A Night to Remember

September 29, 2010 - A Night to Remember (Walter Lord). The last hours of the Titanic are recounted in this 1955 classic from Walter Lord. Lord interviewed some 60 survivors of the disaster and wove their recollections into a narrative that covers the period from just before the ship hits the iceberg to the rescue of survivors by the Carpathia.

As Lord writes, the Titanic was considered unsinkable at the time it set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. The ship was so big and so well-designed that nothing could take it down. But, just before midnight on April 14, 1912, the mighty ship hit an even mightier iceberg in the north Atlantic. Within hours, the unsinkable ship would sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking more than 1,500 souls with her.

Lord tells the story chronologically, though sometimes he skips forward or backward before returning to the main timeline. As the book opens, a lookout on the Titanic has just spotted the iceberg dead ahead and he quickly gets word to the bridge. Will there be enough time to turn the ship? For a moment, it seems as though, yes, there will. But, when sleeping passengers are jarred awake and chunks of ice fall through open portholes, it's clear that the ship hit the iceberg.

Those first few minutes after the collision are recalled with an odd mixture of excitement, curiosity and nonchalance. The iceberg was a source of fascination and some passengers reached out to touch it. Others played games with chunks of ice that landed on the deck. Many others simply carried on with whatever they had been doing - playing cards, finishing up some work or sleeping.

Soon, however, it becomes clear that something is terribly wrong. The Titanic was built to stay afloat even should five of its 16 compartments take on water. But, the ship hit the iceberg in such a way that water spilled into seven compartments. The unsinkable ship was doomed to sink.

Several chapters are spent describing the confusing efforts to get passengers into lifeboats and to get assistance from other ships. Just ten miles away was the Californian, which had at least twice sent warnings to the Titanic about ice ahead. Those warnings were never heeded, possibly because the radio operators were too busy handling private messages for passengers. When the Titanic sent out distress calls, the Californian didn't receive them because no radio operator was on duty. Flares sent up from the ship were mistaken as party lights and ignored. Only the Carpathia answered the call but, even at top speed, it was hours away and wouldn't get there until the Titanic had sunk and many people had either drowned or died from exposure.

To my mind, the book really picks up when the lifeboats are finally in the water and the people in the boats struggle to survive the freezing conditions. The mix of humanity displayed by some and selfishness displayed by others adds another layer of tension to what was already a tragedy. Also adding to the tension, the frantic atmosphere on board the Carpathia, as the captain prepared to bring aboard more survivors than he knew there would be. Lord finishes with brief chapters concerning the aftermath of the disaster: the hearings on both sides of the Atlantic and the changes in protocol that resulted.

While the story itself is dramatic and tragic – "if onlys" abound - I think what's most fascinating is that there's not a feeling of bitterness here as might be expected in a situation where so many of the people who survived had loved ones who didn't. Rather, the book captures the essence of people who did the best they could under extremely difficult circumstances. They don't seem to regard themselves as heroes. Instead, they seem thankful and, I think, amazed to have lived.