Image: The Titanic
AP file
In this April 10, 1912 file photo, the Titanic departs Southampton, England on its maiden Atlantic voyage. April 15, 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, just five days after it left Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York.
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updated 3/31/2012 9:20:34 PM ET 2012-04-01T01:20:34

Epic disasters — the anguished cries, the stories of heroism — are the central narratives of our age, both enthralling and horrifying. And our obsession began a century ago, unfolding in just 160 terrifying minutes, on a supposedly unsinkable ship, as more than 1,500 souls slipped into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. And the band played on.

It was the Titanic. And ever since, we've been hooked on disasters, in general — but the tale of the great luxury liner, in particular. And the approaching 100th anniversary of the sinking has merely magnified the Titanic's fascination.

There were catastrophes before that fateful Sunday night in April 1912, but nothing quite captivated the newly wireless-connected globe's attention. It was more than news. It was a macabre form of entertainment.

Bigger, deadlier disasters followed, but they all borrowed from the storylines — morality plays, really — established by the Titanic's sinking: The high-profile investigations ... wall-to-wall news coverage ... issues of blame, technological hubris, ignored warnings and economic fairness — all were themes that played out in the BP oil spill, the space shuttle disasters, Hurricane Katrina, the Exxon Valdez and the recent grounding of the Costa Concordia.

"The story is ageless, like all great stories," said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The elements in this case of triumph, tragedy, and hubris, of bravery and cowardice, all wrapped up in one brief moment. That speaks to people."

PhotoBlog: National Geographic features new images of the unseen Titanic

And to this day, The Titanic is big business in movies, books, songs, poetry, and museum exhibits hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. Dozens of tourists have paid tens of thousands of dollars to dive in Russian submersibles to visit the ship's watery grave and see in the ocean floor "where the Titanic dug in and the ship created this knife-like sharp edge," Delgado said.

For decades that burial spot was unknown, but the discovery of the Titanic in 1985 brought Titanic back to the world's attention. Then a dozen years later, another man raised the Titanic to an even greater fame with a multi-Academy Award winning movie and follow-up documentaries. This was, he said, a parable that the storyteller in him could not ignore.

"It's this great sort of metaphorical novel that actually happened," said "Titanic" director James Cameron. "You can go and visit the wreck and go and see this monument to human folly."

Titanic 'hit a nerve in a different way'
The 882-foot long Titanic steamed from Queenstown, Ireland, on Apr. 11 toward New York, carrying more than 2,200 passengers and crew, more than 130,000 pounds of meat and fish, 1,750 pounds of ice cream, 400 asparagus tongs and only 20 of the 32 lifeboats designed to be on board. The ship ignored more than 30 different ice warnings. At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, The Titanic hit an iceberg and stalled. At 2:20 a.m., it sank.

Before the Titanic, the great Chicago fire, the Galveston hurricane and the San Francisco earthquake attracted America's attention, but "the Titanic hit a nerve in a different way," said Kevin Rozario, a professor of American Studies at Smith College. "It's the dramatic quality of the Titanic."

Everything about the sinking — its speed and the fact that everybody was in one place — added to the drama.

In fact, the Titanic's sinking took about as long as a stage play of that era, noted John Wilson Foster, a Queens University Belfast professor who wrote several Titanic books. "The survivors did say during the sinking it seemed like a play," Foster said.

The public, especially in the past century, has become increasingly fascinated with disasters, especially technological ones. That's because it helps us cope with increased mechanization, risk and deep-rooted questions about what it means to be human, said Rozario, author of the book "Culture of Calamity." He said disasters reflect everyday fears that at we often ignore. When a catastrophe happens, "we see ourselves" in the storylines that play out.

Instant news — for its day
And with Titanic, the storylines played out instantly thanks to the recent innovation of wireless telegraphy. Even before the Carpathia arrived in New York with survivors, the "story starts to get told in a particular way before there is any substantial information about what happened," said Harvard University professor Steven Biel. ""It's unprecedented how quickly the story goes around the world."

Survivor Lawrence Beesley, in his book "Loss of the SS Titanic," said many press reports made the sinking even more dramatic than it really was.

"I think it is no exaggeration to say that those who read of the disaster quietly at home and pictured to themselves the scene as the Titanic was sinking had more of the sense of horror than those who stood on the deck and watched her go down inch by inch," Beesley concluded in his book. "The fact is that the sense of fear came to the passengers very slowly — a result of the absence of any signs of danger."

