Nothing is Unsinkable: A Lesson for the Trump Administration

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1912 the Bishop of Winchester said these words in a sermon marking the end of the R.M.S. Titanic: “Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a monument and warning to human presumption,” as well it should. Sadly, it seems that that Trump administration is doing its best to strip away vital safety, health, and environmental regulations that protect people from even worse disasters than that which befell the great ship 106 years ago today.

Sadly President Donald Trump nor the sycophants in his administration or the GOP Congress will never understand the real and symbolic importance. The historian Walter Lord who was one of the most important historians that wrote about the ill-fated ship understood. He wrote in his book The Night Lives On: The Untold Stories and Secrets behind the Sinking of the “Unsinkable” Ship – Titanic:

“How close to “unsinkable” really was the Titanic? Did she embody the latest engineering techniques? Was she as staunch as man could make her? Did she at least represent what we have now come to call “the state of the art”? The answer is “No.” Far from being a triumph of safe construction, or the best that could be done with the technology available, the Titanic was the product of a trend the other way, a trend that for 50 years had seen one safety feature after another sacrificed for competitive reasons.”

The story of the Titanic has been told many times, and it should be a cautionary tale for those who in the name of profit and glory seek to dismantle safety and environmental standards. I remember reading Walter Lord’s classic treatment of the story, A Night to Remember back in 7th Grade. It made a tremendous impact on me, and every so often I will go back and read it again.

Captain Edward Smith

The Titanic’s Captain, Edward Smith, her was blinded by his faith in shipbuilding technology and had said about the Adriatic which he commanded previously, “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.” A Senator Said during the hearings about the sinking of her captain, “Overconfidence seems to have dulled the faculties usually so alert.”

The story of what happened to the great ship is as hard to believe now as it was then, but then incredible tragedies be they the loss of ships, aircraft, buildings or bridges, and even spacecraft always invoke such feelings. When I was told about the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up in 1986 I remarked to the young soldier who brought me the news “don’t be silly Space Shuttles don’t blow up.” Walter Lord, who was probably the most prolific historian and author of the Titanic disaster used to talk of the “if onlys” that haunted him about the sinking of Titanic: If only, so many if onlys. If only she had enough lifeboats. If only the watertight compartments had been higher. If only she had paid attention to the ice that night. If only the Californian did come…” 

Bruce Ismay

The word “if” probably the biggest two letter word that plagues human history, looms large in the tragedy of Titanic. The great ship, which was the largest ship and one of the fastest ocean liners of her time was the victim of her owner and operators hubris as much as she was that of the iceberg which sank her. The ship was heralded by Bruce Ismay, the Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line as unsinkable, a claim that was echoed in the press.

Her builders had no such illusions and protested the claims. Thomas Andrews the Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards where she was built commented “The press is calling these ships unsinkable and Ismay’s leadin’ the chorus. It’s just not true.” 

Titanic was designed with the latest shipbuilding innovations, watertight compartments, a double bottom and equipped with wireless. She was billed as “unsinkable” by her owners but those innovations as advanced as they were for her day were insufficient to save her when her Captain and owners chose to charge through a known ice field at full speed.  Her watertight compartments did not extent far enough up the hull to prevent water from going over them.  Likewise it was never imagined that so many watertight compartments could be compromised.

Thomas Andrews

As far as lifeboats, the great ship carried far too few. Thomas Andrews, her builder wanted 64 had his arm twisted to bring the number to 32 and Titanic sailed with only 16 plus 4 collapsible boats. Justifying himself under antiquated regulations (which were written for ships of 10,000 tons) which required just 16 boats. The fact that Titanic displaced over 40,000 tons and carried two to four times the number of passengers and crew, J. Bruce Ismay the Director of White Star Line a man who was untrained as a sailor or maritime engineer and who was focused on his company’s bottom line, told Andrews:

“Control your Irish passions, Thomas. Your uncle here tells me you proposed 64 lifeboats and he had to pull your arm to get you down to 32. Now, I will remind you just as I reminded him these are my ships. And, according to our contract, I have final say on the design. I’ll not have so many little boats, as you call them, cluttering up my decks and putting fear into my passengers.” 

Ismay’s focus was on his bottom line and Captain Smith for all of his experience at sea was negligent for not allowing intensive sea trials before the ship’s first and last voyage. Likewise for not seeming to understand the difference between how a 20,000 ton 500 foot long ship and a 40,000+ ton and nearly 900 foot long ship respond to course and speed corrections and how much more time it takes to stop such a massive ship at full speed.

But that was not all. There was no good system for the ship’s wireless operators to get critical information to bridge officers and even the messages about a large ice field ahead of Titanic were ignored, or dismissed and the ship sped on into that last dark night when she hit the iceberg.

Once she struck the berg Titanic was doomed. Her much publicized watertight compartments were not high enough to keep the massive flood of icy seawater from overwhelming damage control efforts. Other design flaws quickened her demise.

But there was  hope. Other ships were nearby but through a combination of lax regulations, bad luck, and miscommunications none would arrive before Titanic slipped into the depths of the North Atlantic.

There were so many “if only” moments. If only Captain Smith and his officers had slowed down as a precaution. If only the lookouts had binoculars to see further, if only Bruce Ismay had not been so obsessed with breaking speed records. If only the Californian had come. Californian was the nearest vessel to Titanic and in easy wireless range. However her wireless was unmanned, she did not have enough operators to man it 24 hours a day.  Her lookouts saw Titanic but despite flares being fired from Titanic she never assumed Titanic to be in extremis. The next nearest ship, Carpathia heard the call and made a valiant attempt to reach Titanic but was too late.

If only…so many “if onlys” and so many traceable to one man, the Director of White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay.  Thomas Andrews who scoffed at the ship being unsinkable would go down with the ship; but Ismay ensured his own survival by stealing away in a less than half-full lifeboat, in some accounts disguised as a woman. Ismay is symbolic of men who allow their own hubris, vanity and power to destroy the lives of many.  He is so much like those that helped bring about the various economic crises that have wracked the United States and Western Europe and so many other tragedies. He is much like Donald Trump.

After the disaster the tragedy was investigated by the United States Senate, as well as the British Board of Trade. However, the inquiry of the latter was condemned by the White Star Line’s Archivist, Paul Louden-Brown. He noted: “I think the enquiry is a complete whitewash. You have the [British] Board of Trade in effect enquiring into a disaster that’s largely of its own making.”

Ismay and Titanic are symbols of men guided only by their quest for riches and glory who revel in their power and scorn wise counsel or regulation, government or otherwise. They often believe that rules don’t apply to them. It is a cautionary tale for us today as corporations, lobbyists, and politicians seek to dismantle sensible and reasonable safety and environmental regulations for the sake of their unmitigated profit. Today we are seeing the Trump administration doing all that it can to strip away important safety, workplace, and environmental regulations in order to maximize profits. He even fought installing fire suppressing extinguisher systems in Trump Tower, something that led to the death of one of his tenants last week.

But the warning goes far beyond that, it applies to any of us who adopt the mindset, “this cannot happen to us.” After all, there are times when we all end up as victims of our own hubris, such is the human condition.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary

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