Two Ships, Two Tragedies, Two Mysteries
Over the course of this past week I saw portions of no fewer than five television specials inspired by the sinking of the Titanic on April 15th, exactly one hundred years ago.
While the sinking of the luxury ocean liner on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York has always been blamed on an encounter between a meandering iceberg and a self-confident captain, the mystery as to whether or not the luxury liner had a fatal design flaw has lingered since the wreckage was first discovered in 1985.
In the nearly thirty years since then, multiple excursions down to the ocean floor at a depth of 2.5 miles have been undertaken, each surfacing with even more information and higher quality photographs of the barnacle encrusted wreckage. The most recent involved a pair of self-guided underwater robots equipped with sonar mapping capabilities that cost $2.5 million dollars each.
While no one disputes the fatal collision with the mammoth iceberg, experts have argued for decades whether or not the gash along her stern should have caused the unsinkable Titanic to do the unthinkable, taking with her 1,517 passengers.
Was there a flaw in her design? Were the rivets holding her steel plates together of inferior quality? Did the expansion joint in her mid-section cause the ship to break in half, sending her to the bottom of the ocean before help could arrive?
It was a tragedy that touched an entire nation.
And it had to have been a topic of discussion in East Aurora just three years later, as Elbert and Alice Hubbard were booking their passage to Europe aboard the Lusitania.
But this time the invisible danger was not an iceberg lurking in a moonless night, but a German submarine patrolling the murky depths of the waters off the coast of Great Britain.
And on that fateful afternoon in May, with the shore of Ireland nearly in sight just ten miles away, German Captain Walter Schieger spotted the Lusitania making her way toward safety without the customary convoy of British destroyers and their deadly depth charges. Already slowed by mechanical problems, Captain Schieger would have easily been dissuaded by a British escort. But sight of the Lusitania sitting alone on the calm seas was too much temptation for the captain, who drew within striking distance before releasing his one and only shot.
Many of the passengers on deck actually watched the torpedo’s wake as it sliced its way across the surface of the black, bone-chilling waters. The giant steamship shuttered upon impact, but kept plowing her way toward the Irish shore. Just as the Titanic was deemed ‘unsinkable,’ the designers of the Lusitania felt she could withstand the impact of a single torpedo.
But a second explosion, one not caused by a torpedo, immediately rocked the ship, sending passengers grasping for support. The forward motion of the ship forced even more water into the lower compartments, sealing the fate of the ship and its passengers. But knowing that the German submarine had fired just one torpedo, the question remains unanswered: what caused the fatal second explosion? Coal dust? Red-hot boilers? Or illegal ammunition being smuggled by the American government to the British military aboard a civilian passenger ship?
And whereas the Titanic remained upright and afloat for 2 hours and 40 minutes, just 18 minutes later the Lusitania and 1,198 of the men, women and children aboard her were at the bottom of the North Sea. Among those whose bodies were never found were Alice and Elbert Hubbard.
And so as I watched the special on the Titanic, I had to wonder: will the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 2015, inspire similar underwater explorations, computer generated reenactments and new discoveries?
And additional attention on the scandalous lives of Alice and Elbert Hubbard?
We’ll just have to wait and see.
Until next Monday,
Have a great week!
Lower photo: believed to be the last known photograph of the Hubbards before embarking.