Beesley and others talked about how no one at the time thought the Titanic was going to go under. At first, they joked that they had to stop for a fresh coat of paint to be applied to where the iceberg scrapped the hull. After all, the Titanic was "unsinkable," they figured. "The improbability of such a thing ever happening was what staggered humanity," Beesley wrote.

"That phrase 'unsinkable' became notorious," Foster said. The phrase was originally "practically unsinkable" and was from an obscure engineering journal, but after a while it didn't matter. On top of that, someone claims to have heard ship Capt. Edward John Smith say "Even God himself couldn't sink this ship," Foster said.

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."

Technological hubris
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.

Less privileged suffered more
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.

"It's quite often the case that the less privileged suffer disproportionately in disasters," Biel said. "That was certainly true in the case of Titanic."

And it happened again most noticeably in Hurricane Katrina, when the predominantly black sections of the city seemed to suffer more, with less government help, Biel said.

In the first few decades after the Titanic, the disparity in survival of the third-class passengers wasn't mentioned. It wasn't until Walter Lord revived the tale of the Titanic in his best-selling book "A Night To Remember" that the issue of class fairness was revisited, Biel said. And by the time Cameron's movie came out in the 1990s, the story had gone from the helpful rich to the mostly despicable first-class passengers.

Biel said no blacks were aboard the Titanic, although others claim there was one black family. Blues pioneer Leadbelly sang of how black boxing champ Jack Johnson was denied passage on the ship: "Black men oughta shout for you, Never lost a girl or either a boy. Cryin' fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well."

It was not the first or last song about the sinking — and in fact, one of the enduring story lines of the Titanic is about music. The band on Titanic did play as the ship went down. Experts disagree on the song, but they agree that there was a soundtrack to the disaster.

Survivor Archibald Gracie, in his popular account, described the lowering of lifeboats into the water with women and children, saying "it was now that the band began to play and continued while the boats were being lowered. We considered this a wise provision tending to allay excitement. I did not recognize any of the tunes, but I know they were cheerful and not hymns."

And the band played on.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: 10 shipwrecks that have enriched our imaginations

  • Image: scroll fragment
    Ralph White  /  Corbis file

    The Titanic, the 46,000-ton "unsinkable" ocean liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912 and sank within hours to the bottom of the North Atlantic, is the world's most famous shipwreck. To this day, the voyage, its passengers, even the mysterious Cold War details surrounding its 1985 discovery continue to capture the public's fascination. But the Titanic is not the only wrecked ship steeped in history — if not treasure — discovered on the bottom of the sea. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about nine more shipwrecks that have enriched our imaginations.

    -- By John Roach

  • An ancient Greek oil ship

    Image: pottery shards
    Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities

    An ancient Greek cargo ship, described by one researcher as a UPS truck of its day, sank with what appears to be a load of oregano-flavored olive oil. At least, that's the result of a genetic analysis of residue in one of the ship's earthenware jars that were hauled up from the 200-foot depths of the Aegean Sea where the ship sank around 350 B.C. The wrecked ship, which was discovered by an underwater robot, contained several hundred of the jars, called amphorae. More than two-thirds were of the style of the one containing the olive oil. Other containers likely held wine, a well-known export from the island of Chios.

  • Diamond geologists find sunken treasure

    Image: Gold coins
    AP

    Geologists hunting for diamonds off the coast of Namibia stumbled upon a different sort of riches when they hit upon a shipwreck full of copper ingots, elephant tusks and gold coins. The discovery was reported by Namdeb Diamond Corp, a joint venture between diamond giant De Beers and the government of Namibia. Preliminary analysis indicates the well-worn Spanish or Portuguese ship likely went down in stormy weather in the late 1400s or early 1500s. Judging from the cargo, researchers said the ship was likely looking for material to build cannons or was perhaps trading in ivory. This image shows coins and a brass divider recovered in the wreckage.

  • Santa Margarita loot a long trail of discovery

    Image: Pearls
    Dylan Kibler  /  AP

    In 1622, a fleet of 28 Spain-bound ships laden with gold, silver, copper and other riches reaped from the New World was snared by a violent hurricane in the Florida Strait. At least six of the boats sank, their loot no longer bound for the crown. Modern day explorers, however, have scoured the waters for the sunken treasure. Riches from the heavily armed Nuestra Se�ora de Atocha started coming to light in the 1970s and the scattered fortunes of a second ship, the Santa Margarita, were hit upon in 1980. In more recent years, divers from Blue Water Ventures Key West have been hot on the Santa Margarita's trail, recovering millions worth of treasure including the pearls shown here.

