Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Aug. 17, 2012

"It's just sad"

Daughter-in-law Lacey and I survived, but husband Art and daughters Mariya and Katie weren't so lucky ... that is, if we'd actually been the passengers listed on our tickets.

Last weekend, we visited "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" at Kansas City's Union Station. It gave us a chance to get close to the disaster that claimed 1,523 lives when the ship sank after hitting an iceberg late on the night of April 14, 1912.

When I was a girl, I watched the 1953 film, "Titanic," starring Barbara Stanwyck. I recall feeling utterly devastated when the passengers and crew remaining on board sang the hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the ship went down.

In 1997, Mariya, Katie and I saw James Cameron's film "Titanic." I hesitated before going, asking myself why I'd want to see a movie in which I knew two-thirds of those aboard perished. But I went, and was impressed with how much research had been done to make the details as accurate as possible. Cameron visited the Titanic site in the summer of 1995. Much of the movie was shot on an almost full-scale replica off the coast of Mexico. The movie centers on a fictional love affair between a woman in first class and a man in third. Its haunting theme music, "My Heart Will Go On," can still cause a lump to form in my throat.

The Union Station exhibit included 250 artifacts recovered from the ocean floor; a scale model of the ship before it sank; photographs of passengers and crew members; and re-creations of the boiler room and a third-class cabin. There were also life-sized photographs of the Grand Staircase, a first-class cabin, the Turkish bath, the gym, the Verandah Café, the promenade decks, a men's smoking room and a ladies' reading room. To add some "feel" to the display, there was an "iceberg" too - a large ice wall that visitors could touch. Most who died did not drown, but succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

For engineer Art, the fascination is in the sheer magnitude of the ship and how it was designed at a time when there were no computers or even calculators. It took 10,000 men three years to build the hull and internal structure. They used three million rivets on the 46,328-ton vessel. It had 15 water-tight bulkheads and remote-controlled doors, which made commentators call it "practically unsinkable." When it left port, it had 5,892 tons of coal on board. It consumed a little more than a pound of coal for every yard it moved.

The Titanic was the White Star Line's pride and joy and was about twice the weight of the company's "Big Four" ships - the Cedric, the Celtic, the Baltic and the Adriatic. My Grandpa Nels Mostrom traveled from Sweden to the United States on the Adriatic just two and a half years earlier.

The Titanic was separated by "class" as was common then. A first-class passenger paid $2,500 - equivalent to $57,200 today. These cabins were lavish, trimmed with mahogany and lush fabrics. A luxury suite cost $4,500 - or about $103,000 in today's currency.

First-class passenger Lady Lucille Duff Gordon wrote, "Fancy strawberries in April, and in mid-ocean. The whole thing is positively uncanny. Why you would think you were at the Ritz."

Second-class cabins weren't shabby either. Those passengers had access to nice staterooms, a library and a promenade deck.

Even third-class passengers fared pretty well. A ticket cost $40 - about $900 today - and it provided a cabin that slept four. The bunk had mattresses rather than the straw used on other passenger ships. However, there were only two bathtubs to serve 700 passengers.

Crew members had separate sleeping and eating areas and were unseen except when they were attending to passengers.

Katie's third-class ticket was for Mrs. Benjamin Peacock (Edith Nile) who was accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter and her 9-month-old son. All three perished.

My ticket was for third-class passenger Mrs. William Coutts (Winnie Trainer.) Winnie and her two sons, William, 9, and Neville, 3, survived. They were on their way to the U.S. to join her husband, who had found work as an engraver.

Art's ticket belonged to first-class passenger Francis Davis Willet, a decorative artist who was superintendent of decoration at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Willet died.

Lacey said her ticket was for a honeymooning couple. Tongue in cheek, she said, �I knew we wouldn�t die ... because we were in love.�

Mariya's passenger was a woman with her four children traveling in third class from Sweden. Their plan was to meet up with her husband in America, but all of them died.

Some of the recovered artifacts told bits and pieces about their owners' lives: the silk hat and silk bow tie, the Masonic Lodge badge, the elephant pendant, the pipe, the clarinet, the sheet music - including "Pleasant Memories," the boot with "EWP" marked on the heel, the razor, the postcard from Bora Bora, the tools, the handkerchief, the toothpaste jar, playing cards ...

There is some disagreement about whether efforts to recover artifacts such as these is a good thing. But scientists estimate that in 40-90 years there will be nothing left of the Titanic, for the iron hull is rusting away. I'm on the side of those who are preserving what they can.

After we left, I began to wonder what it is about the Titanic that still captures our imaginations after a century. Perhaps part of it lies in the knowledge that the tragedy might have been averted if just one or two small things had been different - if the ship's crew had paid attention to ice warnings from other vessels; if it had not been traveling at nearly full speed when it hit the iceberg; if it had hit the iceberg at a different angle; if the crew of the Californian, only 10 miles away, had come to the Titanic's aid; if there had been enough lifeboats.

Perhaps another part is the contrast between the expectations and the outcome. We saw some of that with the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986. Events moved from the triumph of the human spirit to tragedy in the blink of an eye.

But maybe Katie summed it up best.

"I mean, 1,500 is just a number," she said. "But when you think of all those people who all had hopes and dreams, well it's just sad."

The "ticket" at the right is the one I was given. Similar ones were issued to the others in the family and, left-to-right, Katie, Lacey, Mariya, Art and I are holding these tickets in the left image.

However, the left image is a composition. When we entered the exhibit, our picture was taken in front of a green screen. The screen was then removed and replaced with Titanic-related elements. This is how Captain Edward J. Smith could "appear" as a ghost on the grand staircase at the left. A close inspection reveals that Lacey's middrift has also been "replaced" because that part of her clothing was of a similar green color.

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