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Titanic: A Monument and Warning to Human Presumption

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 105 years ago today.

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.

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 20 of which 4 were collapsible boats smaller than smaller lifeboats. Justifying himself under antiquated regulations (which were written for ships of 10,000 tons) which allowed just 16 boats J. Bruce Ismay the Director of White Star 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.” 

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 would go down with the ship but Ismay ensured his own survival. 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.

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.

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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Unregulated Hubris: Remembering the Titanic

10-titanic-facts-titanic-go-down

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Something a bit different today, but something that I think is still important to remember. Today marks the 114th anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, a story that has been told many times, and one which 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, her Captain 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.”

It is as hard to believe now as it was then. Walter Lord, historian and author talked 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…” 

J._Bruce_Ismay

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_ül

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 20 of which 4 were collapsible boats smaller than smaller lifeboats. Justifying himself under antiquated regulations (which were written for ships of 10,000 tons) which allowed just 16 boats J. Bruce Ismay the Director of White Star 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.” 

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.

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If only…so many “if onlys” and so many traceable to one man, the Director of White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay.  Thomas Andrews would go down with the ship but Ismay ensured his own survival. 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.

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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Navy Ships

The Sinking of the Costa Concordia…Unanswered Questions in the Loss of Massive Cruise Ship

“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” Captain Edward Smith, Captain of RMS Titanic referring to RMS Adriatic

They are considered the queens of the high seas but they are not unsinkable. Modern ship design and technology can always be doomed by the hubris of those that design, build and command them. The Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia sank off of the tiny tourist resort island of Giglio in constricted waters off the Italian coast.  The ship which displaced 114,500 tons and is 952 feet long was carrying over 4000 souls when sailing less than 300 meters from shore she struck a rocky outcropping for unknown reasons.

The liner’s captain claims that he struck an “uncharted” rock and some have speculated that a power failure or navigational systems error could have caused the ship to go off course. However the ship was miles off course and any experienced mariner or Merchant Captain would have recognized that the ship was far off course by visual observation as the weather was clear and the sea calm at the time of the sinking. Additionally the route was a weekly event for the ship and crew.

What we do know is that the ship struck rocks which opened a gash 150-300 (depending on the estimate) feet long in the ship’s port side below the waterline encompassing an area that included the main engineering spaces.  The could be more damage below the water on the ship’s bottom as well.

The ship continued on for a bit but the flooding had to rapid and the ship first heeled 20 degrees to port (left as you face the bow or front of the ship) and the Captain ordered the ship about to get her into shallow water obviously fearing that she might go down in deep water.  He did get the ship into shallow water but something else unexpected occurred to cause the ship to list to starboard (right as you face the bow). The list became so bad that she hit bottom with about a nearly 90 degree list exposing the massive damage on the port side which included a massive boulder sticking out of the hull.

The two main questions are why did the ship go strike bottom and why did she sink? A third question that I have regards the ability of any large cruise ship to survive sudden and massive emergencies, not just maritime emergencies but God forbid a terrorist attack like that which nearly sank the USS Cole. The first is being answered by the cruise line which stated:

“While the investigation is ongoing, preliminary indications are that there may have been significant human error on the part of the ship’s Master, Captain Francesco Schettino, which resulted in these grave consequences.

“The route of the vessel appears to have been too close to the shore, and the captain’s judgment in handling the emergency appears to have not followed standard Costa procedures.”

Italian authorities have arrested the Captain and First Officer on charges of manslaughter.  Other charges will probably be filed.  I believe that as the investigation progresses investigators will discover that the Captain endangered the vessel by deliberately sailing close to shore, far closer than any large vessel should sail.    Had he stayed in the main shipping channel nothing would have occurred.

The second question involves how fast the ship sank and why she heeled to starboard when the damage was on the port side. I would suspect that the crew was overwhelmed by damage of the extent that occurred and that their damage control training was insufficient.  The actual number of deck hands and engineers compared to kitchen and wait staff, entertainment and housekeeping was probably minimal. This is because of the tendency for merchant crews to be just large enough to run the ship depending on technology.  However in catastrophic situations technology can be overwhelmed and what is needed are sailors that can effect emergency repairs to keep the ship afloat until help can arrive.  However keeping a surplus of qualified deck hands and engineers on board would cut into the corporate bottom line. Since this is the case it would be important that every member of the crew have some real training in shipboard damage control and firefighting. I suspect that this is not the case even though according to Costa “All crew members hold a BST (Basic Safety Training) certificate and are trained and prepared to emergency management and to assist passengers abandoning the ship with numerous drills.”

However that is not the same as being qualified to assist deck hands and engineers in serious damage control situations.  The crew did a commendable job in evacuating the ship despite the inability to use many lifeboats due to the steep list but had this occurred in deep water or stormy conditions the death toll could have been catastrophic. As of now 6 people are known dead and several dozen  are unaccounted for and could be either trapped in the ship or drowned.

These are important questions to ask and hopefully what happened to the Costa Concordia will lead to even more safety measures and improvement in ship design. There have been a number of incidents of cruise ships sinking in the past number of years but most have been smaller or older ships. The Concordia was very new and considered state of the art.  She is one of the largest ships to every be sunk in history and a warning to those like Captain Smith of Titanic.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Navy Ships, News and current events