To Err is Human
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 2012 Titanic Memorial Cruise Story of Titanic Sinking Disaster Story 1 Disaster Story 2 Disaster Story 3


Written by Rick Archer
May 2012


Now that we have examined several maritime incidents caused by misjudgment, now it is time to ask, "What would make these seemingly intelligent professionals do something so utterly stupid?"

To err is human.  That's for sure.  No matter how well our technology is designed, accidents still happen all the time.  Sometimes those mistakes turn into disasters.

You would assume that training and experience would eliminate mistakes, but apparently not.  For example, sometimes 'experience' is the problem, not the solution, if the technology changes faster than the people charged with delivering the technology can cope.

On my Titanic Memorial Cruise in April 2012, I met a man named Simon who tests airline pilots for competency.  Simon and I became friends. 

Simon told me that in his opinion Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, the pilot of the US Airways plane that crashed into the Hudson River, was a hero of the first magnitude.  Simon shook his head in admiring disbelief as he discussed the incident.

Simon pointed out that he had never heard of such an incredible feat before.  The imagination and the skill required to pull off that landing without any major injuries or fatalities was way beyond amazing. By landing the plane flat on the water, Sullenberger not only saved his own passengers, but he avoided crashing into nearby Manhattan buildings.

Simon also pointed out Sullenberger's leadership. Sullenberger searched the plane before exiting the plane. He walked the aisle of the downed US Airways jet twice looking for passengers before exiting the plane.

"I can imagine him being sufficiently in charge to get those people out. He seems to have that kind of personality, which is to his credit."

Simon switched gears at that point; recent developments in airline technology have outstripped the understanding of many older pilots. Simon pointed to the 2009 airline crashes in Brazil and in Turkey as examples of human errors caused by ignorance of new technology.

Curious, I did some reading when I got home. I quickly found something that caught my eye.

Wikipedia: Air France Flight 447 was a scheduled commercial flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris involving an Airbus A330-200 aircraft that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on 1 June 2009.  The crash killed all 216 passengers and 12 aircrew.

While the investigation is still awaiting formal conclusion, preliminary reports of the BEA stated that the aircraft crashed following an aerodynamic stall caused by inconsistent airspeed sensor readings, the disengagement of the autopilot, and the pilot making nose-up inputs despite stall warnings, causing a fatal loss of airspeed and a sharp descent.

Additionally, reports indicated that the pilots had not received specific training in "manual airplane handling of approach to stall and stall recovery at high altitude", and that this was not a standard training requirement at the time of the accident.

Besides the lack of training with the new technology, there are all sorts of other reasons for accidents: distraction, fatigue, pressure, lack of concentration.  Our friend Schettino was apparently distracted by a woman and a phone.  The man who crashed the Exxon Valdez was said to be fatigued.  Pressure to go too fast may have doomed the Titanic.  Lack of concentration may have caused the defective cement job on Deepwater Horizon.

Whatever the reason, human error haunts us like the Grim Reaper. Human stupidity and carelessness can trump human cleverness a lot more easily than we are comfortable with. 

Will man ever overcome his tendency to relax, to be over-confident, to take things too much for granted?  Or will idiots like the men who captained the Oceanos, Exxon Valdez and the Costa Concordia continue to be given more responsibility than they deserve?

To me, many of these stories all boil down to "Judgment".

In a famous 2008 campaign advertisement, Hillary Clinton brought up an interesting question.  If the hot line phone rang at 3 am with a crisis, who did the American people trust the most to know what to do?

Good question.  It was a brilliant move on Clinton's part that almost turned the tide of the election back in her favor. 

People in positions of responsibility are forced to make decisions in critical situations.  That's their job.  No matter how much training and how experience someone might have, someday they may face a situation that nothing in their training or their experience had ever prepared them for.  Will they react appropriately?

Perhaps they are forced to make a decision based on faulty, conflicting or inadequate information.  The risks are usually enormous and often there isn't much time to think it over.  We say people in these perilous situations are forced to use their "judgment".  

The one thing that separates good leaders from bad leaders is that magical intangible known as "good judgment".  Judgment is the ability to make a decision that is "wise".  Good judgment is discretion, educated guess, and common sense all rolled into one.

Let's face it, sometimes there are situations in business, politics, and science that are so complex that no one can be sure which is the right path to take.  In my opinion, good judgment is a talent.  Some people have it; some people don't.  And, since emergencies don't happen that often, we never know how good our guy is until the time comes... at which point it is too late to change horses.



You never know how good your leader is until they are tested.  When it comes to the cruise industry, even if the training is there, maybe the judgment isn't.

The Costa Concordia and the Titanic are worst-case scenarios, but there have been other bad mistakes as well.  In December 2010, Marla and I were eye-witnesses to an appalling case of poor judgment during the Egyptian Poseidon Adventure.

Marla and I were the guest dance instructors on a cruise ship headed to Egypt that nearly capsized.  One woman was killed, 100 more passengers were injured, and the ship sustained a million dollars in damages.  Our near-disaster was clearly the Captain's fault. Thanks to his supreme stupidity, the Captain took our ship directly into the worst Mediterranean storm in 100 years!!

This was a situation that leaves me baffled to this day. I know full well that cruise ships avoid storms like the plague.  Out of 25 cruise trips I have taken so far, six of those trips have been diverted to safer waters due to storms. It is industry policy to always sidestep storms whenever possible.

The Cayman Islands are the perfect example. They have a bulls-eye on their back.  These poor islands are hit by a hurricane on average once every 2.3 years. In the mid-2000s, there was a bad stretch where poor Cayman was hit by hurricanes 3 years in a row. Each year our scheduled trip to Grand Cayman was canceled due to hurricanes. Each time our itinerary was changed and we docked instead at places on the map I didn't even know existed - Costa Maya, Vera Cruz, Progresso.

