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A Titanic Departure to Disaster and Human Presumption: a Prelude to the Great Trumpian Disaster yet to Come…

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 109 years ago, making it a a very contemporary story. But only a historian would understand that. I happen to be a historian.

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 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. That is especially the case now where an American President defies all precedent, ignores laws, demeans the Constitution, stands against the very proposition of the Declaration, “that all men are created equal…” and who represents the unregulated hubris of men like Bruce Ismay. Had he been a passenger on board the ill-fated ship the President would have likely saved himself like Ismay, absconding into a boat while being the President of the Line to which Titanic belonged. Walter Lord wrote about Ismay:

“This Sunday he was enough a member of the crew to see the ice message that arrived from another ship. In the bright, sunny Palm Court—just as the bugler sounded lunch—Captain Smith gave him a warning from the Baltic. During the afternoon Ismay (who liked to remind people who he was) fished it out of his pocket and waved it at Mrs. Ryerson and Mrs. Thayer. In the smoking room before dinner, while the twilight still glowed through the amber-stained windows, Captain Smith sought and got the message back. Then Ismay walked down to the restaurant, immaculate in his dinner jacket, very much a First Class passenger. After the crash he went back to being in the crew—up with the Captain on the bridge … consulting with Chief Engineer Bell … and now, despite the tongue-lashing from Fifth Officer Lowe, shouting orders about the boats. Then came another switch. At the very last moment, he suddenly climbed into Boat C. Down it dropped, with 42 people including Bruce Ismay—just another passenger.”

That would be President Trump. He loves playing President, and playing the role of the Commander in Chief but he would abandon the ship of state, the citizens of the United States, and even the cult of people who believed every word he said. He does that every day, so it is not unlikely that when the ultimate disaster occurs that he will abandon the country and even his Cult members who he called “the most loyal people” who he will sell out on. Sinking ship to preserve himself.

This is a hard lesson to learn, but believe me when I say it. It is the history of Donald J. Trump, and all he has done as a businessman and as President. Ask all of the loyal men and women who volunteered to serve in his administration whose lives and reputations are in tatters.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Irma Strikes

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As I write this article before going to bed I am watching Hurricane Irma begin her journey of destruction through Florida after having traced a path of devastation across the Antilles and the Bahamas. Irma is massive and no-matter where she makes landfall the entire state of Florida will see some impact before she is done.

Irma has decreased a bit in strength having spent a little more time over Cuba than expected but will gain at least some of that strength back before she his the mainland. Winds in Key West were already gusting to hurricane force shortly after 11:00 last night. I have a friend who has remained in Key West to help those who cannot get out, even though he could have evacuated on Wednesday. He is now on some of the highest ground on the island in a cinder block house waiting for the storm to pass to begin his work. I have numerous other friends, mostly people who I have served with or taught who have evacuated to other locations from south and central Florida. I am quite anxious for them.

As I have watched Irma move across the Atlantic I have been mesmerized by her fearful symmetry, the large and well defined eye and the massive bands of rain. The radar and satellite images of Irma almost remind me of a beautiful yet deadly Great White Shark, beautiful to behold yet deadly.

My thoughts and prayers are with those in the path of Irma.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Madness, Evil, Disaster, Haste and Uncertainty: Poison, Bombs, Fire and Reckless Reporting Shape A Strange and Tragic Week

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“Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty.”  Tacitus

It was a strange and surreal day and week. It was a day where people sought answers but only found more questions. Questions about evil, madness and of accidental disaster. Questions ultimately about truth and responsibility.

Madness?

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Today the FBI announced the apprehension of an Elvis impersonator named Paul Kevin Curtis in relation to a number of letters containing the deadly poison Ricin to Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker, President Obama and a judge in Mississippi. According to his family Curtis had a long history of mental illness, specifically that he is diagnosed as Bi-Polar. Evidently he was quite a talented entertainer and had been a finalist in a number of Elvis impersonation contests in Las Vegas. Senator Wicker said that he has met Curtis and had once hired Curtis to perform at a party. Wicker noted that Curtis “was very entertaining.”

