Interview with ‘Titanic Sinks!’ Author Barry Denenberg

Celebrity Q&A, Featured Article, History, Traditions
on March 26, 2012

Q: What makes the story of the Titanic so powerful and compelling, even after 100 years?

Denenberg: “An assortment of bona fide heroes and villains right out of central casting. A witches brew of potent ingredients: corporate greed; professional complacency; human nature; mother nature; rich v. poor and courage v. cowardice. It illustrates the fatal flaw in thinking science can overcome all.

“And unlike the Lincoln, Kennedy brothers and King assassinations, Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the sinking of the Titanic occurred in virtual slow motion, giving it a unique, eerie quality.

“There are also numerous and articulate testimony of those who lived through it at the U.S. and U.K. hearings and in subsequent survivor accounts.

“And there are still unanswered questions.”

Q: Can you share some of the statistics you found in your research about the Titanic and its tragically short life?

Denenberg: “Gross registered tonnage: 46,328 tons

“Length: 882 feet, 9 inches

“Width: 92 feet

“Height: 175 feet

“Anchor weight: (3) 15.5 tons each

“Supplies included 75,000 pounds of fresh meat, 40,000 fresh eggs, 36,000 oranges, 16,000 lemons, 20,000 bottles of beer and ale, 15,000 bottles of mineral water, 57,000 pieces of crockery, 29,000 pieces of glassware, 44,000 pieces of cutlery and 196,100 items of linen.

“There were 1,324 passengers on the Titanic and 899 crew, for a total of 2,223. 1,517 died and 706 survived. 685 crew members perished. 40% of the passengers in first class, 58% in second, and 75% in third class did not survive.

“Nearly all of them were frozen to death.

“Titanic was not fully booked; only half filled.

“Only three third class passengers testified at the U.S. Senate inquiry, and none at the U.K. hearings.

“When dead bodies were recovered from sea, those identified as first class were embalmed and placed in coffins, while second and third class were thrown in canvas bags.”

Q: What are some of the enduring mysteries of the Titanic and its sinking, the answers to which are still being sought today?

Denenberg: “Did arrogance and corporate greed doom the Titanic? Was the captain racing to New York despite warnings that there were icebergs dead ahead; and was he urged to do this by White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay, who wanted to beat the Olympic’s record?

“Why did Captain Smith cancel the lifeboat drill, and was that part of the reason the crew handled the loading and lowering of the lifeboats so ineptly?

“Was the rule ‘women and children first’ and/or ‘women and children only’ followed?

“Why did so many third-class passengers perish while so many crewmen survived?

“What happened to the missing binoculars that were in the crow’s nest? Was Smith’s last- minute decision to bring in a new Chief Officer indirectly responsible for their disappearance? Would they have prevented the accident?”

Q: Are they are popular misconceptions about the Titanic and its fate that, though false, are widely believed to be factual?

Denenberg: “Yes. One is ‘It was an accident; a perfect storm of events. Therefore therefore no one was at fault.’ Capt. Smith and J. Bruce Ismay caused the Titanic to hit the iceberg. They are to blame.

“Another misconception: ‘It was fate; punishment from on high.’ These and all other simplistic answers are popular misconceptions. Like all profound questions, the answer is much more multifaceted than we’d like it to be. To paraphrase author Noam Chomsky: concision is the enemy of truth.

“Some people think that, ‘If the captain had paid proper attention to the Marconigrams (and all of them had been given to him), the Titanic would not have struck the iceberg.’ Not necessarily: Ships had been navigating their way through iceberg-strewn waters for countless years without wireless communication. It is not certain that Smith or any other captain would have slowed down, stopped or altered his course.

“Others are mistaken in thinking the Titanic was unique in not having lifeboats for every person on board. No ship at that time had enough lifeboats for everyone. That was standard operating procedure.  he only difference between them and the Titanic is a.) They weren’t the Titanic and b.) They didn’t hit an iceberg and sink.

“Another incorrect ‘fact’ is that the iceberg tore a gash in the side of the ship. Robert Ballard’s 1985 discovery of the wreck and recent forensic studies by Jennifer Hooper McCarty have shown that the plates parted and (according to McCarty) inferior rivets may have been the cause.

“There’s also a bit of a misconception that all of the men in first class heroically remained on board knowing they were going to die. To some extent, many of them believed that the ship was indeed unsinkable and thought they would, in all likelihood, be rescued soon. And of course there were also some, like White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay, who entered a lifeboat at the earliest opportunity.

“And when many people think of all the lives lost, they think the victims drowned. But most froze to death as their lifejackets prevented drowning, and the freezing (28-32 degrees) water subjected them to hypothermia, a longer and more painful death.”

Q: What lessons can we learn from the Titanic?

Denenberg: “All those smart phones, laptops, wi-fi, the Net, apps, texting and social media are not going to save us when there are icebergs dead ahead, we have no lifeboats and are disregarding the warnings we are receiving. As I write in Titanic Sinks!:

“In1912 many believed that the Titanic’s fate was the result of man’s folly. He had greatly exaggerated his power and come to worship all things technological. Technology would solve all of society’s ills. A century later, in 2012, that blind faith in technology sounds eerily familiar. Perhaps Titanic Sinks will serve as a timely reminder that man’s inclination to arrogance and power must always be balanced by humility and perspective.’”

Q: How does Titanic Sinks! shed new light on the story?

Denenberg: “The character of S.F. Vanni, and his journal, give the reader a front-row seat during the ship’s maiden voyage. Although Vanni is a fictional construct, all of the information contained is scrupulously based on extensive primary and secondary source research. It is, I think, a unique and compelling perspective on that ‘night to remember.’

“The first-hand accounts by actual survivors—in the book’s ‘In the Lifeboats’ section—aims to address the inherent tendency to romanticize the event. Their words can, better than anyone else’s, portray the sinking and the aftermath as the horrific and painful ordeal it was.

“I decided to use only photographs of the Titanic, not of her older sister, the Olympic (as, with good reason, is done in virtually all other books on the subject). Although this made life difficult for all of us involved in constructing the book, that, along with Jim Hoover’s inspired design concept, conveys the darkness that events demand.

“The concept itself—of a magazine’s coverage of the life and death of the great ship—is unique and allows me to communicate with the readers via text, headlines, subheads, photographs, drawings and memorabilia.”

Q: Would you agree that there’s something ancient and almost primal about a shipwreck or a tragedy at sea? Is that one reason we’re so drawn to a story like that of the Titanic?

Denenberg: “Yes, but to me it’s more man v. nature. Katrina comes to mind as an apt analogy. To quote John Goodman’s character in the TV series Treme about the aftermath of Katrina: “It was a god-given disaster but a man-made tragedy.” I think the same is true of Titanic. It’s about the lack of proper government regulations, corporate greed, blind faith in technology, and arrogant and insensitive people who make decisions that cost innocent others their lives—and how they all act in a crisis. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it has better plots.”

Q: We like stories that have heroes and villains. Were there some of both on the Titanic?  

Denenberg: “Heroes included Second Officer Charles Lightoller, who refused the captain’s order to get into one of the lifeboats, saying “Not damn likely,” and then takes control during the loading and lowering of the lifeboats and the harrowing hours on overturned collapsible lifeboat B. He is the very last person taken aboard the rescue ship Carpathia.

“Also Isador and Ida Straus. Due to his age, he could have gone on one of the lifeboats, but refused if the other men were staying on the boat. Ida insisted, telling him “We have been living together for many years [40, in fact]. Where you, go I go.”

“Thomas Andrews, the ship’s primary designer, immediately and correctly informed the captain that the Titanic would go down within hours. He then helped others don lifejackets and maintained general order while he himself never bothered to put one on, and went down with his ship.

“Arthur H. Rostron, captain of the rescue ship Carpathia who responded instantly and intelligently, readying the ship and its passengers (who were heroes in their own right) to receive the survivors, while taking the calculated risk to steam at full speed through ice strewn seas—no doubt saving lives.