I wasn't very impressed with these substitute ports, but I didn't complain. I understood the rule - cruise ships avoid storms for safety reasons.

Yet suddenly one night Marla and I found ourselves on a ship going head to head with a terrible storm.  As our ship tossed and rolled in the giant waves, Marla and I distinctly wondered what had ever happened to that "avoid storms" rule.

The Captain would later suggest the strength of the storm had taken him by surprise.  Oh, please.  You have to be kidding. The entire Eastern Mediterranean knew about that storm.  Heck, even I knew about the storm in advance.

Earlier that day Marla and I had taken a great trip to a Roman fort on the island of Rhodes.  As we stood atop a hill on this island near the south coast of Turkey, we smiled at our magnificent view of the Mediterranean. We had an outstanding travel guide. Thanks to some time he had spent in Houston, he and I really hit it off. At the end of our trip, our guide pointed at the darkening skies. He told me one of the worst storms in a long time was about to hit this part of the Mediterranean.

Then he pointed to an American destroyer docked in the harbor. He said that ship had just pulled in a couple hours ago to ride out the storm.  Surely my ship would do the same, yes?  I shrugged.  Maybe. Maybe not.

Marla and I went back on board for lunch. Suddenly out of the darkening skies the most amazing lightning show I have ever seen erupted. Marla and I stared bug-eyed as huge lightning bolts repeatedly struck the sea right before our eyes. Now we stared at each other. This really was going to be quite a storm!

After lunch, Marla and I went back into town to explore. It rained heavily, but our umbrellas allowed us to visit nevertheless. When we got back on board, the Captain made an announcement that he had decided to race it to Egypt. However, the Captain warned us it would be a bumpy ride.  We would have to tough.

In a matter of hours, the ship began to pitch back and forth. The winds were whipping the ocean into a frenzy. The height of the waves was unbelievable.  This was more than I had bargained for. The Captain wasn't kidding about being tough.

As our ship rolled back and forth, the ship would briefly lean at an acute angle. Huge waves would reach as high as Deck 10. Marla and I gaped in amazement. We had never seen anything like this before in our lives. The fury of the ocean was very frightening. Marla whispered the Captain wanted to be a hero and save our excursions for us… and preserve the money the cruise ship would make from our Egyptian excursions as well. I nodded. Nothing else made any sense.

For a moment, we went outside next to the pool to test the wind strength. Dumb move. We were almost knocked down by the winds. Marla thought the winds were much too strong. After we returned to our cabin, she turned on the TV to the ship's own weather monitor.  The TV said the fierce winds outside were blowing at speeds exceeding 80 miles per hour.  She gasped.  We were in a hurricane!

A Tropical Storm is 39-73 mph. A Level One Hurricane is listed as 74-95 mph. Earlier we had been amazed, but now we were in shock. Our idiot Captain had taken his ship DIRECTLY into a storm the equivalent of a Level One Hurricane!

Marla stayed glued to the ship's weather station on TV throughout the night. Marla is a survivor. She knew we were taking a huge chance and wanted to be awake if something happened. Nevertheless, at some point, we both managed to doze off.

In the middle of the night, Marla and I awoke with a startle. Our bed was moving! We both sat up sharply in confusion as our bed slid 8 feet across our cabin. It was 2 am. We had no idea what was going on, but we knew that beds are not supposed to slide across the floor. I had an idea what was happening because I had seen a youtube video with similarities.  So I stayed glued to the bed.

Marla, however, got on her feet at the front of the bed. Suddenly our bed shot back in the other direction. Marla was hurtled in mid-air back to the bed. Marla sailed through the air and landed a perfect swan dive into the pillows. If I hadn't been gripping the bed with white knuckles, I would have applauded.

The third slide was the worst. The other slides had been gradual, but this one had force to it. The ship listed so badly that every single item in our room that wasn't bolted down was thrown violently to the floor. The computer went crashing against the door. The TV went crashing to the floor. Marla's makeup went crashing. Clothes came streaming out of drawers. Everything was flying. Our bed was slammed hard against the wall. At this point, Marla and I were clinging to the bed for dear life. It felt like the room had turned sideways. I actually wondered how I would fetch our life vests if this continued.  We couldn't even stand up.

Fortunately the next two rolls weren't as bad. The back and forth listing of the ship stopped after five rolls. But it wasn't over yet. Suddenly we heard a huge bang just outside our door. We didn't know it at the time, but that was the sound of the giant 60 foot Christmas tree falling in the nearby Atrium. The tree had separated from the wires holding it in place and came crashing down to the floor.

Poor Santa Claus. His life-size figure was crushed under the tree. This would have been funny except for one thing - a woman was killed when an object hit her head. 105 passengers were injured. Many of the crew literally fell out of their bunk beds.

Fear was rampant. People were sobbing in terror as they strapped on their life vests.  The passengers did not know if they were safe.  Everyone was asking the same question. Were we in danger?  Did we need to go to the lifeboats? 

As it turned out, there was no damage to the structure of the ship itself. However there was enormous cosmetic damage.  Beautiful chandeliers had come crashing down. Practically every glass and plate in the restaurant was smashed to pieces. Flying objects in the exercise room shattered mirrors. Valuable pianos crashed through glass windows. Broken pots were smashed on every deck with lifeless plants and dirt spread all over the carpet.  The damage was one million dollars.

What happened?  What went wrong?  Unbeknownst to the Captain, the storm had beaten our ship to Egypt. The waters in the port of Alexandria were far too choppy to dock his ship. It would have been like trying to hammer boards over a window in the middle of a hurricane. The ship could not possibly be steadied to attempt to dock… the ship could easily have been damaged against the pier.

