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Commemorative events will be held across the UK, including in Liverpool at the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

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The unsinkable ship

The 100th anniversary of the Titanic celebrates the era that created the iconic cruise liner

Almost exactly one hundred years ago, Captain Edward Smith of Titanic asked Quartermaster William Fitzpatrick of the White Star Line to join his crew. Fortunately, my grandfather thanked him but said he was quite happy where he was.

Who knows what would have happened had he accepted? After all, it was a quartermaster that was at the helm of Titanic when it struck that iceberg.

April 15, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest maritime tragedies of all time, in which over 1500 people died in the frigid North Atlantic. Commemorative events will be held around the globe as the anniversary approaches. Some of the most ardent Titanic enthusiasts will be aboard the cruise liner Balmoral (fredolsencruises.com) as it retraces the exact route of the fated ship. It will carry the same number of passengers as Titanic, offer the same menus and, in the early morning hours of April 15, 2012, a memorial service will be held directly over the wreck site.

Scores of other events will be held around the world but the anniversary will be most closely observed in the cities (titaniccities.org.uk) directly connected to Titanic: Belfast, Liverpool and Southampton in the UK, Cobh in Ireland and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Bound for Belfast

Titanic and Olympic were identical vessels built side-by-side in the Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff. Enlarged slipways were needed to accommodate what would be the biggest ships ever built. Titanic, completed seven months after Olympic, was launched on May 31, 1911. And it is in Belfast that the biggest and most ambitious 100th anniversary project (discovernorthernireland.com/titanic2012) is taking place.

Titanic Belfast (titanicbelfast.com), opening on March 31, 2012, is a major cultural and visitor attraction celebrating the city’s maritime heritage. A glittering metal-faced building, inspired by the bow of Titanic, forms the focus of the new Titanic Quarter of the city. The building will have nine galleries of interactive exhibition space including re-creations of the ship’s decks and cabins and an “immersive theatre” ride to explore Titanic’s final resting place.

Visitors will experience what life was like in Belfast of the early 1900s, see how the great ships were built, and learn about the lives of passengers and crew. The building is located at the head of the slipways where Titanic and Olympic were built. These too will be accessible to the public.

Close by in Hamilton Dock is the SS Nomadic, the only White Star Line vessel still afloat. It was used as a tender to carry passengers to and from the great liners and years later ended up as a floating restaurant in Paris. In 2006, the Nomadic was towed back to Belfast from France and is expected to be completely restored as a permanent exhibit in time for the anniversary.

Other events taking place in Belfast in 2012 include exhibits at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and a staged re-creation of the sinking played out in a Belfast theatre 100 years to the exact moment when Titanic sank. One of many specialized boat, bus and walking tours will be conducted by Susie Millar, great-granddaughter of Thomas Millar, who not only helped build Titanic but sailed on her as well.

The line to Liverpool

Titanic was registered in Liverpool, head office of the White Star Line and home port for its trans-Atlantic liners until 1907. The new ship was scheduled to call at Liverpool on the way from Belfast to Southampton, but the visit was cancelled almost at the last minute.

Since 1907, White Star ships to New York made Southampton their home port as it was much closer to London. Most crew members, my grandfather among them, made the move south. But many of Titanic’s crew still came from Liverpool, including the musicians that famously played as the ship went down.

In March 2012, the Merseyside Maritime Museum (www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime) will open a new Titanic exhibit to complement its existing Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress exhibition. The new exhibit explores the links between Titanic and the city and tells the story from the perspective of some of the key personalities involved including Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, Captain Edward Smith, a member of the ship’s band, a first-class stewardess and individual first- and third-class passengers.

Southampton memorial

The commemoration of the anniversary will be particularly poignant in Southampton. Four out of every five crew members gave Southampton as their home address — and a third of those who perished were from the city.

I happened to be in Southampton on the 99th anniversary of the sinking and saw first-hand that the connection is still very much alive. Close to my hotel was a memorial to Titanic’s engineers. Three floral tributes had been placed on the memorial. Two were from historical societies, but the third caught my eye because of the rain smeared hand-written card. It was from the family of one of the men commemorated on the dark granite.