“Margaret Brown subsequently became known as “the unsinkable Molly Brown” thanks to her own utterances, “The ship can sink, but I can’t; I’m unsinkable,” and then, many years later, by the hit 1960’s Broadway musical of that name. She took control of lifeboat number 6 and, once aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, she and others raised ten thousand dollars to help the poorer survivors when they reached New York City.

“Villains included Capt. E.J. Smith; there is, sadly, reason to believe that his age (62), longtime service (32 years, 25 as captain of 17 ships), and the fact that he was nearing retirement (this was probably his last voyage) resulted in an attitude of complacency—canceling the lifeboat drill, for example. The crew’s lack of familiarity, confidence and knowledge of the maximum capacity of the lifeboats was a serious problem during the crucial hours after the Titanic struck the iceberg. Just five years before the sinking of the Titanic, Smith told journalists:  ‘Shipbuilding is such a perfect art nowadays that absolute disaster involving passengers is inconceivable. Whatever happens, there will be time enough before the vessel sinks to save the life of every person on board. I will go a bit further. I will say that I cannot imagine any conditions that would cause the vessel to flounder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.’

“Perhaps most disturbing is Smith’s behavior once the ship struck the iceberg. His decision not to inform the crew or the passengers that the ship would sink in a matter of hours may have avoided panic, but caused confusion that probably cost lives.

“J. Bruce Ismay—although there is no doubt that Ismay helped the crew load passengers into the lifeboats in an orderly fashion (at least one who was reluctant), he must bear responsibility for his lack of good judgment in other areas. He alone made the decision to reduce the already reduced number of lifeboats (maximum possible 48) to 16, plus four collapsibles, in order to increase the promenade space for first class passengers. In addition, his decision to save his own life by climbing aboard one of them, and his subsequent behavior aboard the Carpathia was, to put it charitably, less than admirable.  In fact, Rear Adm. A. T. Mahan, a widely respected naval historian, wrote: ‘I hold that under the conditions, as long as there was a soul that could be saved, the obligation lay upon Mr. Ismay was that the one person and not he should have been in the boat.”

Stanley Lord was captain of the nearby (10 miles) Californian, whose actions that night are still the subject of heated debate. It seems undeniable that Lord ignored distress signals from the Titanic and acted in ways that night which are less than praiseworthy.

Quartermaster Robert Hitchens (who was at the wheel when the ship hit the iceberg) refused to allow his lifeboat (number 6, the same one with “unsinkable” Margaret Brown in it) to return and attempt to save those in the water. He appeared to be terrified and panic- stricken. His actions aboard the lifeboat were reprehensible.

“Many people forget that American financier J.P. Morgan owned the corporation that owned the corporation that owned the Titanic. He was also, incidentally, scheduled to be on that maiden voyage, but cancelled due to his workload. Where, indeed, does the buck stop?

“And also villainous is any person or organization that profits from artifacts taken from the wreckage, regardless of the smokescreen of ‘educational and cultural value’. Dr. Robert Ballard’s position: That the location is a gravesite and a memorial to those who perished there and should not, for any reason, be violated.”

Q: The world has changed much in the past 100 years. But as we saw recently with TV images of the sinking Costa Concordia, great oceangoing vessels can still be claimed by the sea. What ties the Concordia to the Titanic along those lines?

Denenberg: “The 1912 sinking of the Titanic and the Costa Concordia running aground in 2012 have much in common: the perils of the sea; luxury travel (the Concordia has the largest spa of any cruise ship); hubris; crewmen erroneously assuring passengers all was well; a delayed decision to abandon ship; and fatalities.

“But perhaps the most profound similarity is the behavior under pressure of White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay and Concordia captain Francesco Schettino. One gets the feeling that had Ismay thought of it before his appearance in front of a U.S. Senate inquiry, he too might have claimed that he slipped and fell accidentally into the lifeboat while helping passengers evacuate, and was unable to return to the ship.”