Thursday, April 12, 2012

We should have trusted 
the real Jack of Titanic
Our second in a six-part Titanic 100 series. We explore how blind trust in 
technology and a lack of trust in people revealed truths behind the disaster

" I saw the ship in a sort of a red glare, and it seemed to me that she broke in two just in front of the third funnel. At this time I was sucked down, and as I came up I was pushed out again and twisted around by a large wave, coming up in the midst of a great deal of small wreckage." 
- Eyewitness account by John Borland Thayer, Jr. 
as recorded on April 20, 1912 and housed at the 
Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, PA

Imagine it is midnight in the North Atlantic, and under an unusually cold Arctic High pressure system, the air is chilled to near freezing, and the sea is as calm and smooth as glass. The Moon in a new phase, making the starlight appear to shine even brighter. The only disturbance in this serenity is the swift wake from a parting of the waters as the world’s greatest  ocean liner speeds ahead full in her race with destiny. 

From April 10 to 14, she steamed gracefully across a wide ocean teeming with families who had placed their trust in the technology of a grand ocean liner, and the hope for a better life in the New World. Within five days of leaving port, those hopes would lie shattered at the bottom of the sea, separated by multiple tragedies borne from the culture of the day: Lust for power, one-upsmanship and the class system. It could be argued one of the greatest casualties of Titanic was a generational breach of trust. This breach inflicted an avoidable theft of intellectual power from all the families forever separated by decisions of their leaders. 

Evidence shows a high school student was among the first to have ever recorded the actual events of the ship's demise. This article is his untold story.

This special series presents our perspective on untold stories of the gallant ship and its countless heroes. We also ask these questions: Have we learned the lessons of Titanic? Has one hundred years of study changed  perspectives? For the students on our team studying this grand story, and for those in many classrooms around the country reading our work, there is an important connection to a real person who was on the ship.

The real Jack Some of the students involved in our Titanic project are today the same age of a once-young man named Jack B. Thayer, Jr., who was a real passenger in 1912. Jack, born on Christmas Eve in 1894, was 17 years old when he boarded the "ship of dreams" with his parents. Jack was returning to home in Haverford, Pennsylvania with his mother and father after a two month tour of Europe that was probably quite grand and life-changing. Jack was an avid sportsman, a strong swimmer and by all regards in photos still available, full of vigor and life. Any teenager with the opportunities he had would have been thrilled. 

Regardless of his family being in a First Class Cabin, just imagine for a moment that what would have felt like: The amazement of staying on the largest ocean liner in the world, dining with the greatest names of the time, strolling on the promenade, listening to the band and more. What stories he would have been able to tell upon returning home. Imagine being able to say to friends: "I was on the Titanic and it was incredible!”  

On the night of April 14, Jack was walking the deck of the ship, as he would  later write about in his self-published pamphlet of 1940 The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic. In the book, he recalls:  "I have spent much time on the ocean, yet I have never seen the sea smoother than it was that night; it was like a mill-pond, and just as innocent looking, as the great ship quietly rippled through it. There was no moon and I have never seen the stars shine brighter; they appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds."  

Soon after, the celebrating of this most grandest of travel experiences, Jack's enthusiasm for the moment was quickly replaced by the uncertainty of being separated from his Father and Mother. Soon after, he was on his own having to jump from the ship. A few moments later, by his own account, Jack witnessed the horrific sight of the ship ripping in two pieces. He was temporarily sucked into the maelstrom and thrown back out into the churning wreckage beyond the perishing vessel. 

Still immersed in the icy cold waters and surrounded by debris, Jack swam out to a lifeboat and was pulled on board. By then, the most exquisite sea-faring vessel of its time had slipped beneath the water, taking his Father and 1,500 other innocent souls to their final resting place behind the cold North Atlantic. Then he and the other shivering survivors had to endure the horrifying cries of those stranded in frigid waters. 

This is the how the real Jack started his adult life. His untold story is one of the reasons why our hearts go on for such a tragic event.

