|"Untergang der Titanic",|
by Willy Stöwer, from Wikimedia Commons
There is a running joke about using a time machine to go kill your grandfather. I mean to save mine.
April 17, 1912 saw one of the greatest maritime disasters in history. Everyone knows about it: the Titanic, having first dodged a near-collision with another liner as it left port in England, then surviving a brush with an iceberg, came into New York harbor at full steam. It ran aground and capsized. There were few survivors.
I saw the disaster, and nearly did not live to tell of it. I was part of a great crowd, gathered to see the marvelous ship arrive safe in port. Safe! My grandfather, who had retired from the steamer lines, insisted on bringing me to see. I was glad to come, if only to escape school for a day. I remember it was a chilly day, and I was glad for my new jacket.
“The finest ship built by the hand of man,” Grandfather told me as we first caught sight of the proud liner, entering the harbor. “A pity we didn’t come sooner,” he said, waving at the crowded pier.
“You think we could board it?” I asked, every inch the wide-eyed innocent.
“If we can find a man I know—hoo, she’s comin’ in fast. The captain better be going full-reverse—ho!” A tugboat turned hard a-port to avoid the speeding Titanic. “We best get back!”
Too late—the spectators crowding the pier realized the danger as well, and we were swept up in the panicking mob. I stumbled, but Grandfather was there to snatch me up, and we joined the jostling throng. The horrors of that morning are still etched on my memory, and I need only close my eyes to see them once again. Looking over Grandfather’s shoulder, unable to turn away, I saw it all. Smoke poured from the funnels, the mighty engines at full throttle to the last. I saw passengers on deck, fighting to board lifeboats, falling or jumping overboard into the murky waters of the harbor. Terrified faces in the crowd all around me, screaming and cursing. I saw a young woman fall with a shriek, and others running over the place she fell. Though I watched, I never saw her get back up.
I had little time to think There I would be, if not for Grandfather, because the crowning horror now unfolded. With a screeching and tearing noise even louder than the voices around me, the doomed Titanic ran aground. I saw the hull crumple beneath the weight of the ship above it, but its immense momentum carried it forward, forward, up and out of Poseidon’s realm and onto the land from whence it came. I saw passengers, clustered around the now-useless lifeboats, scatter across the deck in all directions.
“It’s falling our way!” I shouted to Grandfather. But others heard, and foolishly paused in their flight to look behind them. Some stood stock-still, dooming themselves double if such a thing were possible. Grandfather bulled our way past several stricken refugees, knocking one or two aside to gain more distance. With the groan of a ravenous monster, the beached ship heeled over, its shadow racing far faster than the tiny morsels trying to escape its hunger.
Grandfather pushed on, trying to get clear, as the hull loomed ever nearer. Even as a child, I knew that getting clear of the hull itself would not be enough—the superstructure would tear free and crush anyone beneath. And for those unfortunate enough to be in the path of the funnels, even the most legendary runners could not escape their fate. But he drove himself onward, although by now he must have been frightfully tired with the added burden of myself.
I recall only snatches of the end. The cries of despair from those behind us, terrified screams as more would-be escapees stumbled and fell from fatigue or over the feet of others around them, the hull and superstructure looming above. There were things falling from the deck—chairs, lifeboats, people, detritus—striking down those behind us. I remember hearing Grandfather’s last words, Ah, shit! and how he flung me forward, giving me all his momentum in his last second of life. The thunder that went on and on, the blast of air flinging me onward. I try not to think about what flew around and past me in that moment.
When I hit the ground, I tumbled like a rag doll, coming to rest at last with a broken arm and more bruises than I could count. (This I only learned later, waking up in a hospital with my frantic mother at my side.)
It was only later that the public learned of the telegraph operator, staying at his post until the last, telling any who had a radio of the cause of the disaster. I cared little, and care little still. Nineteen years have passed, and at long last I am in a position to prevent it. Unbeknownst to the crew, I have made a tiny adjustment in the rudder trim. The Titanic shall strike the iceberg more than a glancing blow, crippling the doomed liner, and its passengers shall be picked up and brought home safely. How many men have saved thousands of lives at a single stroke? I am already a hero, though none may know.
Grandfather, I shall see you soon.