April 14, 2012
We are almost there. I don’t know our exact schedule, but I believe we are planning on being in place over Titanic’s wreck site by ten o’clock tonight. Today’s schedule of lectures, classes, and games matches all the other sea days, but already you can feel the difference on board. People are quieter. More reflective. We are beginning to ask, “Are you honoring a particular person?” “What are your plans for the service?” “Where will you be tonight?”
The answers are as diverse as we are.
It’s no secret that I’m here to honor Thomas Andrews. I stop sometimes, and remind myself that he sailed this path too, one hundred years ago. He sailed with confidence, content with the state of his ship. Before leaving Southampton, he wrote to his wife, Helen, that Titanic “was as perfect as human hands could make her.” I’m sure he meant that, even though he spent the entire voyage working from one end of the ship to the other, taking care of all those myriad details for which he was famous. For Thomas Andrews, “perfect” was an always moving target.
Susie Millar says that in Belfast, they like to point out that Titanic “was fine when she left here.” Hard to argue with that one.
One hundred years ago, April 14 fell on a Sunday. Thomas probably attended the church service, but he also probably went right back to work afterwards. Everywhere he went, he carried his notebook, recording problems he found, fixes he made, and new ideas for improvements to future ships. He loved his work, so I don’t think he resented giving it his time, although there are reports that he was unhappy about being away from home at this time. His father was ailing, and he was worried about him, telling a friend that he was anxious to get to New York and hear some news.
He was working in his cabin when Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 p.m.. I don’t know if he felt the impact. One thing I’ve learned on this trip is that ships make a LOT of movement, and there are always shudders and bangs happening that don’t mean anything in particular. It’s possible that even if Thomas felt the impact, he thought nothing of it. No, like many other people, it was probably the engines stopping that drove him from his cabin. The engines would only be stopped if something was seriously wrong.
He went with Captain Smith to investigate the damage. I think he knew then, what the outcome would be. I don’t believe he had any doubt that his ship would sink, that more than half of the people aboard her, would die.
That he would die.
That doesn’t mean that I think he just gave up. Humans have the instinct to fight death until the last possible moment. No doubt Thomas did this for himself, and for the others on Titanic. Reports from several people tell how he was everywhere on the ship for the next two-and-a-half hours, helping with the lifeboats, passing out life belts and blankets, encouraging people to move to the boat deck and get into boats. He tossed deck chairs to people in the water. He tore doors and shutters from the ship he so painstakingly put together, so people could use them as flotation devices.
And yes, he gave in to despair, those moments in the first class smoking room. He loved life. He loved his family. He had such a bright and happy future, and I’m sure he agonized over its loss. Over the pain his death would cause his parents, his wife, his daughter, although I don’t think he could have imagined just how much they would suffer.
I think he felt guilty. He was a perfectionist, and he would have felt responsible for his ship’s failure to live. I do not place this blame on him, I only imagine that he did. Thomas Andrews would never have built an inadequate vessel, whether to save money or time, although he didn’t have the final word on either one. A million possibilities contributed to the collision and to the extent of damage, and he had no control over most of them. What he did have control over, he did well. He had no reason to feel guilty. But I think he did.
I wish he hadn’t died with guilt. If I can do anything out on that deck tonight, it will be to remind him he wasn’t responsible. To thank him for trying.
His body was never found. He stayed with his ship. In the end, it was the only thing he could do.