My distant cousin, Noëlle, Countess of Rothes, was a passenger on the Royal Mail Ship Titanic, when it struck an iceberg shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912. She brought with her the finest lace dresses, provocative perfumes, and sparkling jewelry – all which sank to the bottom of the ocean floor when the liner was swallowed by deathly, ice-cold water. On April 15, the world commemorates the 100th year anniversary of the disastrous voyage.
In Dearborn, Michigan, there is a world-class museum founded by industrial tycoon Henry Ford; the complex is designated a national historic landmark, and houses rare and priceless artifacts from days of yore, such as John F. Kennedy’s presidential limousine, Abraham Lincoln’s chair from Ford’s Theatre, Thomas Edison’s laboratory, Wilbur and Orville Wright’s house and bicycle shop, the Wright brothers’ house relocated from Dayton, Ohio, and the bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested. The museum features an IMAX Theater, which shows scientific, natural, and historical documentaries, as well as full-length, major feature films.
Now through September 30, The Henry Ford Museum hosts a centennial Titanic exhibit of artifacts from the wreckage, an IMAX documentary on the exploration of the site, and a reconfigured 3D version of the romantic film, Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
“We are privileged to host this extraordinary exhibit, especially to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic,” said Patricia Mooradian, president of The Henry Ford, “Known as one of the greatest innovations from that era, this ship was ahead of its time with its top-notch engineering, modern equipment, and luxuries. Touted by the media as the ship that was ‘virtually unsinkable,’ no one could believe the magnitude of this disaster that occurred in April of 1912. As Americans, it’s a story that resonates with us all.”
Walking through the exhibit and watching the documentary is unsettling – it was like surveying the damage in the aftermath of a massive tornado having wreaked havoc upon a small town. There were vials of perfume, retrieved from the debris, cast about when the engines exploded. Tom Varitek, Senior Program Manager-Program Operations at The Henry Ford, walked me through the exhibit on a private tour, pointing out artifacts that struck him most poignantly. “When you open the perfume vials, you can still smell the fragrance, after 100 years,” he said.
The artifacts are symbols of the world’s worst tragedy at sea. The thought of third-class passengers being locked in the bowels of the ship like caged animals is utterly heartrending. The fact that arrogance and false confidence was the root cause for the deaths of over 1,500 innocent people makes the tragedy repulsive.
Adding to the experience, patrons are given a replica boarding card upon entry to the exhibit, which bears the name of a real passenger from the ship. The last item in the exhibit is a board, listing the survivors and names of those who perished; patrons thus learn the fate of the individual they memorialize as they vicariously journey through the dark and perilous night.
The IMAX documentary shows how difficult it was to reach the ruins of the Titanic. It required more than 2 hours to descend to the ocean floor in a Soviet submarine outfitted with sophisticated cameras and lighting. One dive consumed almost 20 hours, cramped into a tight space that could implode at any moment from the unrelenting pressure on the craft’s frame.
The storyline is clear and easy to follow, and is recommended by the educational curators as an excellent learning experience for children. Titanic Tuesdays, a speaker and author series held the second Tuesday of each month, will host an array of speakers including Edward Tenner, author of Thinking about the Unsinkable; Stephen Low, creator of the IMAX film TITANICA; and Ken Vrana who will speak on Michigan connections to RMS Titanic.
My overall sensation from the commemoration was one of melancholy and unsettled emotion. It was sad, the way we feel when we visit the Arizona Memorial and remember the victims of Pearl Harbor. But this event carried an extra sting, because so much of the tragedy could have been avoided.
Add the romantic film in 3D, and this Titanic trilogy becomes a history inspiration of epic proportion. For the generation who has never seen it, be forewarned you won’t be leaving the commemoration whistling a happy tune like you were exiting Disney World, but you will be moved, and possibly changed by coming face to face with the inevitability of mortality.
The Henry Ford, in Dearborn, Michigan, is the world’s premier history destination and a National Historic Landmark that celebrates American history and innovation. Its mission is to provide unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation. Its purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future.
Timeline of the Titanic tragedy:
April 2, 1912, 8:00 pm: The crew of Titanic participates in sea trials before leaving Belfast, where the ship was built, for Southampton.
April 10, 1912, 6:00 am: Just after sunrise, the first members of the crew began to board Titanic. All of the officers except Captain Smith had already spent the night on board. Captain Smith arrived later that morning around 7:30.