Now the Captain discovered a worse problem.  Thanks to the huge waves, the harbor was littered with six other gigantic ships that were also unable to dock. In a sense, each ship represented a floating iceberg. These ships were not stationary. The ships took unpredictable paths as they tried to avoid each other. The Captain saw that his clumsy ship was in great danger of colliding with the others.

The Captain executed a sudden U-Turn. As the ship turned broadside into the turbulent waves with its stabilizers turned off, the ship suddenly began to list terribly. The ship began to roll back and forth from side to side, hitting angles close to 30 degrees. This was a frightening process.  Fortunately, once he completed his turn, the ship stabilized. His ship was now safely turned back out to sea.  That was the good news.  Now came the bad news.  Those five rolls had been enough to inflict tremendous damage to the interior of the ship.

Now came even more bad news. The Captain had killed a woman, hurt 105 passengers, ruined priceless valuables and had nearly wrecked his ship in Alexandria.  The final blow came when we discovered the Captain had risked his ship and our lives for nothing. 

Even if our ship had managed somehow to dock, it would not have done any good.  At that very moment, Egypt was in 'hunker mood' coping with terrible sandstorms that lasted for 48 hours. The Arabs knew it was insane to be outside. Too bad the Captain didn't have the sense to realize this ahead of time.

Now we headed to Malta near Italy.  We never came close to seeing Egypt.

Here is what Wikipedia had to say about the incident:

On December 11, 2010 Brilliance of the Seas left Rhodes, Greece on a 6-port cruise to Alexandria, Egypt and other stops around the eastern Mediterranean and experienced very high seas and hurricane force winds overnight.

During the night winds were noted by passengers watching the ship's heading and statistics channel to max out at around 82 miles per hour. At around 2:15 AM, it is reported that in a cluster of ships rushing to enter the port of Alexandria, a freighter turned in front of the Brilliance, forcing the ship's captain, Erik Tengelsen, to slow her below the 9 knots necessary to maintain her stabilizers' function.

Brilliance was thus at the mercy of 50 to 60 foot waves and started to heel port and starboard violently. Passengers reported that they were thrown out of beds; furniture and unsecured objects tossed and slid about their staterooms. A grand piano smashed through a window. Windows and mirrors were smashed, and the spa basins were damaged.

The ship's Christmas tree fell over in the Centrum Lobby giving an eerie Poseidon Adventure feel to the incident, beckoning back to the 1972 movie starring Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters in which passengers of a capsized ship were forced to climb up a toppled Christmas tree to escape before she sunk completely.

A reported 105 passengers needed medical treatment for their injuries, although that number continues to be disputed by both passengers and Royal Caribbean International interests. The heeling incident lasted several minutes, after which the Captain acknowledged that it had been a "horrifying experience."

Captain Erik reported to news outlets that he was taken by surprise at the force of the storm when, he said, weather reports leaving Rhodes only forecast winds at 40 mph. That claim however flies in the face of some reports by passengers who said the captain warned them via the ship's intercom system soon after leaving Greece to prepare for a bumpy night with "very high seas" and winds as much as 60 mph.

It is for that reason that many passengers felt the Captain and Royal Caribbean were partly responsible for the horrifying heeling incident that passengers were subjected to, since they knew well in advance what the potential for trouble was.

The next morning, Royal Caribbean International announced that a $200 per-stateroom refund would be given. This offer was received with bitterness by passengers who felt their lives had been at risk.  Later that day following a vocal outrage in the Centrum Lobby, Royal reconsidered and announced that on top of the $200, passengers could also expect a full refund of each passenger's stateroom fare.

This Wikipedia report is so accurate I assume it was written by an eyewitness like myself. In fact, this write-up with its allusion to the Poseidon Adventure is so similar to my own story I can't help but wonder if the person who wrote it used some of my commentary. 

Interestingly, Marla and I turned out to be the only passengers on the ship who didn't get a refund.  They contended that as the dance teachers, we were "crew" and not entitled to any refund.  Who said life was fair?   Rick's Personal Account

I would like to add three more comments:

1) "It is for that reason that many passengers felt the Captain and Royal Caribbean were partly responsible..."  Partly responsible?  How ridiculous.  The Captain and RCCL were completely responsible.  Or did they think Santa contributed to the problem?

2) The Wikipedia writeup did not mention the death of Barbara Davey. The deceased passenger's husband, John Davey, stated to the Scottish and U.K. media that "Barbara was tossed around like a ragdoll and was seriously hurt" during the violent storm which rocked the Brilliance of the Seas as the cruise ship approached Alexandria, Egypt.  The woman had either been struck or she had hit her head on something.  Three days later Ms. Davey lapsed into a coma and subsequently died. Doctors apparently diagnosed a "brain ­hemorrhage" as the cause of death.

3) It has since crossed my mind that the Captain did the right thing in turning the boat around. Massive cruise ships don't exactly stop on a dime. In these rough waters and with so many ships taking random paths through the harbor, it would have been tough to weave through the unpredictable obstacle course.

However, one question was never been answered to my satisfaction. Why did the Captain take us directly into such a dangerous storm in the first place?

I have only been able to come up with one answer.  Money, the root of all evil, is the only explanation that has ever made any sense to me. The ship stood to make thousands of dollars in excursion fees during our two-day stay in Egypt.

I assume our Captain thought he had the smarts to weather the storm… just like the Captain of the Titanic thought he could spot icebergs soon enough to dodge them.  Too bad the Captain of the Titanic didn't have the sense to slow down. Too bad the Captain of the Brilliance didn't have the sense to stay put in Rhodes.

When you are dealing with other people's lives, aren't you supposed to err on the side of caution?  Theoretically yes, but Greed makes people take stupid chances.

Judgment.  Some people have it.  Some people don't.  And the problem is, it is very difficult to predict in advance who has it and who doesn't.

