More than 1,500 people were lost the night theTitanic went down, and the story never dies.
There was more proof of that today at Sotheby's auction house in London, where bidders paid $81,000 for items that had belonged to Charles Herbert Lightoller, the Titanic's second officer.
Among other things, Lightoller — the highest-ranking officer to survive the sinking — saved a menu from a luncheon held for the crew before the Titanic sailed. (Lunch included "Golden Plover on Toast," cream of chicken soup, and "Pudding Sans Souci.") The menu fetched $49,500.
Another bidder paid $9,500 for the ticket Lightoller's wife used for entry to the Ladies Gallery at the official enquiry conducted by the British government in London.
But to the curators of a museum in Belfast, the ship's home port, the prize ($13,500) was a 17-page memoir Lightoller typed out, some time before he died in 1952. The story it tells is, of course, not entirely new, but it is as chilling as the North Atlantic in April.
"Every generation rediscovers the Titanic," says Dr. Robert Ballard, the explorer who found the wreck in 1985, "and in so doing, learns more about it."
‘A Distinct and Unpleasant Break’
Lightoller said it was "perilous cold" on April 14, 1912. He was just going to bed, at 11:40 that night, when he felt the Titanic shudder.
"Not by any means a violent concussion," he wrote, "but just a distinct and unpleasant break in the monotony of the motion."
He threw on some clothes, went back to the bridge, and within half an hour, was one of the select few who knew the ship was done for. Lightoller was put in charge of loading the lifeboats on the port, or left, side of the ship.
‘Women and Children Only’
"Passengers naturally kept coming up and asking did I consider the situation serious?" He wrote. "In all cases I tried to cheer them up by telling them no, that it was a matter of precaution."
But, of course, the situation was dire. Historians argue whether Lightoller and other officers made it worse.
The White Star Line, which owned the ship, maintained that in case of emergency, standard procedure was "women and children first."
Lightoller understood differently. "The order implicitly obeyed was 'Women and children only,'" he wrote.
He scared a group of men out of a lifeboat with the revolver he had been issued. "I had the satisfaction of seeing them tumbling head over heels on the deck, preferring that to the cold lead which I surmise they imagined would follow their disobedience. Actually the revolver was not loaded."
Then he had trouble finding enough women and children to take the men's places. History has been cruel to the Titanic's owners, who only provided enough lifeboat space for about 1,100 of the 2,200 people on board. In the end, there were only 700 survivors. It has been calculated that several of the lifeboats on Lightoller's side went into the water less than half-full.
"People say, 'Oh, he should have had more people getting into the lifeboats.' But at the end of the day he was doing what he was told to do, and what he had been trained to do," says Catherine Southon, the curator at Sotheby's who organized today's auction.
Charles Lightoller survived by climbing onto a capsized raft — and from there he watched the Titanic sink.
"It was just on two o'clock," his memoir concludes, "when she assumed the absolute perpendicular and stood there for a space of about two minutes, an amazing spectacle, with her stern straight up in the air. Then, first slowly, but with increasing speed, she quietly slipped beneath the water."