Drawing insights from the depths of disaster

A century on, the Titanic’s tragic tale remains a valuable focus for teaching. Jon Marcus writes

March 29, 2012


Lessons in disaster preparedness: too few lifeboats meant many passengers were trapped on the sinking ship

On his office wall, James Reason displays a reproduction of a poster that was used to advertise tickets on the RMS Titanic.

The choice was a deliberate one for Reason, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Manchester whose research has focused on human error.

“It’s an excellent example of a classic organisational accident,” he says of the liner that sank 100 years ago next month. “They sail happily into disaster, not seeing or thinking about it.”

A century later, the same “unwarranted insouciance”, as Reason calls it, that characterised this famous disaster is still perceived in events such as the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the foundering of the MS Costa Concordia earlier this year.

For a small number of academics around the world, the tragic story of the Titanic is surprisingly replete with modern-day lessons in psychology, organisational management, marine engineering and even media and film studies.

Reason, who is author of The Human Contribution: Unsafe Acts, Accidents and Heroic Recoveries (2008), is among the scholars who use the Titanic in their work - often to demonstrate how little things have changed.

James Battles, a social science analyst who studies patient safety at the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and who uses the Titanic saga as a case study, says the core issues that lead to corner-cutting - such as the pressure to launch brought to bear on the Titanic, and the pressure to open a well quickly, a factor in the BP spill - remain relevant. “In that respect, have we learned anything? No.”

Pioneering technology

Scholars have also noted that there are positive lessons to be drawn from the Titanic. Some of the engineering on the ship was pioneering, including the double bottom that is now standard in most types of oil tankers, adjustable-pitch propellers that allowed for changes in the angle of the blades, redundant boilers that kept the lights on as the ship went down, and ingenious davits that could accommodate twice the required number of lifeboats.

“These were all pretty revolutionary for their time, and they’re still used today,” says Brandon M. Taravella, assistant professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at the University of New Orleans, who draws on the Titanic story in his teaching.

But extra lifeboats were rejected by those in charge of the ship for fear they would crowd the promenade deck, and the walls of the 16 supposedly “watertight” compartments of the ship’s hull were not high enough, allowing water to spill over. Such failings meant that three hours after the Titanic hit an iceberg, the ship sank, spelling the end for more than 1,500 of its passengers and crew.

That is where the valuable lessons come in, says Mark Kozak-Holland, a Toronto-based business consultant and the author of Avoiding Project Disaster: Titanic Lessons for IT Executives (2006).

“We dismiss case studies from the past because we think they involve different technologies,” says Kozak-Holland. “But if you want people to really walk away having learned something, you have to use strong stories, and this is one of the best.”

Designers and engineers who could have raised the alarm about risky decisions made higher up the chain of command instead stayed quiet. And the captain and crew, not aware of the resulting flaws, sailed off into a field of icebergs trying to beat their scheduled arrival time.

Latent human error

“Everything that caused the loss of the Titanic was in place before they even hit the iceberg,” Battles says. “It’s such a beautiful case study in that sense. I use it constantly as a teaching metaphor on this notion of latent human error.”

What happened after the sinking is a lesson, too, argues Paul Heyer, professor of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, and author of Titanic Century: Media, Myth, and the Making of a Cultural Icon (2012).

He uses the story in his lectures to discuss the way disasters are depicted in film, the impact of the story on the media that raced to break it, and the development of wireless telegraphy for maritime use, which was widely unregulated before the disaster.

“It illustrated the promise of this new medium, and also the limitations of the new medium, because the regulation was so poor,” Heyer says, attributing the lack of regulation to special interests that resisted the imposition of external control.

“Although wireless was able to save [some] people, had it been used to its full potential, maybe a great many more lives would have been saved.”

Laws were swiftly passed after the sinking, both in the US and internationally, requiring two wireless operators on most ships and wireless equipment to be in operation at all times.

But like most changes, Heyer says, these came too late for the Titanic’s victims.

That is yet another lesson of the tragedy, Reason argues - that human nature is more reactive than proactive and that some decisions should not be judged too harshly in hindsight.

“I always used to say to my students: never be judgmental,” he says. “It wasn’t intentional. Nobody screws up intentionally.”

Keeper of the legacy: the self-taught expert and archivist

Ed Kamuda is not an academic or scientist. He is a watchmaker who runs a jewellery store in a small landlocked town in New England.

But his 50-year obsession with the story of the Titanic has made Kamuda so much of an authority - and he has amassed so much primary source material - that James Cameron consulted him before making his epic 1997 film and marine explorer Robert Ballard sought his help before undertaking the 1985 expedition that led to the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic.

“He’s the soul of this story, and has been since long before it was popular,” says Ballard.

The unlikely keeper of the Titanic’s haunted legacy never attended university. He became obsessed with the Titanic’s history as a teenager when he read a short story about the ship’s sinking. Now 72, he is president of the international Titanic Historical Society, which he founded in 1963, and whose 3,500 members include hundreds in the UK.

The society runs conferences and publishes a journal that manages, a century after the fact, to present new discoveries about the people who sailed on the ship. That is because Kamuda is less interested in what made the Titanic sink than he is in those who were lost aboard it, and those who were saved - many of them widowed and orphaned by a chivalry that protected women and children first.

“Can you imagine the plight of a woman who was saved along with her children, but whose husband went down with the ship?” Kamuda asks. “I was curious about what had become of them.”

He befriended many of the Titanic’s survivors, who reciprocated by bequeathing him objects they had taken with them from the ship. He has amassed more than 2,000 artefacts, with some displayed in the back of his shop, and many of which he has loaned to museums.

The collection includes a scrap of carpet from a stateroom, saved as a memento by a steward, and a breakfast menu found in the pocket of a drowned passenger.

There are photographs and even letters mailed from the Titanic before it sailed to its doom and sank on 15 April 1912.

“It is as firm as a rock,” reads one note, sent ashore by a passenger during a stop in Queenstown (now Cobh) in the Republic of Ireland, the ship’s last port of call.

The members of the international society “are people who had a hobby that’s grown into an avocation,” says Kamuda’s wife Karen, the society’s vice-president. “They’re not people of letters. They’re people who look into it and research it because they love it.”

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