Oftentimes you will never know how talented your leader is until the crisis hits.

Now it is time to review Captain Smith's judgment on the most famous Maritime disaster of all.  Let's put the Titanic story under a microscope.

The tree before the incident... and Santa. 

This is a picture of the fallen Christmas tree.

That's my computer down there on the floor.
I just finished picking up the TV.

Anything that wasn't glued down ended up on the floor.

Do you see the passenger with the life vest on?  This person came to the Front Desk to ask what had just happened. There were a lot of people scared out of their wits. 

Dirt from broken potted plants.

What a mess.  This is the Lobby.

Santa is down under there somewhere.

Marla is not trying to strike a glamour pose - she hurt her neck when she was hurtled forward.

In this picture, Marla has finally found her glasses after they were lost during the ordeal.

Yes, that is poor Santa under the fallen tree.


The Sinking of the Titanic


"Iceberg, Right Ahead!!"

At 11:40 pm on April 14, 1912, those words rung out on the bridge of the Titanic.  Reacting quickly, First Officer Murdoch ordered an abrupt turn to port and full speed astern to reverse the engines driving the outer propellers.

Thanks to the sharp turn, the ship's starboard side clearly missed the visible part of the iceberg.  However, beneath the water, the massive iceberg was much wider. 

The underside of the Titanic brushed against the deadly edges of the iceberg.  This buckled the hull in several places and popped out rivets below the waterline. The glancing blow created a total of six leaks in the first five watertight compartments. Murdoch then ordered hard right rudder, which swung Titanic's stern away from the iceberg.

The Titanic could sustain damage to four compartments, but the fifth compartment was breached for 10-15 feet.  This was the killer blow.  The watertight doors were shut, but this only postponed the inevitable sinking.

At 2:20 am, the Titanic would permanently disappear beneath the freezing waters of the Northern Atlantic.

The Senseless Loss of Life

Amidst the hype surrounding the launch of this new super ship, the phrase rang out:

"The Titanic is unsinkable!  Even God Himself couldn't sink this ship!!"

Titanic was the largest passenger steamship ever built at the time.  Thanks to improvements in engineering design, the ship was said to be unsinkable.  Sadly the iceberg proved that assumption incorrect.  The shock of hearing the invincible Titanic had sunk was profound.  People could not comprehend the enormity of impossible outcome.

The enormity of the surprise was so that the Titanic became a symbol of failure when failure is impossible.  The disaster became part of our language, today one hundred years later, every time something goes wrong, we refer to it as a "Titanic Disaster".  If a sports team loses a game when it is heavily favored, we call it a "Titanic Upset". 

The sinking of the Titanic was a double tragedy.  As if the loss of the ship wasn't enough, there was a second tragedy waiting to happen.

When it became apparent the Titanic was in serious trouble, the passengers rushed to the lifeboats.  At the time, they had no idea there weren't enough lifeboats on board.  Nor were any of the officers revealing the truth.  They didn't want a riot on their hands.

At a point when about half the lifeboats were lowered, the passengers began to count the remaining lifeboats. They began to wonder how they were going to fit all those passengers into what was left. 

They stared at the remaining lifeboats in disbelief and growing horror.  It slowly began to dawn on them that there weren't enough lifeboats to save everyone. Something was wrong here.  Very wrong.

The Titanic carried only 20 lifeboats.  These lifeboats had a total capacity of 1,178 persons.  There were 2,223 people on boardThis meant 1,045 people were automatically doomed to die

As this grim reality took hold, it created a serious unfolding drama.  Some passengers accepted their fate with grace and nobility.  Other passengers did whatever they could to get on the lifeboats.  Several men resorted to covering their heads with women's shawls. 

Adding to the tragedy, the death toll turned out to be much worse than it should have been.  1,045 people were doomed to die, but due to the ridiculous decision to release several boats only half-full, 1,517 people would perish.

Due to incompetence on the part of the ship's staff in dealing with the lifeboat situation, 472 more lives were lost than necessary. 

This needless sacrifice of life absolutely shocked the world.  It was one thing to be told this ship couldn't sink under any circumstances, but to discover there weren't enough lifeboats as well created a world-wide outrage.

The utter senselessness of the shortage has continued to mystify people ever since.  Over the years, people have asked countless times, "Why weren't there enough lifeboats?"

There were two reasons for the shortage.  First of all, the Titanic wasn't supposed to sink.  It was invulnerable so why bother carrying extra lifeboats?  Thanks to a short-sighted decision on the part of J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star line, the extra lifeboats proposed by Thomas Andrews, the designer, were scrimped to make more room for luxury cabins and beautiful sightlines of the ocean.

No one stood up to Ismay.  They shrugged their shoulders and figured it didn't make much difference anyway.  People were so certain of the Titanic's majestic strength, no one seemed to question the appalling lack of lifeboats.  Like some high-wire acts, the Titanic was allowed to make its maiden voyage lacking an appropriate safety net.

Oddly enough, this situation was "legal" at the time.  British shipping officials permitted this situation even though deep down they knew quite well there was no such thing as an unsinkable ship. 

Shipping Industry insiders understood that the hype wasn't true.  Yes, under certain circumstances, the Titanic could sink.  For example, if it was hit by a torpedo in just the right place, the ship could sink. 

So this was the kind of threat the ship was designed to deal with.  By creating 16 separate compartments, theoretically they could seal off the area damaged by a torpedo and still stay afloat.  Or in a worst case scenario, the ship would take its sweet time sinking.  It would be days before the Titanic finally went under. 

In this case, there would be plenty of time for another ship to come to the Titanic's rescue.  20 lifeboats would be more than sufficient to ferry the passengers back and forth to the rescue ship.

