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All Lost Ships Are a Tragedy Worth More Care: On Titan and Greece and the Titanic

Life is a series of fate’s sliding doors, and great good luck for many of us

By Steffany RitchiePublished 10 months ago 11 min read
Photo by Steven Hylands from Pexels:

Over the past few days, I keep reading stories about people who either survived the tragedy of the Titan submersible dive (who had completed it previously) or were invited and declined. The latest is an (apparently) internet famous influencer known as Mr. Beast (nope, I had never heard of him either, but his story is somehow deemed newsworthy).

People seem obsessed with this latest “What if?” I get it; it was a gripping, bizarre story that seemed like something out of a film. Sadly, it was not a story with a happy ending.

I remember when the film Titanic came out. Like a lot of people, I went to see it in the cinema. I was one of those people crying at the end as the credits rolled.

It’s easy to forget how powerful that movie was for many when it came out. It was the first time this historical tragedy had been so vividly portrayed on screen (there were earlier Titanic films but the catastrophe of its sinking had never been filmed with such big-budget realism).

You go in knowing almost everyone is going to die, but you still get hooked into caring about the characters despite yourself and rooting for them against the odds.

It was arguably a preventable tragedy. At the very least many more lives could have been saved had there been more lifeboats, or had they allowed more passengers into the boats that had plenty more room.

I don’t remember when I first heard the story about the Titanic as it relates to my family. I met my great-grandmother only a few times, and after she died my great-aunt gave me her wedding ring as a keepsake.

It is chunky and gold and has ornate floral engraving on it. It is very of its time and lovely. I wore it on special occasions when I was younger, something about wearing a family heirloom made me feel grounded.

When my mom was visiting me in May, she brought over several family tree printouts because I have recently done an DNA test. We had a lot of fun (and confusion!) putting the puzzle pieces together.

Basically, we are Irish. We are very, very Irish. Not a surprise, but it’s still kind of neat to see how the various branches of the ancestral tree formed.

On my mother’s side, her maternal grandmother was born in America but still had family in Ireland. She went over to visit family in County Cork in 1912 as a teenager. I think she traveled with her sister. I don’t know much detail about it.

The story goes that they tried to get tickets for the Titanic, but it was sold out. It’s always been a curious “what if” moment in my family.

There is not much more to it, other than the fact that my mom’s mom, and thus my mom, and her five siblings, and all of their kids, including me, would possibly (likely) not have been born had they succeeded in securing tickets. My great-grandmother wasn’t wealthy; she was just a young, unmarried woman trying to sail home to her family.

She would have likely been in steerage class (along with Jack from Titanic!) and therefore probably would not have had a great shot at survival.

I read here that over 74% of steerage passengers died. So even if she had made it against those odds, we could still have had a different origin story.

It might have altered the course of my great-grandmother’s life as it played out — maybe she wouldn’t have married the same person, who knows. Remember Rose was going to marry that evil Billy Zane character before the Titanic sank! Regardless, I doubt that fate would have had things play out exactly as they have.

In a testimony before a committee held after the events many of the Irish and other steerage passengers’ stories are utterly harrowing:

The charge that steerage passengers were allowed into the lifeboats only after cabin passengers had boarded, and that they were physically denied access to the boat deck was refuted in the Senate hearing by Titanic crewmen; however, a crew member on Boat 15 said that steerage women were accommodated only after first-class passengers.

Additionally, there were fewer stewards in third class to help those in steerage make their way to the boat deck. Steward J.E. Hart testified that he had time to bring only two batches of steerage women from their quarters to the lifeboats.*

So the film really wasn’t far off from its portrayal of how poorly most steerage passengers were treated by the crew once they knew they ship was going down.

There has been a lot of discourse over the folly of the doomed Titan submersible. I get the temptation to say “Billionaires, so egotistical and full of false belief they are immortal”. But also, they were people, and the young man that died certainly can’t be blamed for jumping at the chance to do something many teenagers would think was daring and cool.

I think the blame lies solely with the company. They got away with an inherently unsafe system for a long time, and their refusal to accept responsibility is despicable.

I know I have done plenty of stupid things in my life that could have ended badly, and I don’t even consider myself a particular risk-taker.

People die in preventable tragedies every day. Someone died on a roller coaster in Sweden this week. Every day we make choices that we convince ourselves are safe but in reality, there is always a risk.

I get that the uber-rich are easy to pillory and that they should probably be feeding the hungry or saving orangutans instead of building tourist rockets or attempting to visit shipwrecks. But there is nothing anyone can do to change that, and the collective displays of inhumanity in the face of the human tragedy of the Titan was a severely ugly response on Twitter and elsewhere online.

Yes, there are worse tragedies: the recent Greek fishing boat disaster’s passengers deserved far more news coverage and attempts at rescue than they got. The fact that so many refugees die every week trying to escape poverty and oppression is obviously more sympathetic than the billionaire submarine sinking. It doesn’t help that the news cycle has become shockingly numb to it.

