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April 4, 2012

Titanic's sinking began world's fascination with disasters

(Continued)

So early 20th century society, especially in Sunday sermons, spun the disaster in religious terms — "you can't cheat God in that way," said Biel, author of the book "Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster."

Now, Biel said, people look at the Titanic sinking and other man-made disasters as technological hubris, the misbegotten belief that something could be too good, too fail-safe to fail. The space shuttles were portrayed as such until Challenger exploded in 1986. Then the oil industry bragged that deep water drilling was safer than the space shuttle; the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 proved otherwise.

Every disaster inspires investigation. There were two high profile competing government probes of the Titanic. The British thought the American investigation was too hostile to the British officers and the Americans thought the British inquiry was too much of a whitewash, said Belfast's Foster.

The American press went looking for a villain and found him in the owner of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay. Not only did they fault Ismay for scrimping on safety, such as the number of lifeboats, in favor of luxury, but they blamed him for surviving the sinking. Unlike Capt. Smith, he didn't go down with the ship. He was chastised, much as Costa Concordia Captain Francesco Schettino has been branded a coward for leaving his ship when it sank in January.

Initially, news reports told of selflessness of the rich men in Titanic's first class who sacrificed themselves to allow women and children on the lifeboats, Biel said. While there were some brave rich passengers who nobly stepped aside to let others survive, the numbers show that the poorer you were, the less likely you were to live. Sixty percent of the first-class passengers survived, 42 percent of the second-class passengers survived and only 25 percent of the third-class, or steerage, passengers lived.

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