The Titanic sank at 2:20 am on the morning of April 15 in 1912. About 650 people escaped in lifeboats, but about 1500 died in the icy waters of the north Atlantic. Walter Lord tells the story vividly in his book A Night to Remember. He talked with many of the survivors and pieced together a minute- by- minute account. He ends the book by asking several questions. For example, exactly how many people died? Different official inquiries after the tragedy arrived at different numbers. What did various people say? Reports from survivors vary.
Actually one can think of many other questions to ask besides Lord's. What were people thinking and feeling as the ship went down? What was it like to be plunged into 28-degree water? (The salt prevented the water from freezing at 32 degrees.) What was it like to know that the chances of being rescued were virtually nonexistent? What would I do in that situation? We will never be certain of the answers to any of these questions. We can only speculate based on the evidence we have.
The sinking of the Titanic is eerily reminiscent of another horrifying event, namely, the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Both events were utterly shocking, almost inconceivable. Both changed many people's preconceptions – about invincible technology in 1912, and about the invincible United States in 2001. In both cases many people were trapped and faced almost certain death. In both cases some people behaved heroically, and others behaved shamefully.
Books about 9/11 also ask questions whose answers we can only speculate about. Richard Bernstein begins his book Out of the Blue: The Story of September 11, 2001 from Jihad to Ground Zero by noting that many people (at least 60) jumped or fell from the highest floors of the Twin Towers after they were hit by airplanes. He wonders what would drive someone to such a terrifying act. And what would it be like to fall a hundred stories in about nine seconds, and hit the plaza at about 150 miles per hour? He also asks what drove the terrorists to kill themselves in a suicidal attack, or to plan the mass murder of thousands of innocent strangers.
Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn (in 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive in the Twin Towers) focus on the survivors and ask how they managed to get out. Over 12,000 people escaped from the World Trade Center after the planes hit. (2,749 people died, including 412 rescue workers who came to help.) They also ask questions about the design of the WTC, safety procedures, and rescue operations, all of which contributed to unnecessary deaths, in their view. Lord asks similar questions about the Titanic, the most infamous being "Why were there enough lifeboats for only about half the people on the ship?"
Clearly both these tragedies were large-scale, complex events that can be examined from many different angles and raise many questions. In this essay I want to limit the scope to two difficult questions. First, how did people on the Titanic respond to the prospect of immanent death? When passengers and crew memnbers and women finally realized that the ship was definitely sinking, and that they would not be in a lifeboat but in the water, and therefore would drown, how did they respond? Based on Lord's detailed account, we can see five different ways of handling that terrible situation.
The second question is more difficult to answer. How should one respond to the prospect of sudden death? We can all wonder what we would do or think or feel if we were on the tilting deck of the Titanic, and we can never know for sure until (God forbid) we are actually there. But we can also wonder what the best response would be. Is one kind of response better than another? Could anything help? It's another question that cannot be answered with any degree of certainty, but some writers have interesting suggestions. One is Michel de Montaigne, the great French essayist, and we will look at his reflections on the question.