By BURKE WILKINSON
The night which Walter Lord reconjures for us in tense and telling detail is the night of April 14, 1912. It was a night of grandeur and terror. It was the end of an era of security and the beginning of a time of danger and disbelief. It was a night when legends were made and truths belied. It was the night that the Titanic went down, with a loss of 1,502 lives
There have been many books about the disaster. The Library of Congress lists half a hundred, including five eyewitness accounts, two by passengers on the Cunard liner Carpathia, which dashed fifty-eight miles through icy waters to pick up the survivors. The catastrophe has inspired four novels, six books of verse, two plays and one entry for the year 1912 called "An Unsinkable Titanic, with the ironic subtitle, "Every Ship Its Own Lifeboat."
Why another book? The performance answers the question. Mr. Lord, a New York advertising man and editor, has approached the mass of fact and folklore about the great ship as if the story were brand-new. He has interviewed sixty-three of the living survivors (there were 705 altogether). Using every available scrap of evidence that archive and memory can bring to the surface, he has set out to tell, simply and chronologically, the events of the night of the sinking. The result is a stunning book, incomparably the best on its subject and one of the most exciting books of this or any year.
The Titanic was five days out of Southampton on her maiden voyage. There was no moon, but the black North Atlantic night blazed with stars and the sea was like glass. There had been iceberg warnings---six in all that day. But such was the faith in her sixteen watertight compartments that she was considered unsinkable. The warnings were ignored and she was moving proudly along at 22½ knots, the largest, fastest and most glamorous ship in the world. Lookout Frederick Fleet spotted the iceberg directly ahead and gave the alarm to the bridge. Then for the next thirty-seven seconds he watched it come towering out of the night, high above his crow's-nest perch. At the last second, the bow turned away. But it was too late. The time was 11:40 P. M.
By 12:05 Capt. Edward J. Smith, the bearded patriarch of the White Star Line, knew his ship was doomed. Her designer, Thomas Andrews, told him so after inspection of the 300-foot gash made by the iceberg. In the smoking room the bridge players had gone on with their game. Down in the well deck some of the steerage passengers playfully threw chunks of ice at each other---several tons of it had crumbled off the berg as it passed. Quietly, like the leader he was, Captain Smith ordered the lifeboats to be uncovered.
There were sixteen wooden lifeboats and four collapsible canvas ones---enough for 1,178 of the 2,207 people on board---and the temperature of the Atlantic was 28 degrees. Such were the brutal facts that each man and woman on board faced in due course. How they acted is the core of Mr. Lord's account, and explains its fascination, a pull as powerful in its way as the last downward plunge of the ship herself. For we follow many people through the night hours---John Jacob Astor; a young Norwegian immigrant called Olaus Abelseth; Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, who alternated between energy and fear; Phillips, the radio operator who sent the first SOS in history; Mrs. Isidor Straus, who chose to stay with her husband, the gallant Andrews doing all in his power and then falling into a stunned apathy in the glittering lounge he had himself designed---these are but a few.
Mr. Lord very quietly explodes some persistent myths. The band played many tunes but it did not play "Nearer My God to Thee." From all evidence Maj. Archie Butt did not enforce the rule of women and children first with cocked pistols, nor did the lusty Mrs. John J. Brown run lifeboat No. 8 with a revolver. "But legends," the author remarks in one of his rare asides, "are part of great events, and if they help keep alive the memory of gallant self-sacrifice, they serve their purpose.
The element of fate, the Greek-tragedy overtones, induce this comment at the end: "If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday . . . if ice conditions had been normal . . . if she had seen the berg fifteen seconds sooner---or fifteen secomds later . . . if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher . . . if she had carried enough boats . . . if the Californian [cruising so close to the disaster) had only come. Had any of these ifs turned out right, every life would have been saved. But they all went against her."
For the most part, the author's style is so simple as to be almost an absence of style. But his great story needs no gilding, and he has given us that rarest of reading experiences---a book whose total effect is greater than the sum of its parts.
Mr. Wilkinson, a novelist and Naval Reserve Commander, is a frequent reviewer of books about the sea.