The Titanic Effect

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"Titanic-like vignettes emerged from the capsized Costa Concordia which hit a rock just 450 feet from shore on Friday night, took on water and keeled over. . . . [Passengers] likened the Costa Concordia to the Titanic. u2018It was the same type of deal – the ship is listing and people are running for lifeboats. I was just waiting for the band to start playing.'”

“Have you seen Titanic? That’s exactly what it was,” said . . . a schoolteacher from Los Angeles who was traveling with her sister and parents."

So read reports from the accident that befell the cruise ship Costa Concordia on January 13. It was the Titanic all over again. Or was it?

The Titanic collided with an iceberg in the midst of the North Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles from land, several miles from the nearest vessel, and several hours from the first vessel that reached her location. The Costa Concordia collided with an underwater obstruction a few feet from an island in the Mediterranean Sea, with many other boats within easy reach. The Titanic sank in two hours and forty minutes. Days after the Costa Concordia's misadventure, the ship still hadn't sunk. It lay on its side, with more than half of its enormous superstructure still poking out of the water.

I should also mention what everyone knows, that the Titanic had lifeboat spaces for only about 1200 of its 2200 passengers and crew. The Costa Concordia was known to have lifeboats for all. Yet the presence or absence of these life-saving devices wasn't the end of the tale, for either the Titanic or the Costa Concordia.

The Titanic didn't have lifeboats for all, but it turned out to have lifeboats to spare. Only 700 of its lifeboat spaces were used. Some boats were over-filled; more were under-filled. One reason, as I show in my book, The Titanic Story, was a disorganized evacuation effort. Another reason is that being lowered in a lifeboat down the seven-story height of a giant ship, then having to sail that lifeboat through dark and frigid seas, was a hazard that few people wanted to run. It is almost always much riskier to evacuate a large ship by using its own boats than by staying put and trying to get help from any other ship that may come within reach on the shipping lanes.

The point is that if a ship gets in trouble, bad trouble, people may die whether they have lifeboats or not. In the case of the Costa Concordia, the problem was that the ship was listing so far to starboard that it was impossible to launch the port boats quickly and effectively. But something like that usually happens, if you need to use the boats.

It is said that the crew of the Costa Concordia was disorganized, and that may be true. But so were the passengers who screamed at the crew to release the port lifeboats, which then got stuck on the side of the ship. "It was a scramble, an absolute scramble," said one of the screamers. Yes, it would be.

Costa Concordia's passengers appear to have been disorganized principally by the odd idea that they were on the Titanic, that lifeboats were their only means of salvation, and that their proper behavior was to insist that the boats be lowered, posthaste. When that didn't happen, they concluded that they were still on the Titanic, and that they were doomed, as the Titanic's passengers had been doomed. Hence, they panicked.

A passenger from the Costa Concordia reported that her husband saved her life, by ordering her to jump from the ship. “He said to me ‘jump, jump’. And as I don’t know how to swim, he gave me his life jacket. I was hesitant about jumping. So he went first." The husband perished, one of the much less than one percent of passengers and crew who died in the incident.

It is cruel to say, but if some of these people had not been mystified by the Titanic analogy, they might have seen that they were only a few feet from shore, that other means of rescue were available besides the ship's own boats, and that their best bet was to be calm and stay with the ship. But no. Generations of pseudo-Titanic propaganda have led people to believe that all risks to life can be averted – if only government regulations are followed and sufficient lifeboats appear on deck. The mere fact that such provisions have been made may lull both passengers and crew into thinking that it is the boats themselves, rather than human intelligence, good order, calm, and courage that are necessary to save human lives.

When Costa Concordia's lifeboats proved not to be readily available, the passengers panicked, as they believed that the Titanic's passengers had panicked. That wasn't true either; there was remarkably little panic on the night of April 14-15, 1912. But when people think that panic is called for, that is what they will probably get – panic. If they don't get something worse.

After the loss of the Titanic, the U. S. government, in a panicky mood about safety, insisted that all large ships, even Great Lakes cruise ships, carry lifeboats for all. The first important result of that decree was the capsizing of the steamer Eastland in the Chicago River, with the loss of 844 lives. The ship was top-heavy with lifeboats.

The truth is that all of life is dangerous; that when a serious accident happens to a big plane, train, or ship, lives are likely to be lost; that there is no way to eliminate all risks of mechanical failure and human incompetence; and that telling yourself that every accident is like the Titanic is an excellent way to produce a Titanic-scale disaster. What happens is not the Titanic but the Titanic effect, the imaginative effect of what occurred, or supposedly occurred, on the Titanic; and it is fortunate that more lives were not lost on the Costa Concordia as a result of it.

Stephen Cox [send him mail] is Professor of Literature at UC San Diego. He is the author of several books, including The New Testament and Literature, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison, and The Titanic Story.

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