Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cannonball Read #4: Ghosts of the Titanic by Charles Pellegrino

Ghosts of the Titanic by Charles Pellegrino is another entry into my seemingly death-and-disaster laden Cannonball Read list. I wasn't really familiar with the sinking of the Titanic (no, despite being a teenage girl when it came out, I have never seen James Cameron's Titanic). However, I do remember as a kid reading with great interest an article about the wreckage's discovery in National Geographic. (Once again: morbid, morbid child.) When I saw this book among Half.com's "recommendations" for me, I just had to have it.

This book is a combination of first-hand archaeological experience (Pellegrino has participated in numerous ventures to Titanic with a variety of groups including James Cameron--the filmmaker managed to turn his prop investigatory robot into one of the most effective wreck investigators to date) and real witness accounts (from both conversations Pellegrino held with the few remaining survivors and from source documents written at the time by those involved.). The author documents some of the situations that lead to the sinking, the sequence of events that occurred the night the ship went down, some of the aftermath, and also some of of the discoveries that have been made since scientists first began unearthing the debris of the ship.

One of the most interesting things to me are the number of details involved. There are complex diagrams showing the ship's layout and what transpired in relation to the ship itself. Contrary to popular belief, the Titanic did not t-bone itself on an ice berg, dragging a giant gouge in the side. More likely, there were probably a number of small holes--probably totalling not more that 12 meters of open area (roughly the combined size of 2 sidewalk squares)--letting in water. Also, the sinking of the ship was not inevitable--instead a series of unfortunate circumstances and mistakes lead to the disastrous conclusion.

Another thing the book touches on are discoveries that have been made in the modern area with the assistance of the Titanic. Much has been learned about the kind of bacteria and organisms that thrive at the depths of the ocean, including an new organism (dubbed "rustcicles" by the explorers) which may one day lead to advances in medical science and antibiotics. There is much left under the water which scientists and archaeologists have not even begun to investigate. According to the book (which may not be current) much exploring has been delayed or prohibited due to the number of people whose remains were likely trapped in the wreckage. However, it's likely that sometime beyond 2012 (the hundred year mark) more explorations will be undertaken, and it's mind-boggling what might be discovered.

The most fascinating thing (as I find with most history of disaster) is the human factor: how did the people who were there react? When disaster struck, did people rise to the challenge or sink to the lowest depths of their natures? It seems with the Titanic (as in nearly every other situation) there were an equal number on either side, as well as many in the middle who perished without documentation one way or another. It is enough to prove a point for the most pessimistic pessimist or the most optimistic optimist. For every gentleman who sacrificed his space in a life boat in order to leave room for women and children, there is a story of how steerage passengers were locked in below decks in order to "avoid confusion" while the first and second class passengers were led to the life boats (the first class dogs were actually set free of their kennels for a chance at escape before the third class passengers). On the other hand, for every story of cowardice--such as the owner of the White Star Line making sure he got himself in a lifeboat even if it meant leaving women and children behind--there is a story of bravery--the engineers who stayed below decks, sacrificing their lives in order to keep the lights on just a little longer to help with the evacuation. It's all so crazy--the best and worst of humanity shows up in situations like this, and THAT I think is why I love disaster books.

This is a great book, although some of the descriptions of the physical destruction can be a little tough to follow if you're not versed in physics and such. However, the diagrams are a great help, and there is enough going on that you can skim those highly scientific bits a little and not miss too much. I recommend it.

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