Now you understand the thinking behind the limited number of lifeboats.  In the unlikely event of an accident, the Titanic was supposed to sink slowly... Maybe what they should have said would have been "Even God himself couldn't sink this ship, but even if He did, it wouldn't sink very fast!"

For some reason, no one ever visualized a scenario where all five forward compartments were breeched.  It was beyond the imagination of the designers.  Hence the decision was made to limit the number of lifeboats as unnecessary despite the objections of Thomas Andrews.  What a shame that no one listened to him.  His sad fate reminds me of Cassandra, the seeress who begged the Trojans not to draw the Trojan Horse behind their walls. 

Unfortunately, the tragic collision with the iceberg made it clear that this decision was absurd and dangerous.  After the sinking, no ship was ever again allowed to set sail unless there were enough lifeboats for everyone on the ship. 

However, it wasn't just the immensity of the lifeboat situation or the strange one-in-a-million nature of the accident that took down the ship.  There were all sorts of curious circumstances surrounding the tragedy that left people hungry for more details.  For example, why couldn't the Titanic have simply sailed around the iceberg?  When they learned the ship was going too fast, people felt puzzled.  When they further learned they were going fast at night without any kind of light thanks to a new moon, they were even more perplexed.

When it finally revealed the Titanic had received over 20 different warnings of ice from different ships about a gigantic ice field and monster icebergs, people were incredulous.  Weren't the officers of the Titanic professionals?  If so, why didn't they have the sense to slow down?  As these details and other curious facts emerged, the mystery deepened.  Nothing made any sense at all.

As it stands, the individual stories are so poignant and the cosmic themes surrounding the disaster are so profound that even after 100 years people still find their imaginations riveted.  No one can read the story of the Titanic without a sense of incredulity. 

It wasn't supposed to happen... but it did.

Like the Biblical fall of Goliath and the Mythological fall of Achilles, the Titanic instantly became an enduring symbol for the value of caution and common sense.  The Titanic became a grim reminder to all of humanity to never take anything for granted again.  



Let's play a game.  Study the picture on the right carefully. 

See if you can spot the iceberg. 

Based on a History Channel documentary I watched, in the dark conditions on the fateful night, the only way to spot an iceberg would have been to notice the absence of stars on the horizon.

On the night of Sunday, April 14, 1912, the temperature had dropped to near freezing and the ocean was completely calm. There was no moon and the sky was clear. 

It was freezing cold in Titanic’s crow’s nest. The beautiful sunset was a distant memory as Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee were nearing the end of their watch. It was hard to see the horizon, or much of anything else, on this moonless, windless Sunday night. The seas were completely calm, eliminating any chance to see water breaking at the base of any icebergs.  Without binoculars, the lookouts had to rely on their own unaided eyesight.

Suddenly, Fleet thought he saw "a black mass". He knew it had to be an iceberg. He immediately rang the bell three times (warning of ice straight ahead) and telephoned the bridge.

The men on the Titanic knew full well there was ice out there somewhere.  Over the past four days, Captain Smith had received 21 radio warnings from ships that there was a dangerous ice field awaiting the Titanic. 

Each of these ships had passed through the area in daylight.  The captains of these ships were so alarmed they felt a need to warn all ships to be on the lookout.  Indeed the day of the accident, Smith had received no less than 5 direct warnings. 

So what did Smith do?  Did he stop the ship as night approached?  No.  Did he at least slow the ship down?  No. 

What Smith did do was post two men at the front of the ship.  Fleet later reported being frantic with worry. As the men peered desperately into the darkness, they understood clearly the fate of the ship depended on them.  But they couldn't see!!

Experienced sailors report that in these dark conditions a ship can come as close as a quarter of a mile - 440 yards - before spotting an iceberg.  440 yards is about 4 city blocks.

Indeed, the Titanic lookouts actually did better than that… later evidence suggests the lookouts spotted the iceberg at a distance of 500 yards away.

The Titanic was sailing at 22 knots that night, a pretty fast clip.

If the men were to spot an iceberg at 440 yards away, at the speed they were moving (22 knots), the ship never had a chance.  There was not enough time to avoid the obstacle.

At 22 knots, the giant ship would have needed 850 yards to stop. It is one thing to have a slim margin for error, but by these calculations show it was impossible to avoid the accident.

Given the ice conditions that Smith was well aware of and given the darkness which eliminated any realistic chance of seeing an iceberg from a distance, it was foolhardy to be moving so fast.

The math says the Titanic was doomed.

Since the Titanic's path was aimed directly at an iceberg, there is no conceivable way to have avoided it.

You would think that an experienced Captain would understand these numbers.

The smart thing would have been to stop and wait till morning like other ships did.  But short of doing that, at least slow down.

But inexplicably Captain Smith failed to slow down.  Some say Smith was following orders.  Others would say Smith should have had the sense to say no based on 21 warnings.  Why would anyone disregard 21 separate warnings of danger?

It is therefore easy to conclude that the Titanic sank due to Captain Smith's poor judgment.



No one has ever successfully explained "why" the Titanic was going so fast. It didn't make any sense.  There was little to gain from it.

Rumor has it that the Titanic was going fast because Captain Edward Smith was pressured to do so by J Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star line.

Mr. Ismay was on board to accompany the maiden voyage.  It is said that Ismay wanted to set the world record by finishing the voyage in the fastest time possible.

However, this argument doesn't make sense because the Titanic had been built for luxury, not speed. The Cunard Mauretania was widely understood to be a faster ship. Therefore the Titanic was not even capable of setting a world record.

So why bother going so fast, particularly after being warned 21 times in the past four days by other ships about iceberg sightings?  If setting any sort of a record is unattainable, then what could possibly be the reason to push ahead with such determination?