Why does everything feel like an either/or now lately online? It’s psychically exhausting always feeling like you have to be on the “correct” side of things, as opposed to just having human empathy for anyone who needs it.

I can understand why people are fascinated with the (original) Titanic story. The romanticism of a different era is easy to envision even without Cameron’s film.

The Titanic, unlike the Titan, contained all walks of life, setting out full of hope for a dream of a new life in many cases.

The thought that just over a hundred years later five people died perhaps on some level trying to connect with the mythic lore of that feeling to me shows the endless curiosity humanity has about our history and bold at the time endeavors.

Why we are less curious about the ongoing human refugee crisis is perhaps tied to how hopeless we feel to do anything about it. Or maybe it is simply callousness, inhumanity.

I couldn’t help but think of my great-grandmother in regards to this. After all, she would have been just another poor steerage class statistic had she voyaged and died on the Titanic. No Wall Street Journal or other headlines would have written about her.

Gross attempts at shirking the blame for the Irish third class passengers’ fate were common at the time, as if their lives somehow didn’t matter as much as the wealthier passengers.

While these accounts of Irish survivors demonstrate their courage and compassion, other eyewitness records suggest some negative stereotypes of Irish improvidence. In “The Loss of the S.S. Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons,” Lawrence Beesley contrasted Irish and Swedish survivors:

“The Irish girls almost universally had no money. [They were] rescued from the wreck and were going to friends in New York or places near, while the Swedish passengers, among whom there were a considerable number of men, had saved the greater part of their money and in addition had railway tickets through to their destination inland…

Beesley does not tell us how the Swedish steerage passengers left the Titanic. We know how the Irish girls left. They were alerted only when the ship was close to sinking. Their access to the boat deck was obstructed if not denied, and they ran for their lives to the two remaining lifeboats.*

Just as we so often see evidenced today, the lives of the poor victims of a tragedy are all too easily dismissed. They were deemed by many as somehow not deserving to survive as much as the passengers who had more money.

Irish and other working class immigrant lives were regarded with little value, just as those of many refugees are viewed today in terms of accountability and criminality for their preventable deaths.

Picking up on Wennerstrom, Wyn Craig Wade, in “The Titanic: End of a Dream” concludes, “Undoubtedly, the most barriers were the ones within the steerage passengers themselves. Years of conditioning as third-class citizens led a great many of them to give up hope as soon as the crisis became evident.”

These accounts helped to justify the poor rate of survival among steerage passengers by suggesting that they did not help themselves. In the end it was a matter of who would share the limited resources that they had, and it came down to class.*

The vast majority of our recent ancestors don’t come from the Rose from Titanic class, and wouldn’t have been given a fair shot at survival on the Titanic.

Many passengers on the recent sunken fishing boat in Greece had put time, money, hopes and dreams into a voyage that with outside eyes it is easy to dismiss as desperate and ill planned.

In reality, they were sold a lie, and people got rich off their deaths. The father of a missing passenger recounted his son’s heart-breaking journey:

Mehmood, 60, said a local travel agent had charged 2.2 million Pakistani rupees ($7,653) for his son’s trip, with the promise he would earn well in Europe. “I tried to stop him; told him to forget the whole thing. But the travel agent had totally brainwashed him, telling him: ‘You will only be on the way for two to three days,’” the father said. “My son was gullible, so he went along with them.”

Pakistan’s economy is suffering record high inflation and an economic slowdown compounded by devastating floods last year… Mehmood said his son stayed two days in Dubai, then six days in Egypt, before boarding a plane to Libya that was so crammed it had people sitting on the floor.

Sultan spent roughly four months in Tripoli before setting out to sea, living in what the father said were squalid conditions. Mehmood said he tried to get the agent to send his son home when he heard about the conditions in Libya, but nothing came of it.

He said he last heard from his son when Sultan got on a boat, which he believes was the doomed vessel. “He sent a (text) message saying that he was sitting in a boat with around 400- 500 people. And they were expected to be at sea for five or six days,” recalled Mehmood.**

The victims of all of these doomed voyages deserve more, not less, human empathy and attention.

It’s more than a little sad that so little has changed since the sinking of the Titanic. The gap between the rich and the poor has only widened in the 100+ years since in many ways, but attitudes are largely the same.

Maybe we could all do with a rewatch of Titanic. Because as common as the joke now is, it’s important to remember that there was plenty of room on that life raft for Jack, and every other lost soul he represented in the film.

The billionaires won’t save them, and maybe we can’t either. But it’s simplistic and hopeless to bury our heads in the sand and tell ourselves that these tragedies were inevitable or that there was nothing more that could have been done.

“I can never understand why God would have spared a poor Finnish girl when all those rich people drowned.”— Anna Turja Lundi, Titanic survivor.***

*The Irish who lived and died on the Titanic |

**Greece boat disaster: A Pakistani father’s anguish over his missing son — Reuters

***Titanic Survivors — Ultimate

This article was originally published by the author on Medium.


About the Creator

Steffany Ritchie

Hi, I mostly write memoir, essays and pop culture things. I am a long-time American expat in Scotland.

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