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Titanic centennial: ‘All who perished came to Halifax’

Halifax is focusing on the Titanic’s victims, 150 of whom rest in its soil.

The cable steamer CS Mackay-Bennett searched and recovered 306 bodies from the loss of RMS Titanic.

Fans have been counting down for months. One Titanic website –  and there are dozens – boasts a clock ticking off the days, hours, minutes, even seconds, to the moment of iceberg impact, just before midnight on April 14, 1912.

The ship sank less than three hours later, early on the morning of April 15. Of the 2,200 people on board, more than 1,500 died, making it one of the worst peacetime disasters at sea.  

In Canada and Britain, perhaps predictably, the Titanic centennial is being treated with respect and an emphasis on its ugly reality and its victims.

Here in the United States – and I think this may be predictable, too –  the focus seems to be mainly on the ship’s romance and glamour. 

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Topping the list of events is the release this week of the 3-D version of James Cameron’s 1997 movie, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet standing even more prominently on the doomed ship’s prow.

For a sense of the real thing, there are two ocean cruises to the spot where the Titanic sank, complete with their own lavish dinners and high prices (but hopefully no icebergs). To be fair, these also include lectures on the disaster. One follows Titanic’s route from Southampton, England, to New York, and is sold out. A longer one, a round trip out of New York via Halifax, Nova Scotia, has just cut its fares by several thousand dollars in hopes of filling more cabins. 

All over the country, people are planning costume parties where guests can come as the high-toned passengers they probably wouldn’t have been –  celebrities with names like Astor,  Guggenheim, Strauss, and the famously Unsinkable Molly Brown. 

And there are Titanic dinners beyond counting. A few have a genuine Titanic connection, like the fundraiser for the Molly Brown House in Denver, where the “unsinkable’’ survivor made her home. Most dinners don’t.

First-class dinner

The City of St. Louis, Mo., for example, is hosting a fundraiser with the same 11-course menu offered to Titanic’s First Class on that last, fateful night. The price is first-class, too: $500 per person.  Dinner guests are, naturally, “encouraged to dress in the style of the period.”

But in Ireland, where the ship was built and where most of her crew came from, Belfast has just dedicated a new Titanic museum –  a glittering structure that resembles the jutting hulls of steamships or perhaps a white star –  the Titanic’s parent company was the White Star Line – or even (my view) an iceberg. 

The tone is even more serious in Canada, where one city in particular has never forgotten. While Titanic’s survivors went to New York,’’ a museum website explains, “all who perished came to Halifax.” 

A century later, Halifax is focusing on the Titanic victims themselves, 150 of whom rest in its soil, the largest group of them buried anywhere. The city plans a candlelight procession on April 14 – what it calls “Titanic Eve: Night of the Bells” – with silence observed at the moment the ship started to sink. There will also be an interfaith service and a wreath-laying the next day at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where most of the recovered victims lie.

We are forever linked to the Titanic and what happened on that terrible night,” Halifax mayor Peter Kelly said, when the memorial events were announced in February. “By paying solemn tribute to those who lost their lives, we are also honoring the men and women of our own community who did not hesitate to answer the call for assistance.” 

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The Titanic’s 705 survivors were taken to New York by the liner Carpathia, the closest ship to the scene. But the task of recovering bodies fell to ships sent out from Halifax. The first two were “cable ships,’’ whose normal task was maintaining vital undersea telegraph cables between Europe and America, essentially the Internet of the era.

The first cable ship, the Mackay-Bennett, brought morticians, embalming supplies and clergy to the site five days after the sinking. It recovered 306 bodies but buried about a third of them at sea because they were so badly decomposed. The next cable ship recovered 17 bodies. Another Canadian ship found four. The last ship found just one. 

Ocean currents had quickly dispersed bodies and floating debris “60, 80, 100, 150 nautical miles from where the ship went down,’’ said Gerry Lunn, curator of interpretation at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. 

The museum’s large collection of Titanic relics was gathered from the surface by crews on the recovery ships and includes the only known piece of wooden furniture to have survived from within the ship – a mahogany medicine cabinet from a First Class bathroom.

Still compelling

What is it, I asked Lunn by phone, that makes this disaster so compelling?   What keeps the Titanic in a class of its own, when other disasters – earthquakes, tidal waves, wars – have been worse? Was it only that the ship sank in peacetime? Or because the cream of North American high society was on board? Or because there’s been so much hype about it?

“Celebrity had a large part to do with it, certainly back then,’’ he said, given that the luminaries of the time –  many Americans, as well as wealthy Canadians and Europeans –  were on board.

“Disasters generally hold a fascination for people,’’ he said. A disaster “compels one to face one’s own mortality – to put oneself in the place of people who [died], through absolutely through no fault of their own.’’ And this disaster took a cross-section of society: “Whether you were first class, second class or third class – the tragedy claimed all.’’ 

There was also a hint of cosmic comeuppance:  “It was the world’s largest ship,’’ Lunn said. “It was ‘unsinkable’.”   Some people saw the disaster as “divine intervention to teach mankind a lesson.’’ 

Popular culture also fed public interest right from the beginning. “There were stories about  Titanic in newspapers every single day – not just for weeks, but for months,’’ he said. Also, within weeks, “there were at least three instant books’’ about it.

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These were peddled door to door, and they sold well, even in poor communities like Canada’s coal-mining towns of Cape Breton. According to a salesman’s record book in the museum, people paid a dollar a copy – a lot of money in 1912.

Over the past century, interest in the Titanic has “had waves and troughs, peaks and valleys,’’ Lunn said, with the lowest points  when world news was center-stage, as it was in World Wars I and II.

Interest spiked in the late1950s, when the book “A Night to Remember’’ and its movie version came out. Other huge spikes came in 1985, with the discovery of the wreck itself, and in 1997, with the latest movie.

That coincided with opening of the Maritime Museum’s own Titanic exhibit, and the result was “a tsunami of interest’’ in the museum, which has continued, Lunn said. Centennial exhibits focus on the cable ships that retrieved Titanic’s dead and on the reactions of the crews and clergy who did the work.

Sadly, for Halifax – and for Canada as a whole – the Titanic was only a prelude. A worse disaster loomed, and this one struck at home.

On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, two cargo ships collided in Halifax’s busy harbor, one of them carrying tons of explosives bound for the war in France. The resulting explosion instantly killed more than 2,000 people, many of them waterfront workers and children on their way to school. More than 4,000 were injured, and so many buildings were destroyed that 6,000 people – out of a population of 60,000 – were left homeless.  

Until the atomic bomb, the Halifax tragedy was the biggest manmade explosion in history. Exhibits in the Maritime Museum commemorate that disaster, too.

For more information, go to the museum’s website, ; to Nova Scotia’s main tourism website, , and to the province’s Titanic website