Disaster

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Meanwhile in the small town of West, Texas near Waco emergency crews and citizens were sifting through the rubble of a fertilizer storage facility, homes, apartment buildings and a nursing home. Yesterday evening a fire broke out at the facility triggering a massive explosion that registered 2.1 on the Richter Scale, was felt 70 miles away. Casualty figures are still unclear. The town’s mayor is reporting tonight that as many as 35 people, 10 being fire fighters and other first responders died in the blast and that about 160 were injured. The town is devastated, large areas are destroyed or heavily damaged. Governor Rick Perry has asked President Obama to declare the county a disaster area.

Evil

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In Boston, as the city mourned and people gathered at an ecumenical prayer service in memory of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing the FBI released pictures and video of the two suspects in the case. The FBI as well as city and state officials have asked citizens for their help in identifying the men who are believed responsible for the killing of three people and the wounding of more than 170 others.

Haste and Uncertainty

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Hasty and False Accusations

In all of these events there is an underlying element of uncertainty that unsettles people, and not only those directly affected but those who are exposed to them even from afar. In the midst of the unfolding tragedies people have a need for answers. After all such events, especially coming so closely on the heels of one another are unsettling and bring about in some the desire to find an answer immediately, to act with haste and recklessness to find an answer.

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Ricin Letter

Unfortunately haste and reckless attempts to find answers usually compound already tragic situations which could still be open ended. That may not be the case in the situation of Mr Curtis who has been taken into custody and linked directly to the poisoned letters. But let us suppose for a moment that even a mentally ill man could be falsely accused, or that he could have been working with others who are still on the loose. This does not appear to be the case, but there are many instances where people have been falsely accused.

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In the case of the explosion in Texas things appear to point to an accidental fire which spread and set off a massive explosion. Of course that is the presumption but even here officials have to rule out an act of malfeasance or criminality, even as they continue recovery efforts and the search for victims. The fact that the area was a storage area for the volatile Ammonium Nitrate, the same substance used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

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Murrah Federal Building and Timothy McVeigh

In a bizarre twist of irony the worst industrial accident ever, the Texas City disaster of April 16th 1947.  On that day an explosion of Ammonium Nitrate being loaded onto a ship killed over 600 people and injured another 5000. Several ships were sunk, the port destroyed and hundreds of homes and businesses devastated.

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Texas City Disaster

The sad thing is that while the West disaster is probably not a criminal act, it was something that might have been preventable had any outside safety regulations or inspection regime been in place. The last Federal safety inspection of the plant took place 28 years ago. The plant was cited and fined in 2006 for not having a risk management plan in place, despite the presence of an elementary school a very short distance away. The management self reported that risk was minimal.

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Finally in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing many people and some media outlets rushed to judgement before the FBI and other law enforcement agencies that are part of the Joint Task Force investigating released its pictures and videos. The New York Post misidentified two young men, one a high school student as suspects on its front page. Numerous bloggers and others posted photos of people in many cases calling them suspects or even guilt parties based on their very limited powers of observation and more than limited knowledge of the event, area and circumstances of the attack. The Post and those others have caused great distress in the lives of innocent people by acting in haste and rushing to judgement. It should be noted that neither the Post or any blogger has apologized to the people that they have falsely accused who are not considered suspects by law enforcement.

I think as I watched the coverage of all of these events this week and looked back at other terrorist attacks and industrial disasters that have taken place in my lifetime I was struck by how surreal they all appeared, especially since they happened in such a short period of time. When one adds in other events such as the continued tensions in North Korea surrounding its nuclear program and ongoing threats to South Korea, Japan and the United States.

It is a strange time, but if we are to find the truth in all of these cases we have to be careful not to jump to conclusions. History shows time and time again how when people and nations rush to judgement that many times much greater tragedy unfolds.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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