This weekend will see the 100th anniversary of the Titanic – some of you might feel compelled to watch the movie, or some form of dramatisation.
The story of the Titanic is one of a ship seen as virtually unsinkable, trouble-spotters yelling “icebergs ahead” and business owners insisting “full-steam ahead”. Yes there's lots there to think about in terms of projects for sure.
What happened with the Titanic as with many projects which get into trouble, tends not to be a single failure, but a lot of things conspiring to produce absolute disaster.
Notice the term “virtually” there (it'll come back to haunt us). There was good reason for this claim to be "virtually unsinkable" – the Titanic had the most advanced system of safety features for it's time. It had watertight compartments, so it could survive damage to 3 of it's compartments and still remain afloat.
However the iceberg strike damaged 5 compartments, and the watertight compartments didn't go high enough so once they flooded to a certain level they failed completely.
It was known that the Titanic was entering an area of icebergs. Titanic received warnings of this over the radio, and some iceberg activity was seen around the ship. However the ship never slowed.
It was considered more important that the ship arrive on time, and such liners were usually ran at their maximum cruising speed to assure this. It's interesting that Captain Smith had gone on record saying over icebergs he could not "imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that."
Tragically – in this deadly situation the people whose hands the ship was in were the lookouts … and they weren't allowed the tools (binoculars) to be effective.
Ironically ships before had run into icebergs and survived with only bow damage. It was Titanics attempt to evade the iceberg which caused it's problems, it caused the iceberg to graze the ships side, damaging multiple compartments as it went. A frontal impact would have most likely damaged one or two compartments (which the ship was designed to cope with).
Once the disaster happened, yet more problems conspired. Much is known how the ship, again having all the necessary lifeboats for the time, only had lifeboats for half the passengers and crew.
But the less than half those on board survived … the crew were not practiced in lifeboat boarding techniques, not even knowing how many people could survive in each boat – some boats were sent out with only half the people on-board.
Combine this with the fact that there were ships nearby who were not obliged (by the regulations of the time) to keep radio operators through the night, so failed to receive the Titanics distress signals, and mistook the distress flares for fireworks.
When you look at disasters like the Titanic, the Challenger Space Shuttle and the Chernobyl meltdown there are similar themes which come out,
- A lack of imagination to believe a problem could occur. Who could believe 5 compartments could be damaged? So only contingency for 3 was built in. In hindsight only having lifeboats for half the occupants is staggering - yet for the time this was considered more than adequate.
- Overconfidence in technology. Captains Smiths comments on how modern shipbuilding is beyond problems with icebergs turned out unjustified. He didn't even see there being a risk for running at speed in an iceberg area.
- Driven by demand. The Titanics need to keep to a timetable meant it would not modify it's speed in a dangerous area. Richard Feynman would say something similar during the Challenger inquiry, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
- Insufficient contingency or disaster plan. Not using lifeboats to their full capacity. Not having an agreed system with other ships to monitor for maydays or distress flares.
The Titanic has stuck with us mentally because of the scale of these follies and the awful human price that was paid. That's why there will always be a sad attraction and fascination to it's story, and why even 100 years on it still haunts us ...