Ironically, another ship, the Californian, was anchored nearby. It was a mere 10 to 20 miles away from the site of Titanic's fateful brush with the iceberg.  Why was the ship there?  As nightfall approached, the captain of the Californian had taken one look at the ice conditions and refused to continue.  He said there was no sense in trying to navigate this kind of danger at night. 

Although we may never fully understand what Smith or Ismay were thinking, no one can deny the ship was going too fast on the night of the collision.  One Captain stopped rather than risk his ship; another maintained a reckless speed.

In certain situations, some people have judgment; some don't.

In the hearings after the tragedy, the question of whether Ismay had pressured Smith to go faster was asked to both passengers and the officers who survived.

The officers said nothing to incriminate Ismay.  However, it was noted that their jobs were at risk here, so perhaps the cat got their tongue.

Several of the well-heeled passengers - Jack Thayer, Mrs. Ryerson - claimed that Ismay gave them the impression that the Titanic was going to set some sort of speed record, but in the end, no one gave any direct testimony to implicate Ismay.  So the mystery of why Captain Smith was going too fast may just have to remain a mystery. 




So now it is time to answer my burning question.  Why do I think the Titanic is the most famous disaster of all time?

Before we get started, I have an admission to make.  I have no evidence to prove that the Titanic really is the most famous disaster. 

Another disaster, 9-11 for example, would nose out the Titanic because it is more recent. However, I think we can assume the Titanic story is definitely in the running... especially if the whole world votes and not just the USA.  The British vote would favor the Titanic.

After reviewing the story from as many directions as I possibly could, I will offer my theories why I think the Titanic is the most famous.

I suppose if we limit our vote to the 20th Century, that would definitely improve the chances for the Titanic!



It is very rare to hear a story where lots of rich people die at the same time.  Sure, celebrities die in car crashes and plane crashes, but usually just one or two. 

The Titanic was not just a luxury liner, it was the most stunning luxury ship ever built.  Furthermore it was on its maiden voyage.  As such, it was the Celebrity Event of the day.  A ticket on the Titanic was a status symbol of unparalleled importance. 

The first voyage of the Titanic was to place to be seen.  Every newspaper in London and New York had been talking about it for months.  The hype was overwhelming. 

Consequently some of the most famous people of the early Twentieth Century were on board.  As the ship headed to New York, the maiden voyage was the talk of the town.  It was the perfect combination of the most incredible ship ever built and the Best of the Best. The Titanic was a veritable floating "Who's Who".

Suddenly, to everyone's astonishment, they were shocked to learn many rich and famous people on board went to their deaths.  John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isador and Ida Strauss, Charles Hays, and Major Archibald Butt were just some of the many celebrities who went to their death that night.  There were many other notables as well.

Of all the other disasters we have covered, not one single story can even begin to match the "Star Power" of this tale. 

You would have to have a bomb or a deadly fire take out half the people at the Oscars to parallel this strange combination of terrible horror and extreme fame.



As I reviewed the story of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, I could not help but think this tragedy could be just as interesting as the Titanic.

How is it possible for a killer Level 4 hurricane to hit a city without warning?   It staggers the imagination.  When the storm left Cuba, it was a mere tropical storm predicted to curve well to the east. Instead it made a beeline for Galveston and doubled in strength. The story of how a hurricane could sneak up on a metropolitan city fascinates me.

Thanks to the sneak attack, only a limited number of people were able to evacuate at the last minute.  The rest were trapped on an island with virtually no natural protection. Practically every man-made structure was blown down.  It was every man for himself.  There must have been many amazing stories of life and death struggles. 

And yet there is not a single full-length movie dedicated to this heart-stopping story that I know of.  There have been a few documentaries, but none famous enough that I have ever seen it.  

On the other hand, a Wikipedia site listed 20... yes, 20... full length movies about Titanic.  And that's not all.  There are 14 TV shows and mini-series devoted to the Titanic.  Is it my imagination or is it true that wherever we turn, there is some sort of Titanic reference?

Over the years, the story of the Titanic has enjoyed a remarkable run of near-constant publicity.  For example, just when the Titanic was starting to fade from the public eye after World War II, a well-received movie starring Barbara Stanwyck was released in 1952.

In 1955, a book about the Titanic titled A Night to Remember was released.  Written by Walter Lord, this book became a huge best-seller.

Lord had gone to the trouble of interviewing as many survivors of the disaster as he possibly could.  In much the same way that Cornelius Ryan wrote his best seller The Longest Day about D-Day, Lord was able to weave all the first-hand accounts into a well-written non-fiction retelling of the disaster.

Since the Titanic story already carried the same level of drama you would normally see in a well-written movie script, Lord didn't have to embellish a single thing. His book was so compelling that it read like an incredible adventure story with the added feature that it was all true. 

A movie version based on the book came out in 1958.  It worked the same magic.  The movie simply stuck to what happened that night without any Cameron-style tall tales added.  Even though the movie didn't bother with fictionalized story lines, it still carried just as much drama as any Hollywood version.  Thanks to the book and the movie, the world's love affair with the Titanic story was rekindled.

However, time makes us forget.  Over the years, the Titanic faded from sight again.  Pop culture had forgotten about the Titanic.  Now we had Disco, Top Gun, Star Wars and Michael Jackson to distract us.

Suddenly out of nowhere, the story came rushing back to the headlines in 1985 when oceanographer Robert Ballard announced he had discovered the Titanic's resting place on the bottom of the ocean.  Even better, he had pictures to prove it!! 

This was a big deal.  Numerous documentaries and newspaper articles soon followed.  The Titanic was back in action.

Since Ballard's discovery, subsequent missions to the deep have brought back all kinds of artifacts and new details.  Renewed interest in the Titanic hooked a complete new generation of fans in a big way. 

All it took was James Cameron's Titanic and Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" to virtually ensure the Titanic story will be remembered well into the 21st Century.  

