Titanic: The Canadian story - centennial edition

By P.A. Sévigny on April 8, 2012

Even if it’s been a 100 years since the boat hit the iceberg, the fate of the Titanic and the hundreds of people who lived and died with her is still one of the great legends of 20th century. While the ship was originally meant to reflect the glory of British industrial initiative and corporate enterprise, the boat’s fate also reflects the hubris of an industrialized civilization which would soon assume its own apotheosis on the killing fields of Western Europe.

“God himself could not sink this ship,” said one crewman to second class passenger Sylvia Caldwell as she was being led to her quarters along with her husband and two children.

And the crewman was right. But as far as veteran Canadian journalist, author and Métropolitain senior editor Alan Hustak is concerned, God had far less to do with the boat’s final hours than did a combination of western hubris and the ship’s negligent officers which led to the boat’s fatal collision with an iceberg while cruising through a North Atlantic ice field at top speed.

“Rivets beneath the water line popped,” writes Hustak in the short chapter which actually describes the crash. “Hull plates buckled then snapped open. As the Titanic bumped along the side of the berg, chunks of ice fell on the starboard well deck around the foremast.”

As the water began to pour into the boat’s hull, first class passengers were collecting ice chips off the deck and using them to cool their drinks. While passengers in the ship’s first class section felt nothing more than a tremor and “…a horrible grating as if we had run into a lot of gravel,” the noise of live steam being blown off through a series of emergency relief valves “…was kicking up a row that would have dwarfed a thousand locomotives roaring through a culvert.” Passengers in the ship’s third class quarters knew something was seriously wrong and they had to get out fast. Twenty feet below the waterline, water continued to pour into the ship as women and children began to scream when the lights went out. When the lights came back on, everybody calmed down but they immediately began to reach for their cork-filled life jackets while others began to make their way up to the ship’s fan deck.

“Things were not so confused topside,” said third class passenger Neshan Krekorian. “No one seemed afraid. They merely huddled in talking groups unaware that the ship was going down underneath them.”

book_cover_small.jpgBroken up into its three essential parts, Hustak’s new book is full of new facts and details which reflect the strength, initiative and enterprise of one of the empire’s wealthiest dominions. While some of the ship’s Canadian passengers included the best and the brightest in the entire dominion, more than a few of the ship’s passengers were on a one-way trip to the new world. Details about friends and families who lived in Montreal’s storied square mile provide nothing less a quick sketch of the city’s ruling elite who effectively controlled over 70% of the nation’s wealth. Others include stories about ordinary people who were leaving Europe because they wanted to make a life in what was then Canada’s new frontier in the continental boom-town which covered three new provinces stretching from Ontario’s Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia.  Among other details, the love story which dominates Titanic, the well-known Oscar-winning blockbuster, is nothing compared to the real story in which Quigg Baxter, a wealthy Montreal bachelor, managed to book a second class passage for Bertha Mayné, his lover, while traveling first class with his mother and sister. Following the fatal collision, Quigg led his mother, his sister and his lover to their lifeboat after which he introduced his lover [Mayné] to his mother, took a swig out of his flask and gave his mother the rest of the brandy.

“Here,” he said. “You’ll need this on the open sea.”

After his mother began to admonish him about his drinking, he calmly cut her short after which he kissed her, kissed Berthé and his sister before waving goodbye to the three women. With little more than two hours to live, Baxter was calm and smiling as he waved goodbye to the women in the lifeboat.

“Au revoir,” he said in French. “Bon espoir, vous autres.”

As the life boats pulled away, those left on the ship began to realize it was going to sink. Panic set in but it was too late to find a life boat because they were all gone. Sometime after two in the morning, there was a dull rumble as everything in the boat, including its massive engines and boilers, broke loose and tumbled towards and through the bow of the boat. Any hope those left on board may have had for their lives evaporated into wails of unspeakable terror as the lights went out, the ship broke in two and many died as they tumbled into the sea.

“People with broken limbs thrashed about, and those who couldn’t swim gasped and struggled to breathe,” writes Hustak. As they thrashed about, the icy water drained the heat from their bodies and people began to die. “Agonized screams dissolved into whimpering cries, then faded into moans that disappeared into the awesome silence of the dead.”

Hustak’s research and his eye for detail provides the kind of depth the reader can appreciate as one learns about the grim chore of collecting the bodies left floating in their lifejackets among the ship’s wreckage. The body of Charles Hays, the founder of Canada’s CNR (Canadian National Railroad) was found with large amounts of money and jewelry hidden away in his pockets while others were found dressed in nothing more than their evening clothes and a lifebelt. Winnipeg’s Thomson Beattie was the last of the boat’s victims to be found after a passing ship found his body in an abandoned lifeboat three months after the initial disaster. 

While Hustak’s experience as a journalist does a lot to add to the story’s well-known store of facts and assorted details, his book also does a lot to reflect a society that refused to lose its belief in its own manifest destiny. Even as some believed even God could not sink this ship, even less believed the sun would ever set on their empire and society as they knew it. Regardless, less than five years after the Titanic took its final plunge, the guns of August would signal the beginning of the First World War and their world would never be the same again. 



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