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(April 16, 2007)

It was 95 years ago yesterday, at 11:40 in the evening of April 14 that the largest ocean liner ever built collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean. Lawrence Beesley was quietly reading in his cabin at the time, when "there came what seemed to me nothing more than an extra heave of the engines and a more than usually obvious dancing motion of the mattress on which I sat. Nothing more than that--no sound of a crash or of anything else: no sense of shock, no jar that felt like one heavy body meeting another. The thought came to me that they must have further increased the speed."

Presuming everything was normal, Mr. Beesley continued his reading for a few minutes, until he felt and heard the engines stop. This was unusual, so he put a robe over his pajamas, and climbed the three flights of stairs up to the top deck, only to find it virtually deserted, and the air so cold that it "cut me, clad as I was, like a knife." The few people he encountered could offer no explanation as to why the engines stopped. So, seeing no sign of trouble, and suffering from the cold, Mr. Beesley returned to his cabin, three decks below, and continued his reading.

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After about ten minutes, he heard a steward calling out "All passengers on deck with lifebelts on." Dressing, and returning to the top deck he found "the sea was as calm as an inland lake," and "no signs of alarm were exhibited by any one: there was no indication of panic or hysteria; no cries of fear, and no running to and fro to discover what was the matter, why we had been summoned on deck with lifebelts, and what was to be done with us now we were there."

Standing in the freezing cold on the starboard side of the ship, men were ordered away from the lifeboats, so that they could be loaded with women and children. When the boats were all lowered from the top starboard deck, the men were told they would be taken off on the port side of the ship, and except for Mr. Beesley and one or two others, all the men moved across to the port side of the ship. "I can personally think of no decision arising from reasoned thought that induced me to remain rather than to cross over. But while there was no process of conscious reason at work, I am convinced that was my salvation..."

With signal flares exploding in the sky, and the bow of the ship now decidedly lower than the stern, passengers were finally showing signs of worry, and Mr. Beesley leaned over the railing and watched anxiously as women and children were loaded into a lifeboat one deck below. "Just then one of the crew looked up and saw me looking over. 'Any ladies on your deck?' he said. 'No,' I replied. 'Then you had better jump.' I sat on the edge of the deck with my feet over... dropped, and fell in the boat near the stern."

After a hair-raising descent to the water 70 feet below, and then rowing out to a safe distance, Mr. Beesley and his fellow survivors in the lifeboat watched as the seemingly impossible happened. The bow of the monstrous 46,000 ton Titanic, more than a sixth of a mile in length, sank out of sight as the stern rose, until the ship was standing vertically on its nose - so to speak - holding that surreal position for a few brief seconds, before plunging head first to the bottom of the sea, 13,000 feet below.

Then came the most horrifying part of the ordeal. Mr. Beesley and the other survivors had no idea that there were only enough lifeboats for half the people on board, and that many of those boats had not been able to make it into the water before the ship sank, so they were taken completely by surprise by "something we would willingly forget forever, something which it is well not to let the imagination dwell on--the cries of many hundreds of our fellow-passengers struggling in the ice-cold water."

"...the cries of the drowning floating across the quiet sea filled us with stupefaction: we longed to return and rescue at least some of the drowning, but we knew it was impossible. The boat was filled to standing-room, and to return would mean the swamping of us all, and so the captain-stoker told his crew to row away from the cries. We tried to sing to keep all from thinking of them; but there was no heart for singing in the boat at that time. The cries, which were loud and numerous at first, died away gradually one by one, but the night was clear, frosty and still, the water smooth, and the sounds must have carried on its level surface for miles... lifebelts would keep the survivors afloat for hours; but the cold water was what stopped the cries."

The mighty Titanic sunk at 2:20 AM, and Mr. Beesley and his fellow survivors drifted for two hours, in the complete darkness and bitter cold of a moonless night, until finally rescued by the Carpathia at 4:30 in the morning. He was one of only 700 survivors, out of the 2,224 souls on board the Titanic that night. The above quotations are from his book, The Loss of the SS. Titanic. The entire book is available at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6675.

So, 95 years after this terrible disaster, the cries of the doomed and helpless, their life's force being slowly and painfully drained in the ice cold waters of the North Atlantic, still echo across the waves, as they will forever more, a haunting reminder of Man's subordination to the powers of the sea, no matter how big a ship he builds.

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