The story of the doomed romance of Jack and Rose was so powerful that many people are still under the impression that they were actual passengers on board the ship.  In some ways, they were.  Through their eyes, we learned what the people on the Titanic had to endure.  Those images are so powerful, how can we ever forget?

I suppose 9-11 would win a battle of which "Disaster" is most famous. After all, 9-11 is more recent and carries a major political component. However, as for the 20th Century, the Titanic disaster probably rules.



Some disasters don't have survivors.  As a result, the story has trouble finding a voice.

In the case of the Titanic, the newspapers were all over this story.  From the moment the ship landed, reporters pulled every person aside and asked them to tell the world what happened.

The eloquent testimony of the survivors brought every dimension of this night of terror to light.

Consequently, we know in sharp detail about the stories of so many people on board the ship that over time they have become celebrities in their own right.

The more we know about these people, the more we begin to "identify" with them.  No matter who you are, there is bound to be one character on that ship that reminds you of yourself. 

"Gee, that could have been me!"

There were rich people.  There were poor people.  There were average people who quietly went about their business.

There were members of the crew who had tales of their own to tell. In other words, there was someone aboard that fateful night for everyone to relate to.

Furthermore, the storyline reads like classic soap opera - luxurious settings, boldly drawn characters, moral dilemmas, class conflicts. Cameron knew just what he was doing when he hooked us with a doomed romance that defied class lines. 

The story worked like a charm because at its heart the Titanic story is a floating "Upstairs Downstairs" and "Rich Man Poor Man" rolled into one.  Pitting a gritty poor kid against rich snobs, Cameron was able to capitalize on the tragedy that hangs over the story like a dark cloud.

Like any good soap opera, we all find it easy to identify with the plight of the various people.  We study the cowards and ask if we could have done better.  We read about the decisions of the Captain and try to understand what he could have been thinking.  We read about the heroes and wonder if we could have had that kind of courage. 

Identification is effortless.  We know their names.  We know their faces.  We know their stories.  We could just as easily have been one of them.  It is easy to care about these people as if they are still alive. 

The story of the Titanic disaster is so irresistible we find ourselves participating in their lives before we even realize it.



James Cameron, director of Titanic, was quoted as saying, "The Titanic is this great sort of metaphorical novel that reads like fiction, but actually happened.  You can go and visit the wreck and see this monument to human folly."

A monument to human folly, indeed.  I agree with Cameron.  The Titanic has become a modern symbol for man's foolishness. 

The Greeks were unusually obsessed with man's condition.  Through their mythologies and their Greek tragedies, their playwrights and philosophers tried very hard to explore man's weakness and man's mortality. 

One of my very favorite Greek myths was Icarus, the birdman who plunged to his death when he flew too close to the sun.

As you recall, Icarus and his father Daedalus were imprisoned high in a tower on the island of Crete by the evil king Minos.

Daedalus, a talented Athenian craftsman, had been hired to build the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete, near his palace at Knossos, to imprison the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster born of his wife and the Cretan bull.

When Daedalus discovered the true use of his Labyrinth, he was horrified.  Young men and women were being fed to the monster.  Daedalus gave Ariadne, daughter of Minos, a ball of string to help Theseus find his way through the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. 

Enraged, Minos imprisoned Daedalus in revenge.

Daedalus was far to clever to stay imprisoned for long.  He began to collect the feathers of the birds who roosted in the tower.  Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son Icarus.

As the day of the escape drew near, Icarus could barely contain his excitement.  Icarus listened with only half an ear as his father warned him not to fly too close to the sun nor too close to the sea.  The winds of the sea and the heat of sun were deadly threats.

Tentative at first, Icarus was amazed to realize he could really fly. Not only could he fly, it was easy!  His father's invention was brilliant!

Now his confidence began to grow.  Icarus exulted in the joy of soaring through the heavens so effortlessly.  Overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky with increasing passion. 

Unfortunately Icarus forgot his father's warning - do not fly too close to the sun!  As Icarus soared higher and higher, he came too close to the sun.  The searing heat quickly melted the wax. Icarus kept flapping his wings but something was wrong.  He realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms.

Now Icarus fell to his death into the sea below.

There is a direct comparison to the fate of Icarus and the fate of the Titanic.  For reasons we may never understand, Captain Edward Smith chose to ignore repeated warnings about the presence of dangerous ice fields ahead. 

This amazing chart can be found at Titanic Ice Warnings.  The author has shown with painstaking thoroughness that Captain Smith was warned about the ice on the same day the ship would collide. 

"West-bound steamers report bergs, growlers, and field ice..."

"Passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice..."

"Amerika passed two large icebergs."

"Three large bergs 5 miles to southward of us."

"Saw much heavy pack ice and great number of large icebergs..."

Do you feel a growing astonishment as you read this list?   A testament to human folly indeed.  

Some people still think the Titanic's collision with an iceberg was a random event, a one-in-a-million case of bad luck.

Modern thinking is much different.  Given what we know know, the collision was much more likely than most people realize.

Please note that each one of those warnings in the chart above lists multiple icebergs in different locations.  One warning listed as many as three. 

Furthermore each location cited was miles apart from the others.  In other words, there must have been icebergs scattered all over the general area.

I think it is fair to conclude that there since there were reports of at least a dozen different icebergs in the area lying ahead of the Titanic,, there were probably many more icebergs!

Indeed, I am not the only one to come that conclusion.  This picture indicates that the Titanic was headed towards an actual wall of ice.

Captain Smith was warned repeatedly.  One of the warnings came from the Amerika.  The Amerika had spotted two large icebergs at 41.27 N, 50.08 W

This location was about 25 miles south of the iceberg the Titanic hit.  Did Smith simply not comprehend he was sailing directly into danger?  This is yet another piece of evidence that shows Captain Smith deliberately sailed his ship into area strewn with not one, not two, not three, but dozens of icebergs!

Let us not forget that this wall of ice was so intimidating that on the same night another ship, the Californian, had come to a complete stop.  

Indeed, one of the great ironies of the night was that the Californian sat an anchor just 15 miles away from the site where Titanic's passengers where engaged in their heart-wrenching struggle to survive. 

Indeed, the Californian's inability to decipher the meaning of the repeated distress flares sent up by the Titanic is a remains a source of great irritation to all to Titanic buffs to this day.  But that's another story. 

The point to concentrate on here is to ask why was the Californian was nearby in the first place. 

Because Stanley Lord, Captain of the Californian, had taken one look at the ice field and refused to sail directly into danger without the benefit of daylight. 

As nightfall approached, Captain Lord decided there was no sense in trying to navigate this kind of danger at night. 

Here is what Wikipedia reports:

While steering a course of due west, the Californian encountered a large ice field at 41° 53' North and 49° 08' West.

In the evening twilight Captain Lord spotted the ice just in time.  He ordered the helm hard right and the engines full astern. Her head swung rapidly to the right but it was too late; she actually entered the loose margins of the ice field.  Shaken after the near miss, Lord decided to stop the ship and wait until morning to proceed further.  

Before going down from the bridge, Lord thought he saw a ship's light away to the eastward but could not be sure it was not just a rising star.  Lord carried on down to the engineers' cabins and met with the chief whom he told about his plans for stopping.

As they were talking, they saw a ship's lights approaching. Lord went to the wireless room to find out if Evans knew of any ships in the area. Evans informed Captain Lord that he did: “only the Titanic.”

Lord instructed Evans to call and inform the Titanic that the Californian was stopped and surrounded by ice.  Evans proceeded to wire the Titanic.  Operator Phillips on the Titanic was distracted when the message from the Californian came in.   Phillips was unable to hear a separate, prior message he had been in the process of receiving from Cape Race, and he rebuked Evans with: "Shut up, shut up! I am busy; I am working Cape Race!"

Ten minutes later the Titanic hit an iceberg.

That ice wall that stopped Captain Lord and the Californian in its tracks must have been ominous indeed.  This chart indicates the Titanic did not even make it into the heart of the ice field.  Instead, the chart suggests the Titanic likely hit one of the first icebergs in the wall. 

The irony becomes even more intense when one remembers the iceberg warning from the Amerika earlier in the day was sent from practically this same spot.

How absolutely pathetic.  This disregard for safety cannot be explained in any sensible way.  One can only assume that Captain Smith of the Titanic put too much faith in the ability of his spotters to detect looming danger.

If the Titanic were rewritten as a novel, it could be titled "Tale of Two Captains". 

One Captain showed judgment and caution.

The other Captain said "Damn the tuxedos!  Full Speed Ahead!"

A testament to human folly indeed.  

Captain Smith did not ignore the warnings completely.  During the final day Smith did order a change of course to a route 10 miles to the south and he did post lookouts.

But Smith's refusal to slow down clearly shows that he didn't seem to take the warnings very seriously.

The marvelous Greek word Hubris is often attached to the Titanic story.

Hubris means extreme pride or arrogance. Hubris indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

The word was also used to describe actions of those who challenged the Gods or their laws, especially in Greek Tragedy, resulting in the protagonist's fall from grace.

Hubris was also considered the greatest crime of ancient Greek society. The Gods would punish the perpetrator. It often resulted in fatal retribution.

In Greek Tragedy, "ruin, folly, delusion" described the action performed by the hero or heroine, usually because of his or her hubris, or great pride, that leads to his or her death or downfall.

Examples of Hubris in Ancient Greek included the mutilation of a corpse or the humiliation of a defeated foe

As we recall, the powerful warrior Achilles angered not just the Trojans, but also the Greek Gods when he dragged the naked body of his defeated foe Hector before the walls of Troy.

Achilles was invulnerable in all of his body except for his heel. The death of Achilles, as predicted by Hector with his dying breath, was brought about by Paris with an arrow to the heel. 

Although this was a one in a million shot, apparently the god Apollo guided Paris' arrow.

The Greeks were in awe that someone as invincible as Achilles was mortal after all. 

When you place the story of the invincible Achilles against the unsinkable Titanic, the irony is unmistakable.

The Titanic, of course, was guilty of "hubris" in the first degree.  Not only did they name their ship after a mighty Greek God, they had the nerve to suggest their ship was so well-built that "even God couldn't sink it". 

And yet the Titanic was brought down by a bizarre glancing blow to the side of the ship.  It was a one in a million shot. 

In fact, the newspapers described the iceberg as magically finding the Titanic's "Achilles Heel".  You almost wonder if Apollo was involved. 

Indeed, the fate of the Titanic reads like retribution for defying the Gods.  The only possible reason to be careless in the face of an obvious threat like a field of icebergs is to assume you are invulnerable.  And look what happens when you assume you are invulnerable.

After the Titanic sank, every human being on Earth took heed.  To a world hungry for any sign of the existence of God, this bizarre tragedy had all the earmarks of Divine Intervention in the affairs of Man.

Every disaster carries a lesson, but in this case, people paid more attention because to many it seemed like a supernatural message. 

If the most powerful structure Man had ever built could be destroyed this easily on its maiden voyage, it was easy to imagine God was trying to tell us something.

Therefore, as 1,500 agonized souls went to their death in the icy waters of Atlantic on that fateful night, the Titanic assumed the mantle of modern mythology.

The Titanic has become our timeless reminder to show respect and to never to take anything for granted.

Henceforth, the Titanic would serve as a cautionary warning to us all to stay humble.  Beware of Hubris.

What a shame Captain Schettino had to learn this lesson the hard way.

Rick Archer

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