April 10, 1912, 12:00 pm: Titanic starts maiden voyage, leaving Southampton and ventures to Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland (this is the official sailing date for the ship).
April 11, 1912, 1:30 pm: Titanic raises anchor for the last time and leaves Queenstown.
April 14, 1912, Morning: Lifeboat drills were neglected after church services, although the crew has to complete the procedure.
April 14, 1912, 10:55 pm: Californian, completely surrounded by ice, stops for the evening and warns the Titanic of the impending danger.
April 14, 1912, 11:40 pm: Frederick Fleet sights an iceberg.
First Officer Murdoch gives the “hard a-starboard” order while having the engines stopped and reversed; activates lever that closes watertight doors.
The ship, traveling at approximately 20 knots (26 mph), turned slightly to the left, avoiding a head-on collision. Below the water, the iceberg punctures the hull.
Five, possibly six of the Titanic’s watertight compartments flood.
April 15, 1912, 12:15 am: Captain Smith assesses the damage.
He orders his telegraph operators to send the distress signal, “CDQ,” after estimating the ship will remain afloat for two hours.
He gives the order to uncover the lifeboats and evacuate the women and children.
April 15, 1912, 12:45 am: First lifeboat leaves the ship with only 19 aboard, although it could carry 65.
April 15, 1912, 2:05 am: Titanic’s bow begins sinking, as the last of the lifeboats are lowered into the water. An estimated 1,500 people were left stranded on the sinking boat.
April 15, 1912, 2:20 am: Titanic sinks.
Facts and notes about the Titanic:
• The cost of a first-class ticket on Titanic to New York was US$2,500, approximately US$57,200 today. The most expensive rooms were more than US$103,000 in today’s currency.
• A third-class ticket at Titanic cost US$40, which is approximately US$900 in today’s currency. Up to 10 people resided in third-class rooms. The rooms were divided by male and female, often times splitting families.
• First-class passengers had the luxury of paying for their leisure while onboard: a ticket to the swimming pool cost 25¢, while a ticket for the squash court (as well as the services of a professional player) cost 50¢.
• 60 chefs and chefs’ assistants worked in the Titanic’s 5 kitchens. They ranged from soup and roast cooks to pastry chefs and vegetable cooks. There was a kosher cook, too, to prepare the meals for the Jewish passengers.
• Titanic had its own newspaper, the Atlantic Daily Bulletin, prepared aboard the ship. In addition to news articles and advertisements, it contained a daily menu, the latest stock prices, horse-racing results, and society gossip.
• There were only 2 bathtubs for the more than 700 third-class passengers aboard the ship.
The forward part of the boat deck was promenade space for first-class passengers and the rear part for second-class passengers. People from these classes thus had the best chance of getting into a lifeboat simply because they could get to them quickly and easily.
• Even if all 20 lifeboats had been filled to capacity, there would only have been room in them for 1,178 people.
• At first most of the passengers did not believe Titanic was really sinking, hence the low number of 19 aboard the first lifeboat, even though it could carry 65.
• Titanic was one of the first ships in distress to send out an “SOS” signal; the radio officer used “SOS” after using the traditional code of “CQD” followed by the ship’s call letters.
• Dorothy Gibson, a 28-year-old silent screen actress, was the resident movie star for Titanic. She would later star in Saved from the Titanic, a movie made one month after the disaster. Her costume was the dress she wore on the night of the sinking.
• Tennis player R. Norris Williams and his father, Charles D., felt it was too cold to remain out on deck as the ship went down, so they went into the gym to ride the exercise bikes.
• At the time of Titanic’s destruction, the temperature of the water was only 28°F (-2°C). Most of those struggling in the water in their life jackets would have succumbed to hypothermia, while others may have had heart attacks.
The fate of Noëlle, Countess of Rothes: She was one of lucky few whom fate smiled upon. She was lucky, twice-fold; one, for having been born into a wealthy family that could afford first-class accommodations, and two, for having been born a female. Females and children were allowed to board the lifeboats, while the male members of families were turned away, left to die on the sinking ship. The Countess of Rothes was boarded on lifeboat number 8, where she consoled a newlywed bride, María de Satode y Peñasco, horrified to be torn away from her husband on their honeymoon.
The Countess of Rothes dedicated her life after the tragedy to organizing and patronizing charitable events. Perhaps this was her expression of thanksgiving for a stay on facing the inevitability of death.