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Focus : Raising Titanic Questions : WHY ARE WE STILL FASCINATED BY THE 1912 OCEAN TRAGEDY?

July 24, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was one of modern history's worst disasters. The very word Titanic has become virtually synonymous with doom: images of the "unsinkable" luxury liner plunging into the frigid Atlantic after striking an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912. Of the 2,224 passengers on board, 1,500 perished, most of the deaths attributed to an inadequate number of lifeboats.

The Titanic tragedy has inspired 100 books, 300 songs, several movies, plays and even an opera. She's now the subject of a two-part documentary premiering Sunday on A&E. The compelling four-hour examination of the disaster features interviews with survivors, film clips and photos, discussions with experts on the ocean liner and a look at the aftermath of the sinking. The documentary culminates with the discovery of the liner in 1985 at a depth of 13,000 feet.

The documentary also tries to answer the question: Why are people still fascinated with the Titanic?

"It's almost like a Greek myth that really happened in our lifetime," explains producer Melissa Peltier. "It's so unbelievable. It's so mythic. The little human stories on board. All the morality plays that are happening, just the whole idea of the arrogance and the hubris of speeding through the ice field because (they thought) nothing could go wrong. It's a huge moral lesson."

For her day, the Titanic was the largest, most luxurious ship ever built. The double-bottom hull was divided into 16 watertight compartments; four could be flooded and the ship would remain afloat. Because of this unique feature, the Titanic was labeled "unsinkable" and only carried 16 lifeboats, enough for just 1,178 passengers.

On April 14, 1912, the ship was en route to New York from Southhampton, England. Before midnight, traveling at a rapid 22 knots, the Titanic collided with an iceberg on its right side, rupturing five of its watertight compartments. She sunk at 2:20 a.m., 400 miles south of Newfoundland.

The ship, filled with wealthy first-class passengers, well-to-do second-class travelers and third-class passengers, mostly immigrants, was a microcosm of the rigid class system of the time. The privileged were saved first: 94% of the women and children in first- and second-class survived. Only 42% of the women in third-class survived; 52 of the 79 children in third-class died.

Compounding the tragedy, a liner named the California was a scant 20 miles away and might have been able to rescue the passengers had her radio operator been on duty to receive the Titanic's distress signals.

Michael Cascio, vice president of documentary programming for A&E, believes no other event in modern times "totally symbolized the transformation of one era to another. At that point, the Industrial Age ended."

"That (era) was the belief that you could build your way into anything. So it wasn't just a small ship that went down, it was the biggest of the big. I think part of the myth of the Titanic was there was a belief that you could build your way to success. This showed that you couldn't do it. It's nature against man-made things, and nature wins. It's a lesson for the ages."

All the mistakes that were made on the voyage, Cascio adds, were a "result of hubris and arrogance at the same time. It wasn't just stupidity for stupidity's sake. It was stupidity based on this kind of false assumption that we could do anything and it'd be OK. When stupid things happen like the lifeboats, they were a direct result of this feeling of the times of invulnerability: We can build an unsinkable ship. So when it went down it made the impact even greater. The impact was almost beyond the ship itself."

Peltier decided to focus on the Titanic's human drama. "I didn't want it to be a really dry documentary," she says. "Everything I read that really drew me in were the personal stories. Some of the people you expected to be heroes weren't, and some people you never expected to be heroes were," including a crewman who gave up his life jacket to save a woman and her two daughters and the stokers who remained down in the hole until the last minute to make sure the lights kept burning on the ship. "Even after they were released (from duty), they stood on deck in formation just waiting for orders," Peltier says.

Even those who survived, Peltier says, endured a horrible night on the ocean waiting to be rescued--"hours and hours in freezing cold; 30 men tried to keep their balance aboard an overturned boat with their feet in the freezing water."

Cascio said he believes films such as 1953's "Titanic" and 1959's "A Night to Remember" romanticized the incident. The documentary doesn't. "It was a dark, cold frightening night," Cascio says. "When people hit the water they were screaming. As the ship sunk, the sound and sights were not pleasant. There's not too much romance to it. It is really, truly a death of a dream."

"Titanic: Death of a Dream" airs Sunday at 5 and 9 p.m. on A&E: "Titanic: The Legend Lives On" airs July 31 at 5 and 9 p.m.

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