Researching the Titanic is addictive, as dozens of forums will testify. There are people who’ve devoted their spare time and energy to working out which passengers occupied which cabins, what exactly happened to everyone on board during the sinking, and all kinds of minutiae connected with the ship. For me, the fascination lies in exploring the stories of individuals, trying to get a sense of what kind of character they were and then finding out what they did on the night of 14th/15th April 1912. And it forces you to ask: what would you have done?
Would you have made the mistake many third-class passengers made of waiting for someone in authority to come and tell you what to do? Or would you have appreciated the danger and tried to find your own way up to the boat deck? If so, how good is your sense of direction? The layout of the ship was confusing for staff, never mind passengers.
If you were a married woman and were invited to get on a lifeboat, would you have left your husband behind? Bear in mind that it was never announced that the ship was sinking because they didn’t want to create panic, so until quite late in the day many thought the lifeboats were just a precaution. I think I’d have been reluctant to leave my partner, because I love him and he’s a practical sort who’s good in an emergency. But if I’d stayed with him, the likelihood is we’d both have died.
If you were a man who’d been refused permission to board a lifeboat, would you have obeyed? Or would you have kept trying until you managed to get on one, even if it meant being accused of being ‘ungentlemanly’?
Some things haven’t changed in the century since the Titanic sank. Studies that have looked at a range of modern transport disasters show there’s a huge element of luck in it, of course, but that you can increase your chances of survival if you think for yourself. When the Estonia sank in the Baltic in September 1994, only 138 of the 959 people on board survived, and they were the ones who were either on the top deck at the time, or who realised the danger more or less straight away and were fit enough to make their way up there, giving them a chance of getting on a liferaft. It is estimated that 757 passengers stayed below deck, meaning they didn’t stand a chance.
A report for New Scientist about the types of people who survive disasters had the following advice:
• Listen to the safety advice and read any literature about emergency procedures at the start of each journey, whether by boat, plane or train.
• At the first sign of trouble, stop and think for yourself. What could go wrong, and what is the best position for you to be in if it does?
• Decide on a course of action, and then take it. Fast.