A century ago, the people of Belfast celebrated one of their proudest days — the launching of the supposedly unsinkable Titanic. The Northern Ireland capital commemorated that bittersweet anniversary Tuesday with cheers from schoolchildren in Edwardian period costumes, the tooting of foghorns, and a hymn-singing dockside choir.
The doomed Titanic was launched into Belfast Lough on May 31, 1911. Ten months later, more than 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers and crew drowned or froze to death awaiting rescue after it struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage to New York City.
For decades Belfast didn't publicize its status as the birthplace of the world's most infamous maritime disaster. But ever since James Cameron's film "Titanic" became a worldwide blockbuster in 1997, Belfast has been working to build a new community and tourism hub on its once-derelict docklands, now christened TitanicQuarter and one of the biggest construction sites in Europe.
"As soon as you say 'Titanic,' most people think of the sinking," said the Rev. Chris Bennett, a Protestant minister who officiated at Tuesday's ceremony.
"But here in Belfast we're trying to recapture that idea that the Titanic is something to be proud of. This fabulous, biggest man-made moving object in the world was built right here," said Bennett, whose Church of Ireland parish holds open-air services each Sunday on the docks and is raising funds for a boat to serve as its full-time church.
At 12:13 p.m., the Belfast crowd was told to clap, shout and cheer for exactly 62 seconds. That's the amount of time it took the Titanic's 882-foot (269-meter) hull to slide from its slipway into the water for the first time. Boats in the harbor blew their horns as a single flare was fired into the sky.
While Tuesday's ceremony recalled the launch of the Titanic, only the ship's hull and its 3 million rivets — suspected now of metallurgical weaknesses that contributed to its sinking — were put to the test that day. It took another 10 months for Harland & Wolff workers at a nearby dock to fit the ship's four smokestacks, decks, rooms and myriad luxury touches.
Behind Tuesday's celebrations is a determined decade-long push to transform the former shipyards from an industrial wasteland into Belfast's sharpest new residential and tourist district, a 1 billion-pound ($1.65 billion) project.
A new Titanic Quarter visitors center expected to open before next year's 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking will focus on the liner's 1909-12 construction. Belfast City Council hopes it will attract 400,000 tourists annually to Belfast, a city of just 700,000.
The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum east of Belfast also launched a major exhibit Tuesday of artifacts from the Titanic's construction and wreck.