What if there were enough lifeboats to hold all the passengers? What if the Californian, a steamer less than 20 miles away had inquired why a ship was firing rockets in the middle of the night? And, most haunting of all…what if “they” didn’t claim the Titanic, the newest, largest ship in the world was unsinkable? Would “they” have taken the chances they took? 

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