  • Captain Kidd's ship discovered in Dominican Republic

    Image: possible wreckage
    Indiana University

    The wreckage of the Quedagh Merchant, a ship abandoned by Scottish privateer William Kidd in the 17th century, has been discovered in shallow waters off a tiny island in the Dominican Republic and turned into an underwater preserve. Captain Kidd spent much of his life as a privateer – and captured the Indian-owned Quedagh Merchant which was laden with satin, silks, silver, gold, and other riches. But he abandoned the ship in 1699 to address charges in New York that he was a pirate, not a privateer. According to historians, the men entrusted with the ship looted it, burned it, and set it adrift. It was found just 70 feet off the coast of Catalina Island at a depth of only 10 feet.

  • Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge Found?

    Image: cannon
    Chuck Beckley  /  Jacksonville Daily News

    Archaeologists believe the cannon shown here being hauled up off the coast of North Carolina was part of the notorious pirate Blackbeard's flagship. According to legend, Blackbeard, whose real name was thought to be Edward Teach or Thatch, commandeered the French slave ship La Concorde in 1717 and renamed it the Queen Anne's Revenge. Blackbeard abandoned the ship when it ran aground off the North Carolina coast. Several artifacts recovered from the wreck appear to support the belief that it was Blackbeard's flagship, though the findings have been questioned by some scholars. Ongoing excavations may one day solve the mystery.

  • HMS Victory, famous British warship

    Image: archaeological site in Masada
    AP Photo/Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. |

    A famous British warship sunk by a violent storm in 1744 was discovered 330 feet deep in the English Channel, more than 50 miles from a group of rocky islets long implicated in the vessel's demise. The discovery exonerates the HMS Victory's commander, Sir John Balchin, and a lighthouse keeper near the rocks who was prosecuted for failing to keep the lights on, according to researchers with Odyssey Marine Exploration who found the sunken vessel that carried at least 900 men. What's more, the 110-gun ship is thought to contain 4 tons of gold coins. This image shows one of the ship's bronze cannons with the royal crest of King George I.

  • Court battles over $500 million shipwreck loot

    Image: Found coins
    Odyssey Marine Exploration via A

    The governments of Peru and Spain are caught up in court battles with a Florida-based exploration firm that recovered an estimated $500 million worth of silver coins from a Spanish frigate sunk by a British warship in 1804. Marine Odyssey Exploration announced the discovery of the treasure in 2007, though tried to keep the ship's origins and exact Atlantic Ocean location a secret. The details began to leak in 2008 as the Spanish government laid claim to the treasure if it indeed was from the sunken Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. Peru has since weighed in with a court challenge of its own, saying the coins were made with Peruvian silver and minted in Lima. In this file photo, Odyssey Marine Exploration co-founder, Greg Stemm, left, examines the loot with a co-worker at an undisclosed location.

  • Ore ship found, mystery endures

    Image: Ore freighter ship
    AP

    The discovery of an ore carrier some 460 feet beneath the surface of Lake Superior has only raised the intrigue over why the vessel sank on just its second voyage. The Cyprus was hauling iron ore from Superior, Wisconsin to Buffalo, New York, when it encountered a moderate gale on October 11, 1907. But the storm was insufficient to bother other ships that day. At the time, some mariners suspected water entered through the ships newly designed hatch covers, though a labor riot at the time of the vessels construction could have created other flaws. While this remains unsolved, shipwreck researchers have another mystery to resolve: The Cyprus was found 10 miles north of where its sole survivor said it went down. The ship on her maiden voyage is shown in this image.

  • Graf Zeppelin, unused Nazi Germany carrier

    Wojtek Jakubowski  /  AP

    The Polish Navy is almost certain they've located the remains of Nazi Germany's only aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin. The ship was launched in 1938, though it never saw action as Adolf Hitler's interest in the navy waned during World War II. The Soviet Union took control of the ship after Germany's defeat and used it for target practice in 1947, according to historical accounts. The carrier eventually sank but its exact whereabouts were unknown until the Polish Navy found remains with an underwater robot. In this image, Polish Navy Commander Daniel Beczek holds up a photo with three views of the ship: the top is a drawing, the middle is a sonar image made by the navy, and the bottom is a 1930s construction photo.

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