The historical legacy of the TITANIC defies a brief manuscript of 20- plus pages. Much better, and more detailed work has been done to give the subject a “modern” context, notably by the United States Coast Guard in the Summer 2012 issue of Proceedings of the Marine Safety and Security Council, vol.69, no. 2, from which the following remarks draw heavily.
The night of April 14, 1912 – the famous “night to remember,” chosen by Walter Lord as the title of his excellent history – presents us with many questions that will probably never be answered. Most of these are technical: the “what ifs” that, in one form or another, haunt us after, but usually not before, a disaster at sea.
The importance of safety at sea is shown by the pictures available since 1985, showing the broken fragments of wreckage lying on the ocean floor south of Cape Race. Since the wreckage was located, we can see the pairs of empty shoes and boots that mark where human remains once lay.
The TITANIC facts are familiar: at 11:40 P.M. on April 14, 1912, she collided with an iceberg. Two hours and 40 minutes later, the pride of the White Star Line began her two-mile plunge to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, only 710 survived. While there have been sea disasters that produced greater loss of life, the sinking of TITANIC is probably the most famous and far-reaching maritime disaster in history.
While the loss of TITANIC has been described as “perhaps the most documented and least commonly understood marine casualty in maritime history”, a positive result of the TITANIC disaster, and of course many other tragedies at sea that have occurred since, has been to establish a formal protocol of goals and procedures for analysis and investigation. These goals, from the point of view of the investigator/flag state, other governments, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and other regulators, is the identification of unsafe conditions, in order to identify them in advance of future disasters. Today, responsible regimes charged with administration of the safety of life at sea are said to follow a philosophy of prevention first and, then, response.
The 1985 discovery of the wreck of the TITANIC sparked a new round of forensic investigation. The bow section was found largely intact with the stern section in hundreds of pieces approximately 2,000 feet away. The realization that TITANIC’s hull had broken at some point during the sinking added a new understanding of the already famous disaster. The discovery of the wreck also provided new forensic evidence in the form of recovered artifacts and detailed surveys. It was these new clues and advances in computer-driven engineering tools that gave rise to a revision of previously held beliefs.
The significance of the TITANIC, and the events that led to such a large loss of life, remain with us today.