The most dreadful disasters make us wonder how we would respond were we in the middle of it. That's especially true of those events that slowly evolve from concern to horror.
On the Titanic, almost three hours elapsed between the thud of the iceberg and the final plunge into the icy Atlantic. When the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center commenced, its victims had more than an hour of uncertainty before the first tower fell. Both tragedies involved modern engineering feats that were supposed to withstand the worst, lending false confidence to many who were there.
On the Titanic, one young passenger's recollections offer an especially useful picture of what it was like. With her parents making the decisions, Marguerite Frolicher was free to mainly observe both the commonplace and the extraordinary.
Frolicher was 22 when her Swiss parents booked first-class passage on the Titanic for a business trip to New York. Fifty years ago, as a grandmother living peacefully in California, Frolicher shared her memories with a reporter from the Norwalk Hour, in Connecticut.
She had spent most of the trip obsessed with seasickness. Thus, she was half-dressed in bed when she felt "a tremendous shock running through the ship." Her mother called it "a collision," and Marguerite responded that she was feeling well enough to get out of bed. A Swiss doctor on the ship, a family friend, joshed that "it needs an iceberg to get you up."
Frolicher and her parents put on life jackets. She recalled, "We looked like three barrels walking about."
A steward came by to tell them that the boat couldn't sink, no need to worry. But Frolicher's father was a seasoned ocean traveler and instinctively knew something was very wrong: Sailors almost never appear on the first-class deck, and they were there running around.
On an upper deck, the crew was placing passengers in lifeboats. Frolicher and her mother were put in separate boats along with other women and children. Her father called out "auf Wiedersehen" (goodbye) but was then given a seat because there was still room. Infamously and disgracefully, some of the lifeboats were launched mostly empty.
Frolicher was seasick on the lifeboat. A doctor aboard handed her cognac, and she was cured.
"All around us we heard a great wailing," Frolicher recalled. After a while, they "heard an awful crash, which was repeated as the Titanic sank, and then there was a great silence." But out of that silence came "many cries in the night." Dawn finally arrived with "a marvelous sunrise," and the Cunard liner Carpathia soon appeared to pick them up.
A few years later, Frolicher married another Swiss native in New York. The headline on the New York Times society page read, "Titanic survivor engaged."
The press had no photos of the Titanic actually going down 100 years ago. That was totally unlike the Twin Towers disaster, where visual images and audio captured every excruciating minute. Hard to believe, however, cellphones were not everywhere 10 years ago. The desperate need to communicate during the tragedy set off a surge in cellphone buying.
The Twin Towers' collapse was more democratic in its choice of victims. Rich, middle class and working class alike perished. After all, the choicest spaces with the commanding views were on the top floors.
The Titanic story continues to fascinate because of the ship's elegance, the stark class discrimination and arrogance about technology. But part of the Titanic fixation is a time line that, as with the Twin Towers calamity, lets us follow the stories of the survivors as their hopes were met, and of the doomed as their hopes were lost. The accounts make one tremble.