Wreaths were laid in Belfast today to commemorate the 1,500 people who drowned when the Titanic sank exactly 97 years ago. The great liner was built at Harland and Wolff in the Northern Ireland capital, and although hers was not the worst shipwreck the world has ever seen – in wartime, that unwelcome distinction would apply to the Wilhelm Gustloff which took up to 10,000 people to the bottom, and in peacetime to the Filipino ferry Dona Paz, which claimed up to 4,375 victims - it remains probably the most famous.
Not surprising when you think that the passenger list read like a Who’s Who of the world’s richest people, that she was the fastest, most opulent ship on the sea, that this was her maiden voyage, and that she was commanded by her shipping line’s star captain Edward J. Smith, who had famously declared that it was not possible for a ship like this to sink –“modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
In fact, an encounter with an iceberg a few minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912 sent the Titanic to the bottom in a couple of hours. (For more on ships and icebergs see my blog of February 20.) The watertight compartments that were supposed to make the vessel unsinkable had not actually been watertight. So the sea could fill up one, and then lap over into the next, and there were not enough lifeboats. (See my blog of January 21.)
Of the 705 people who survived the shipwreck, only one is still alive today - Millvina Dean, who was just nine weeks old. She was rescued along with her mother and her two year old brother. Her father, then aged 27, perished. This week she is selling the last of her Titanic memorabilia to help pay her nursing home fees.