Skip to main content

Why the Titanic fascinates more than other disasters

By Stephen D. Cox, Special to CNN
April 9, 2012 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
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
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT