Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Titanic teaches vigilance

  • Print

In January 1945, a converted German hospital ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was sunk by Russian torpedoes in the Baltic Sea, killing more than 9,000 people, most of them civilians, including 4,000 children. It is the greatest seagoing disaster in history. The worst maritime disaster in Canadian history happened in 1914 when the Empress of Ireland collided with another ship and sank in the St. Lawrence, with more than 1,000 lost.

And yet, when the subject of ocean disasters is raised, it's the Titanic that towers above them all. The catastrophe has spawned an encyclopedia of metaphors for wilful blindness in the face of disaster, avoidable catastrophe, incredible stupidity, hubris and a range of other superlatives that worked their way into the English lexicon over the last 100 years.

Movie director James Cameron has even called it a metaphor for the end of the human race caused by global warming. Apparently the human race is heading toward disaster by ignoring the warning signs about climate, much the way the Titanic's captain disregarded numerous reports the ship was heading toward a massive icefield.

As evidenced by the proliferation of TV documentaries, books and exhibitions on the 100th anniversary of the sinking, the Titanic is truly unsinkable in terms of its impact on the imagination and the quest for an enduring meaning.

The sinking affected people around the world, including in Manitoba. Some 30 passengers had a Manitoba connection, according to author Michael Dupuis. Other sources say at least 22 of them died along with 1,500 others that frigid night in the North Atlantic. The city went into mourning for all the victims, with special church services and fundraisers to help orphans and widows.

The White Star Line, owner of the Titanic, had an office in a building at 333 Main St., adjacent to the Bank of Montreal building. The building's windows featured the Titanic in various stages of construction, evidence of the worldwide interest in the project. When the building was demolished in 1980, there wasn't a peep about its link to the disaster.

Five years later, the wreck was discovered at the bottom of the Atlantic, and the story surfaced once again.

While there have been greater disasters since the Titanic, the ship's brief life had all the elements of a great novel. It was the greatest, largest, fastest and most luxurious ship of its time, an unsinkable leviathan, as its owners boasted. The ship's manifest was a microcosm of the contemporary class structure and a reflection of the great disparity in wealth and status between the poor and the rich. The poor also died in the disaster at a higher rate than the wealthy. It was an epic disaster transmitted around the world via the new technology of wireless telegraph.

The central lessons of the Titanic remain relevant today. It's about risk, and how much of it scientists, explorers, government and society are prepared to accept in the pursuit of more knowledge, convenience and scientific achievement.

As Mr. Cameron stated at a NASA symposium: "Titanic teaches us to be constantly vigilant, to assume nothing about our methodology, to constantly ask the question, 'What are we doing wrong right now?' "

He noted the Titanic's captain was criticized for steaming at full speed into a icefield, but that's the way ships had always operated because they had the ability to slow down and turn quickly. The Titanic, however, was much larger than any other ship afloat, and its designers failed to ask whether the old practices followed by smaller ships would work.

It was hubris of a sort, but more important, it was a failure to constantly re-evaluate our methods and our knowledge to ensure they are valid. It's the kind of mistake that has been repeated numerous times since the Titanic met its end. One hundred years later, the lessons of eternal vigilance and humility remain as valid as ever.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 A16

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Lawless in the Morning: Former NHLer Jeff O'Neill, Montreal Canadiens and help for the Jets

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 060710 The full moon rises above the prairie south of Winnipeg Monday evening.
  • horse in sunset - marc gallant

View More Gallery Photos


Will the closure of Future Shop affect your shopping?

View Results

Ads by Google