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Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Titanic post . . .

100 years ago on April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sunk taking with her the souls of 1,514 people. And people are remembering that loss today. Some are sailing the same route that the Titanic took, hopefully with better results (a bumpy start, but things appear back on track). While others hold candlelight vigils.

In the Maritime Archaeology community, this centennial has brought about a flurry of conferences and discussion regarding the sunken remains. Debates about conservation, protecting the wreck from submarine visitors, and respecting the ship remains as a grave site abound. All very important conversations.

I'm going to veer away from these conversations and talk about passenger responses to the disaster. I have heard all kinds of stories about the Titanic. Stories of someone having a bad feeling and deciding not to go. Some of those who did go on the ship stepping into hero roles. Few stories of people who responded poorly, though. Should we remember the person who shoved someone else out of the way to get to a lifeboat? Yes. There should be an attempt to understand how people respond to disaster-all of the responses-not just the heroic ones. If only for the purpose of improving our responses in disasters and emergencies.

Martin Gibbs wrote an excellent article on how passenger responses to disaster affect site formation processes (such as what to save-human lives, expensive items, food, etc). 

During a disaster only about 20% of people respond in an effective manner. About 75% are ineffective through confusion and impairment of reasoning and thought capability. The remaining may respond in such a way that causes greater harm to those around them (Leach 1994; Leach 2011). What does this indicate? This means that someone who went down with the Titanic who had a medical background, may not have stayed aboard to heroically treat the injured.

On the other hand, I think there is a reason that the men of the FDNY responded at Ground Zero in the manner in which they did. They had been trained to risk their lives saving others. And firemen are frequently portrayed as heroes and this cultural expectation may also have played a role in their actions.

Were there firemen who were overcome by the tragedy around them? Who may have been in shock and unable to think clearly? Most certainly. But in this case, even those people are seen as heroic. For some Titanic survivors, focusing and extending the heroism may have been a coping manner, as was likely the case for Col. Archibald Gracie who wrote a memoir in 1913. Nearly 100 years have passed since the sinking of the Titanic and we are just now beginning to look behind hero attribution to examine what actually went down.

As Richard Coleman states in the link to his article above,
If nothing else, the idea of so many boats filled only with women and children lent some degree of dignity to a completely undignified disaster.
It becomes a bit of a balancing act. Carefully looking at the actual responses while also retaining dignity and respect for those that experienced the disaster.

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Maritime Culture by Whitney Rose Petrey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License