The very first memorial service, five days after the tragedy, was held here in St. Mary’s Church on 20 April 1912. My mother may have been in that congregation for it was the church she regularly attended and was later married in. Certainly, as a teenaged girl she stood beside her mother just 10 days earlier watching the great ship leave Southampton. A commemorative service is still held each year at St Mary’s.

Sixteen crew survivors who returned to the city are buried in Hollybrook Cemetery, including Frederick Fleet, the ship’s lookout.

A major new Sea City Museum (seacity.co.uk) adjoining the distinctive Civic Centre is scheduled to open in April 2012. One of the galleries will tell Southampton’s Titanic story, focussing on the little-known history of the ship’s crew and what it was like to be in the merchant navy a hundred years ago. The first temporary exhibit in 2012 will be Titanic: The Legend focussing on the international fascination with the Titanic story.

Other events range from telling the Titanic story in song, to heritage waterfront walks and a symphonic concert on the waterfront featuring music from the White Star Line songbook.

Set a course for Cobh

Close to noon on April 11, 1912, Titanic anchored briefly just off Roches Point at the entrance to the harbour of Cobh (then called Queenstown) in southeast Ireland. It was to be the liner’s last port of call. Of the 123 passengers ferried out to the ship from the White Star pier on that fine spring day, only 44 survived. Remarkably, the pier behind the old White Star Line building is still there. Close by in Pearse Square is a simple memorial to those who died.

For the 100th anniversary (titanic100.ie), the town is planning to open a garden featuring a glass wall inscribed with the names of the 123 Irish passengers. And the White Star Line building is being converted to an interactive Titanic museum (titanicsdock.com) planned to open in time for the commemoration.

The Cobh Heritage Centre (cobhheritage.com), next to the dock where today’s cruise ships berth, tells the story of Ireland’s emigrants and the potato famine that caused so many to leave their homeland. Recently a Titanic exhibit was added. Cobh also has a self-guiding Titanic Trail (titanic-trail.com) that visitors can follow with the aid of an excellent booklet and map.

Michael Martin, who established the Titanic Trail, conducts regular year-round tours on the history of Cobh and its links to Titanic.

During the actual anniversary week, a series of events will be held including the visit of the cruise ship Balmoral as it re-creates the original voyage.

Halifax vigil

Halifax was the closest major port to where Titanic sank and ships from the city took part in the search for bodies. All recovered bodies were taken to the city along with pieces of wreckage. Victims were buried in three Halifax cemeteries, including 121 in Fairview Cemetery. About one-third of the bodies remain unidentified to this day.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (museum.gov.ns.ca/mma) plans to refresh its permanent exhibit on the disaster which includes among its artifacts what is probably the only deck chair recovered from the ship. The museum’s temporary exhibit for 2012 will be the history of cable laying ships in Atlantic Canada. Two of these ships, Mackay-Bennett and Minia, were dispatched to recover bodies from Titanic and the experience of their sailors makes a compelling and moving narrative.

The city will hold a 10-day Titanic 100 Festival (titanic100.ca) of commemorative events that will include concerts, a spiritual service and a candlelight vigil. The Balmoral will also visit Halifax on its way to New York. A new Titanic memorial is planned for the waterfront but seems unlikely to be ready in time for the anniversary. It is sometimes forgotten that 132 Canadians were aboard the ship.

The Titanic story seems to endlessly fascinate the world — witness the overwhelming success of James Cameron’s blockbuster movie a few years ago. There’s even a Titanic museum in Branson, Missouri of all places. Perhaps this fascination is in part because the disaster brought together so many aspects of the human condition; everything from heroism to cowardice. The class difference in the ratios of those saved also shocked the world: all first-class children were saved but less than a third of third-class child passengers survived.

The sinking of this so-called “unsinkable” ship ushered in new standards of marine safety and improved construction techniques. By the time my father served aboard Olympic after World War I, Titanic’s sister ship had been nicknamed “Old Reliable.” With its hull strengthened and more lifeboats added Olympic went on to have a long and distinguished service with White Star until taken out of commission in 1935.

So thanks, Grandad, for turning down Captain Smith. Good thinking.

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