Skip to main content

Why the Titanic fascinates more than other disasters

By Stephen D. Cox, Special to CNN
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Mon April 9, 2012
The Titanic starts off on her first and last voyage, leaving Queenstown, now Cobh, Ireland, on April 10, 1912. The Titanic starts off on her first and last voyage, leaving Queenstown, now Cobh, Ireland, on April 10, 1912.
HIDE CAPTION
Legendary disasters
Legendary disasters
Legendary disasters
Legendary disasters
Legendary disasters
Legendary disasters
cox chicago fire
Legendary disasters
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephen Cox: The sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago still holds the world's imagination
  • Cox: Sultana riverboat blast, the sinking of Lusitania and Eastland aren't as gripping
  • Rich stories of courage, morality, the cast of characters make Titanic unique, he says
  • Cox says the only other catastrophe that will live on in memory like the Titanic is 9/11

Editor's note: Stephen D. Cox is professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, and author of "The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions."

(CNN) -- It was an eerie night on the North Atlantic. The ocean, which is almost never still, was so calm that some stars could be seen reflected in the water. Thousands of stars curtained the sky -- backdrop to the immense human drama taking place.

A great ship was sinking slowly into the freezing sea. Its 2,200 passengers and crew were facing desperate choices: Should I try for the lifeboats? Is that the right thing to do? And if I do manage to find a place in one, should I try to rescue other people?

About 1,500 people died that night. None of the rest survive today. But the Titanic disaster has never faded from the world's imagination.

That was 100 years ago: April 14 to 15, 1912. Earlier this year, the Costa Concordia struck a reef in the Mediterranean Sea, just a few feet from a resort island close to the Italian mainland. Fortunately, less than 1% of its 4,000 passengers died. The sinking of the Titanic and the wreck of the Costa Concordia had very little in common. Yet reporters drew parallels. And survivors of the January incident themselves have made the comparison, with at least one quoted as saying that it felt like "the same type of deal."

Stephen Cox
Stephen Cox

Why? Why does the Titanic continue to be what flashes into people's minds whenever the word "disaster" comes up? It is virtually the only disaster that is perpetually remembered, commemorated, and even celebrated. The answer has to do with the drama of choice, not with the brute facts of the disaster itself.

In 1865, the Sultana, a Mississippi riverboat, exploded and burned, with the loss of many more than 1,500 lives. In 1915, the liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine; 1,200 people died. In the same year, the steamer Eastland capsized in the Chicago River, killing 840 passengers. (Ironically, the ship had been overloaded with lifeboats, but they were useless, because the Eastland sank immediately after people boarded it.)

Look back at Kate, Leo talking 'Titanic'
Saving the Titanic on the ocean floor
'Titanic' premieres in 3-D
Titanic museum opens where ship built

Frightful events, and each with its own importance. But almost no one remembers the Sultana or the Eastland. And no one on the Costa Concordia is reported to have said, "This is just like the Eastland; it's the same type of deal." As for the Lusitania: it is remembered only as a cause of America's entry into World War I. It would be hard to find anyone who recalled a single thing that happened on the Lusitania's decks.

That is not because popular movies have been made about the Titanic but not about the Lusitania. A good movie could not be made about the Lusitania itself because its sinking, like the other disasters I just mentioned, was only a scene of horror. It was not, like the Titanic, an event of permanent dramatic interest.

The Titanic sank in two hours and 40 minutes, the length of a classic play. Its cast of characters included people of every rank and station and personality. The cast was large enough to represent the human race, yet small enough to form a self-contained society, in which individuals could see what other individuals were doing, and think carefully about their own responses. The Titanic had what every great drama needs: a relentless focus on the supreme choices of individual lives.

Other disasters were either too big or too small to develop this kind of interest. They happened too fast, or too slowly. The great Chicago fire in 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 were tides of destruction rolling for days across large, unfocused landscapes. Today they are remembered not as dramas of individual men and women but as tests of their cities' ability to survive the forces of nature.

By contrast, the Lusitania, the Sultana, and the Eastland were destroyed in just minutes. There was no time for people to assess their options; to consider what they could do, or what they should do, morally. There was no time to think about whether to take the first seat in a lifeboat or give it to someone else; to reflect on one's life and decide how to face its end.

There was no time for an elderly couple, like the Titanic's Ida and Isidor Straus, to decide to refuse their places in a lifeboat, and stay together, facing certain death. There was no time for someone like J. Bruce Ismay, head of the company that operated the Titanic, to remain on deck, trying to help the rescue effort, then suddenly decide to abandon ship. There was no time to develop the sometimes inspiring, sometimes disheartening, but always memorable scenes of human life that the Titanic disaster continues to present.

Only one other disaster is like the Titanic: September 11, 2001. The events of 9/11 unfolded over a similar length of time and involved communities of similarly diverse people, involved in unforgettable moments of truth. The heroic resistance of the passengers of Flight 93 and the courage of the firefighters in the Twin Towers are only two scenes from this great human drama. The Titanic and 9/11-- these disasters, these two, will continue to be remembered, not for their horror, but for what they teach us about the drama, and the dignity, of real people making the ultimate decisions of their lives.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Cox.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT