Saturday, April 14, 2012


The iceberg in our semi-hypothetical story was probably born in a “calving” of the Jakobshavn Glacier on the west coast of Greenland in September of 1910, drifting with many siblings in Disko Bay before being carried by the West Greenland Current northward into the cold immensity of Baffin Bay, passing within sight of Thule later in that Arctic Winter and the early Spring. In August of 1911, picked up by the Labrador Current, it began to travel southward, through the Davis Strait, finally being grounded in the shallows of a bay, somewhere along the east coast of Labrador where many such floating pieces of Arctic ice end their days, living out a years-long period of melting. That languishing was about to change.
            During a six hour period on January3rd and 4th, 1912, an unusual combination of astronomical events took place, as the (full) moon approached the earth to its nearest point, while the opposite side of our planet felt the gravitational tug of the sun at its closest proximity.  Not since the year 796 AD or yet again until the year 2257 would this confluence of gigantic forces occur, causing the earth to bulge outward on opposing sides.  The tidal ocean currents set in motion by this event were enormous, and our grounded iceberg – along probably with many sisters and cousins – broke free, being caught up once again by southward currents now traveling much faster and farther than normal, even into the normally ice-free sea lanes of the North Atlantic.
            The night of April 14, 1912 was described by Frederick Fleet as so clear, the black and moonless skies seemed filled with stars from horizon to horizon over an ocean so serene there was hardly a ripple to break the inky surface. Fleet, the lookout perched far above the deck of HMS Titanic might otherwise have seen some white waves washing against the sides of the iceberg minutes sooner than he did, and history would have been very different. The absence of light from the same moon whose gravitational symmetry ten weeks earlier may have helped to set this scenario in motion, now added to the inevitability of the collision which resulted; one hundred years ago this week.
            Citizens of the 21st Century have been inundated with the details of the Titanic disaster, whether from Hollywood’s dramatic interpretations, or even from underwater images captured by film footage of the actual debris field and archival evidence raised to the surface. Today, a century afterward, we know about engineering arrogance, rivets made from “soft” iron, lifeboats left ashore so that travelers could enjoy better views, the absence of adequate leadership at the helm, confusing orders, untrained deck hands, lifeboats launched half-empty and an unforgivable indifference to ample warning about icebergs in the area. We are also familiar with many stories of uncommon bravery and remarkable acts of self-sacrifice, all of which add to the historical legacy we revisit once again this month.
            While sadly, all of those Titanic passengers and crew who jumped into the frigid North Atlantic died, 705 lifeboat escapees were picked up and saved by HMS Carpathia, a Cunard passenger liner which raced 58 miles through the same dangerous ice fields to make the rescue. Depositing the survivors at New York City’s Pier 54, the 8600 ton liner was thrust into public prominence as her entire crew was honored with specially-cast medals. Interestingly, the Carpathia went on to serve as a troop transport in WWI, carrying U.S. Expeditionary Force members to France, among whom was Frank Buckles, the boy-soldier from Missouri who lived to be America’s “Last Doughboy”, dying in 2011 at the age of 110.
            As an example of the truth that “one story leads to another”, (and yet another), the Carpathia was sunk by a German submarine – U-55 commanded by Wilhelm Werner -  in July, 1918, all but a small handful of her passengers and crew being rescued from under German guns at the last minute by HMS Snowdrop.  In 2000, the wreck was found by American author Clive Cussler lying at a depth of 500 feet in the Irish Sea. And by the way: the submarine U-55 became a “prize of war” to the Empire of Japan at the end of WWI, where it served until 1921 as the O-3. In a twisting circuitous way, all of these stories can be linked to a collision of events set in motion by a floating piece of ice born in Greenland in 1910.

HMS Carpathia, a Cunard Lines vessel of humble life and origin went into the  world’s history books for its role in saving more than 700 passengers from the Titanic’s life boats only to fall prey herself to torpedoes from a WWI U-boat.

A rare photo of the actual iceberg thought to have taken Titanic to the bottom was captured by the chief steward aboard the Prinz Adelbert the morning of April 15, 1912.

Only one ninth of an iceberg’s total mass thrusts above the surrounding water, as with this fairly typical Greenland ‘berg. Some of the larger ones are the size of a European country.              Photo by TheBrockenInaGlory

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