A seventeen year-old, on that cold April night, was one of only two witnesses who saw the ship break in two...and recorded his statements in testimony and illustrations that remain controversial to this day. After such a horrific event, who could entertain the idea the mighty Titanic possibly broke in two? Those who stood to lose greatly included three business interests of the day:
  • Harland & Wolff, the Belfast shipbuilder, would have seen their trust and credibility irreparably harmed were it determined this "practically unsinkable" did not go gently into the night as historians, engineers and the media believed for 70 years. 
  • Lloyds of London, the insurance company retained by the White Start Line o covering potential losses, would certainly not appreciate the testimony of an American teenager countering their official statements that the ship foundered fully intact.
  • J.P. Morgan, the reknowned financier of the day and parent company owner of the White Star Line, mysteriously chose not to sail on the maiden voyage in the final hours before departure. 
Though the belief is Titanic was a symbol of the still powerful British Empire, in reality it was an American-owned vessel. In order to escape the requirements of the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Mr. Morgan had the vessels of the White Star Line kept under British registry and manned by British crews. Would not the great engineering marvel built by a storied shipyard and commissioned by his own company be trustworthy enough to warrant attendance by the owner? 

The tragedy's origins may have started with blind trust. The weather was clear, the sea was calm, and the technological prowess of the mighty ship meant that were anything to happen, the "World's Largest Liner" herself was to be the consummate lifeboat. We hypothesize that the reason for the iceberg having breached faulty iron rivet-heads and split sub-standard metal started with blind trust in a system fueled by power and recognition. It could be argued the fate of those in First Class and Third Class alike was sealed before they even set on board.

As the social landscape on deck changed to “every man for himself” one’s class status no longer mattered. Despite this chaos of the social order, Jack Thayer witnessed and recorded the ship’s final moments. However, the truth of her catastrophic end lay embedded in the mud for seventy years, and relegated to the ideas of conspiracy theorists. Even the idealized 1982 film "Raise The Titanic" envisioned a ship with hardly a scratch, funnels intact, gracefully resting at two miles down. Though impossible science fiction, it was surmised by the film’s science writers that the metal hull would lie preserved from decay by the crushing ocean pressure. 

The truth revealed. In 1985, Oceanographer and Explorer Robert Ballard, credited with locating the Titanic, shocked the world with a truth that Jack Thayer, a high school student, had known since 2:20 AM on April 15, 1912: Titanic had broken in two after all.

Suddenly, historians, engineers and shipbuilders who thought they understood the truth of Titanic's demise had a lot more explaining to do. Is it possible Director James Cameron read the account by young Jack Thayer, and based the dramatic break-up on the testimony of a high school student? If you compare his writings while you watch the ship’s final destruction, it is clear to see how James Cameron put to imagery what had only been a quiet truth for decades among some historians in the Titanic community. 

Even Mr. Thayer in his later years, on the eve of World War II, may have tried to vanquish the haunting images about what he really saw in a self-published 1940 pamphlet titled "The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic." In it our eloquent, and real, Jack wrote of the time:
"There was peace when the world hadn't even tenored to it's way. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub it's eyes and awake, but awoke it with a start. To my mind, the world of today awoke on April 15, 1912."
Our question for you as we continue on the journey to Titanic 100: What do you believe are the lessons the world of today has learned from this disaster, and to which are those the world has not yet awoke?

(Lead Writer: Advisor Rich Foot. Contributors: Meteorologists Shundra Stewart, Alex Davies, Forecaster Joey Krastel and Advisor Brad Lear. Banner imagery by Diandre Williams, Director of Strategic Media)

"The history of the R.M.S. Titanic of the White Star Line, is one ofthe most tragically short it is possible to conceive. The world had waited expectantly for its launching and again for it's sailing; had read accounts of its tremendous size and its unexampled completeness and luxury; had felt it a matter of the greatest satisfaction that such a comfortable and above all such a safe boat had been designed and built- the "unsinkable lifeboat"- and then in a moment to hear that it had gone to the bottom as if it had been the veriest tramp steamer of a few hundred tons; and with it fifteen hundred passengers, some of them known all the world over! The improbability of such a thing ever happening was what staggered humanity." 
 -Lawrence Beesley, survivor and Science teacher 

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