What sank the Titanic?

The Titanic was in 'a killing zone of nature,' says author Timothy Maltin.

Science teacher Lawrence Beesley later wrote about the last moments on the Titanic, listing scientific details that show insight into what caused the sinking of the ship.

Did hubris doom the Titanic? How about simple human error when an iceberg loomed dead ahead? Or maybe the iceberg deserves all the blame.

Tim Maltin, a British author, has another theory. In the new Smithsonian Channel documentary "Titanic's Final Mystery" (aka "Titanic: Case Closed" in other countries), Maltin concludes that the natural world conspired against the ship.

"The Titanic was very much in a killing zone of nature due to atmospheric conditions," he said. "A mirage, high pressure and darkness just came together."

The result: The Titanic's lookout didn't see the iceberg in time, and a nearby ship failed to come to the rescue.

Maltin didn't reach his conclusion on his own. He got plenty of help from those who were there, thanks to the words they'd subsequently write in books, articles and letters. He's compiled several of their tales in the new book "Titanic, First Accounts."

In an interview on the eve of the anniversary of the Titanic's sinking, Maltin talked about what we can learn by listening directly to those who witnessed horror and heroism on a frigid night a century ago.

Q: Lawrence Beesley, a British science teacher and Christian Scientist, wrote about the last moments of the Titanic later in 1912. What did you learn from Beesley's account?

A: He's analytical about everything since he's a scientist, and he's so accurate and unbiased. He thinks the best thing he can do is wait to be saved, use logic and be part of the universe.

He gives a very accurate description of seemingly unimportant details which are so important now. They gave me a lot of clues about the atmospheric conditions.

He could see the Californian [a potential rescue ship] in the distance, and he says, "Gosh, how could that ship just have ignored our distress signals when she's so close? But we mustn't judge now, we must wait."

What we've discovered is the evidence that Lawrence Beesley has been waiting for for 100 years, that the Titanic sinking was caused by the universe.

It wasn't really simply human error. It was very much a killing zone of nature due to atmospheric conditions – extreme high pressure and no moon, calm waters, and most importantly, this thing called a thermal inversion.

A mirage, high pressure and darkness just came together.

Q: You write that many of the survivors talk about what they saw but not what they felt. From the perspective of our Oprah-ized time, that seems a bit odd. Do you think people were simply less likely to talk about their feelings back then?

A: It was the culture of the time. But you can still tell what people thought by what they did.

Look at Helen Churchill Candee. She's a first-class passenger carrying her most treasured possession, a miniature portrait of her mother. She stops on the stairs and sees a man friend of hers, and she gives him this most precious thing in the world. She says, look after this for me.

This tells you that she believed the Titanic wasn't going to sink, that she thought getting into a lifeboat would be dangerous and all the men would be much safer on the ship.

She was rescued. The man's body was found in the sea, and the locket was in his pocket. She was able to get the locket back.

Q: What do you think people misunderstand about the Titanic story?

What really strikes me is how similar they were to us deep down. They were absolutely the same as us. That's what gives us the Titanic its power. It's not a black-and-white story about people who were different than us. It's a full-color story about people who are the same as us.

They were getting divorced, having affairs. There were a pair of boys who'd been kidnapped by their father. There were con men, card sharks, people traveling under assumed names.

On the other hand, they were brave and caring.

It's very easy to look at the Titanic and say they were very bigoted, that they lived in a stratified, unfair society. But they were good like us as well, and the discrimination between the classes was not what people make it out today.

However, they did have much more confidence than we do, much more confidence in themselves that their way was the right way. They were very much empire builders, and they believed their technology would overcome everything.

It was a world where things made sense, where everything seemed to be on a straight-line curve to getting better.

Maltin writes more extensively about his Titanic theories in a new e-book called "Titanic: A Very Deceiving Night." He's also the author of "101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic... But Didn't."

For more on the Titanic, read my recent review of three new Titanic books and check out my look at five extraordinary survivors. And last year, I interviewed author Frances Wilson about her new book "How to Survive the Titanic, or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay."

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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