CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Just over 100 years ago the great ocean liner Titanic plunged to the bottom of the frigid Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg. Captain Edward John Smith had ordered the ship, on its first trans-Atlantic crossing, to run at high speed. Perhaps he was hoping to win a victory over another vessel.
Fifteen hundred passengers died. There were about 700 survivors who had been fortunate enough to be placed into lifeboats.
The "unsinkable" Royal Mail Ship's survivors were largely from First and Second Class. Those traveling in Third Class, housed below decks, died at a higher rate.
"Women and children first" was the order voiced by some of the crew. An obedient corps of travelers generally obeyed the order.
The tragedy spawned many first person accounts that are contained in a recent book from Penguin "Titanic: First Accounts," edited by Tim Maltin with an afterword by Nicholas Wade.
There are stories of heroic actions and cowardice. There are chilling accounts of full boats having to fend off people still floating in lifejackets. There is little overt condemnation of the Cunard Line for its obvious negligence. Captain Smith gets off easy. Actually, he may have gone down with the ship, as was customary for captains in those days. Certainly he perished.
Contrast this to the recent actions of the captain of the Costa Concordia in waters off Italy. The big cruise ship drifted into rocks, foundered, and was partially sunk. The evacuation of the Costa Concordia is alleged to have taken much longer than the standard regulations called for, and there were fatalities. The captain seems to have been absent during parts of the botched evacuation.