The human side of the Titanic disaster has become all but lost over 100 years after the tragedy. Today the only “people” readily remembered in popular memory are the one-dimensional stock characters from James Cameron’s 1997 chick/disaster flick loosely based on the story.
I believe the best way to combat popular amnesia is via a well-researched dramatic retelling of a forgotten –or otherwise misunderstood– historical event. The Titanic disaster is a poster child in the latter regard. Too many people either think it was all about a teen love story or just a Hollywood blockbuster with no basis in fact.
I chose Thomas Andrews as the subject of my recently published short story because his story called out to me from day one of my Titanic studies. I felt he deserved a far better dramatic treatment than James Cameron’s treatment of Mr. Andrews; wooden, one-dimensional cardboard cutout that not only wasted Victor Garber’s talents but also could have been just any other “good adult” in a teen drama. All you had to do was take away Andrew’s name, give Garber’s character a fictional one, and drop him into, say, a high school counselor’s office.
My goal for my own dramatic portrayal was twofold: To let the real Thomas Andrews take center stage for once, and to show Andrews the human being as well as the shipbuilder.
I took care to research Andrews as thoroughly as possible before writing my story. Shan Bullock’s biography –the only one ever written to-date– was a gold mine of information. You can really meet the man in the pages of Bullock’s A Titanic Hero. It is true it is eulogistic in tone, given it came out shortly after Andrews’ death. It offers no clue on whatever character flaws he may have had. I had no interest in those, however. The only “flaw” I wanted in my story was that here was a good, decent person destined to die too soon.
What is fact; and what is fiction?
Pinning down the details of his last hours was a challenge. While some saw him in the hours leading up to the sinking’s horrific finale, he flits through those individual testimonies like a ghost. I am indebted to Shan Bullock for collecting a small amount of first-hand accounts from the likes of stewardess Mary Sloan. These give us a better look at the man during his last hours, though some eyewitnesses are not named. (Bullock, 64-74, 77) Bullock’s book is also my source for Andrews throwing deck chairs overboard. (74)
Andrews is also mentioned in testimony given by stewards Samuel Etches and James Johnson as well as stewardess Annie Robinson, lamp trimmer Samuel Hemming, and White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay at both the American and British inquiries into the disaster. (“Titanic Inquiry Project.”) I also consulted Titanic historian’s George Behe and Jim Carlisle as well; their input proved invaluable. (Thanks George! Thanks Jim!)
For a quick refresh of my memory as to the basic design of the Titanic’s First Class Smoking room, I consulted a discussion thread at Encyclopedia-Titanica. However, as this discussion thread revealed a host of unanswered questions as to the little details of the room –color of the floor tiles and furniture to name a couple– I kept my description of it sparse. (“Encyclopedia-Titanica forums”.)
I kept the details of his reconstructed conversation with Captain Smith even sparser; primary documentation about their meeting is apparently nonexistent. We do not even know where they conferred, hence why I depict no specific room or place. However, as Smith was seen making his own inspection below decks in the early part of the sinking, it stands to reason he and Andrews might have conferred then. To the best of my knowledge, there also is no first-hand account that names who was sent to fetch Andrews to make his inspection or when precisely the captain realized Andrews was needed, so the details of that part of this story are speculation on my part as well.
Finally, my depiction of Andrews thinking of the Guarantee Group and himself down in the engine spaces comes from my reading of Bullock’s biography, which claims Andrews was seen in the engine spaces (73-74), and my discussions with Jim Carlisle, who told me there is a story the Group was seen in that same place that night; this sparked in my mind the possibility that it was in there both Andrews and the eight-man group of workers along to assist him were last together.
When Andrews thinks of the Harland and Wolff workers and what he said once about them to his wife are true events as well, along with how Andrews ordered a man off a scaffold in a gale one day at the shipyard, and how Andrews would order a married man away from a dangerous task and tell them married men’s lives were precious. (Bullock, 22, 43-44, 46.) The song he remembers Dr. O’Loughin singing comes from Bullock’s book as well, but the exact circumstance of Andrews first hearing O’Loughin sing it is an educated guess on my part, though –according to Bullock- O’Loughin did indeed come up with it while serving on the Oceanic. (Bullock, 46.)
Who was the man that asked Andrews if he was going to try for it? Bullock’s biography claims it was a steward –though no name is given– (73) so he is lost to the mists of time; though a Wikipedia names a steward named Stewart as the man. (“Wikipedia: Thomas Andrews.”)
As for the rest, I relied on my general knowledge of the sinking to fill in the details of where Andrews might have gone and what he may have seen and done before his death.
James Cameron made water seem glamorous in his 1997 chick/disaster flick loosely based on the disaster. One sycophantic reviewer in People Magazine even referred to the water in the Cameron movie as a “star.” I sought to de-glamorize water in this short story by making it look like something either ugly or something that could kill you. By ending the story with Andrews becoming totally immersed in the North Atlantic, I also touch on one of the most nightmarish of fates: Being pulled into a deep, vast void from which there is no escape.
However, I deliberately decided not to show Thomas Andrews actual moment of death. As the film Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid demonstrates, it is far more powerful for a sympathetic character –or characters– destined to die be last seen alive and simply imply the details of their end, as opposed to showing them, especially in this day and age when “shock violence” is all the rage in popular culture. So when we last see Andrews, he is still alive and fighting for life.
I hope people come away from this story appreciating two things:
-That Thomas Andrews was a person of flesh and blood, not just a face in an old photo or a name on a monument.
-That the sinking of the Titanic was no loopy chick flick/disaster flick but a genuine horror the claimed the lives of many a person who died too soon like Thomas Andrews. A man I believe not only deserves but demands our respect a hundred years after he was lost.
“A Titanic Hero”: Thomas Andrews, Shipbuilder, by Shan F. Bullock; 7C’s Press reprint, 1995.
“Titanic Inquiry Project”
“Wikipedia: Thomas Andrews”
Note: While there really was such a man on board – see for example http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/john-stewart.html – I could locate no account by him to substantiate the Wikipedia page’s claim.