It is a cold, dark night at the South Pole as I write these words. One hundred years ago almost to the hour it was cold and dark in the North Atlantic. RMS Titanic had struck ice and was on her way to the bottom of the ocean two and a half miles below. About 700 people were already in life boats; the remaining 1500 would have to do the best they could in the icy waters. Those with floatation devices would perhaps survive a little longer than those without, but the final outcome would be the same.
Those unlucky enough not to have found room in the lifeboats experienced a “cold shock response” as soon as they entered the frigid waters. Rapid cooling of their skin produced an immediate gasp, an inability to hold one’s breath, and hyperventilation. At this stage some older passengers may have met a mercifully quick end as a result of increased cardiac workload which is also part of this response. After the first 2 minutes, those in the water started to become incapacitated as their extremities rapidly cool. Finger stiffness, loss of coordination, and diminished muscle power would make it increasing difficult to perform even simple actions that might increase their chances for survival. Since water conducts heat away from the body about 25 times as fast as air at the same temperature, falling body core temperatures would be the major contributing factor to death for most. Survival time in water depends on sea conditions, body size, and clothing. In the early morning of 15 April 1912, the sea was as calm as glass with no wind. Cries for help from those in the water persisted for over an hour before silence descended upon this tragic scene. I can only begin to imagine the horrific view awaiting the survivors when the sun arose on that spring morning exactly a century ago.
At Amundsen-Scott Station we commemorated the event today (Sunday), our only day off, with 9 hours of Titanic movies and documentaries. Despite the great distance from the South Pole to the North Atlantic, I suspect there is some sort of emotional resonance for those passengers aboard the Titanic – the mutually shared harsh, unforgiving environment and the complete dependence upon technology to stay alive. For Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic, the failure of technology and the hubris of the ship’s designers, crew, and steamship company resulted in needless loss of life. I only hope this tragic event so long ago will serve as a continuing reminder to us all the importance of humility and maintaining a healthy respect for God’s creation.