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P.R. disaster

Paul von Goertz of Duluth makes his living helping other companies promote themselves to the public. Occasionally public relations professionals have to deal with bad news. Von Goertz sometimes has to think about "worst-case scenarios," and that ...

Paul von Goertz of Duluth makes his living helping other companies promote themselves to the public. Occasionally public relations professionals have to deal with bad news. Von Goertz sometimes has to think about "worst-case scenarios," and that in turn has led to a long-term interest in one of the worst peacetime disasters of the 20th century: the sinking of the Titanic.
Now he has produced a slide show of how the White Star Line handled the disaster. The show debuted before the Rotary Club of Duluth Thursday.
Thanks to the blockbuster 1997 movie "Titanic," most people are familiar with the events leading up to the sinking. However, most of von Goertz's research focuses on the events that occurred in the days after the disaster.
When the Titanic went down April 15, 1912, 1,523 people died and 706 survived. Among the survivors was J. Bruce Ismay, the president of the White Star Line, owner of the Titanic. His survival, in and of itself, presented a public relations problem. However, a board of inquiry which held hearings in Washington, D.C., and New York found that Ismay encouraged people to get into the lifeboats, but that not everyone was willing to do so. Many people refused to believe that the pre-launch publicity that the Titanic was "unsinkable," was in error.
Ismay, however, had inside information from the ship's builder, Thomas Andrews, that the ship was sinking. (Andrews himself went down with the ship.) After Ismay could convince no one else in the immediate area to jump into the last lifeboat on the starboard side, there was still room so Ismay jumped in.
Von Goertz learned that the media began making inquiries about the Titanic because a number of shore stations heard its radio distress calls. However, there was a delay of several hours before any information was forthcoming.
Ismay, like the other lifeboat survivors, was picked up by the Carpathia. Once on board, the captain of the Carpathia asked him if he would like to send a message. The message said only, "Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning after collision with iceberg, resulting in serious loss of life. Full particulars later. Bruce Ismay."
The lack of information about the disaster led to many rumors, including one newspaper headline that read, "All saved from Titanic."
Von Goertz said, "Even given for his apparent state of mind at the time, (Ismay) could have provided more and better information."
Eventually, the Carpathia took the survivors of the Titanic to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where White Star paid for a train to take them on to their original New York destination. First-class passengers traveled by Pullman car, and second- and third-class passengers traveled by day coach.
Another ship, the Mackay-Bennett, a cable-layer, was sent by White Star to the area of the sinking and retrieved 306 bodies. Von Goertz learned that White Star contracted with a Halifax undertaker, John Snow and Company, to oversee funeral arrangements. Of the 306 bodies, 116 were too badly broken or decomposed and so were buried at sea. The remainder were taken to Halifax. The delivery was somewhat complicated by the fact that undertaker Snow underestimated the amount of embalming fluid that would be needed.
The dead passengers were treated in order of their passage, with the first-class passengers being embalmed and placed in wooden coffins. As many of the second-class and third-class dead as possible were embalmed, but placed in canvas body bags. The dead crew members were put literally on ice.
White Star paid to ship some of the bodies home for burial by relatives, but 150 were buried in Halifax. The burials in Halifax were paid for by White Star. White Star made every effort to identify each of the bodies, but where it couldn't, it took photos of the dead and sent them to its offices around the globe in hopes someone would be able to identify them.
The company bought small granite headstones for each of the passengers buried at Halifax. Von Goertz said, "All that remains for us to see of the Titanic saga are the graves of the dead, thanks to $7,500 deposited by White Star with the Royal Trust Company of Canada for the perpetual care of the graves."
Von Goertz visited the gravesites in August 1999 and also visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic where he gathered much of the information for his slide show.
The surviving crew members of the Titanic were treated poorly by White Star, von Goertz said. Upon reaching Halifax, the surviving crew was immediately transferred to the Lapland, a ship that headed back to England three days later. The crew was essentially held captive to keep them away from nosy reporters. Worse, the pay of the crew members was stopped as of 2:20 a.m. April 15, 1912, the approximate moment that the last of the Titanic sank under the waves.
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The commission that investigated the sinking determined that the collision was the result of excessive speed. Von Goertz says that if the collision had occurred 15 seconds earlier, the ship probably would have survived because the collision would have been more head-on, damaging only two or three compartments. If it had been 15 seconds later, he said, the Titanic may well have missed the iceberg altogether. As it was, a 300-foot long hole resulted from the collision.
The commission also found a proper watch was not kept, that the lifeboats were properly loaded but arrangements for manning them were insufficient, and that a nearby ship the California could have reached the Titanic before it sank if the captain had been vigilant in investigating the Titanic's distress rockets. The commission also exonerated Ismay, found the Titanic's course would have been reasonably safe with proper vigilance, and found no discrimination against third-class passengers in saving lives.
Von Goertz thinks the Titanic has held people's fascination for so long for several reasons. The ship was built to compete with Cunard's Maurentania, but the Maurentania was faster, so the pre-launch hype emphasized the safety and comfort of the Titanic. "There is a spiritual side to it," von Goertz said. "It's a Tower of Babel sort of thing" in that the technology was expected to overcome nature.
People are also fascinated by the times, because it was the end of the Victorian era with its rigid class structure, von Goertz said. He said people are interested in the chivalry of the men. For example, of 194 men traveling second-class, only 15 survived. Von Goertz speculates that those men were probably traveling with their families and put their wives and children in the lifeboats first. First-class passengers, he said, were used to privilege, and thus assumed that they would be first in the lifeboats.
Third-class passengers were younger, unmarried, and thus could be more aggressive about gaining a lifeboat seat.
Eventually, Titanic claimants brought suit for $17 million against White Star, but the company took advantage of the existing law in both the United States and Great Britain. Ultimately, the claimants received $663,000 total.
The White Star Line continued to exist but struggled to make a profit until it finally merged with the Cunard Line in 1936.
Von Goertz gives low marks to White Star Lines for handling the disaster. "It's always beneficial to be proactive, to be accessible, to have as much information as possible." he said.

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