Titanic | How The Story Broke
A forgotten photograph provided a human face to the tragedy of a modern Icarus.
Although advertised as “unsinkable“* inadvisably two years before, Titanic disaster was, in a sense, the inevitable culmination of a half-century exercise on man’s hubris. Ever since Isambard Kingdom Brunel constructed the Great Eastern, the original “unsinkable” vessel and her sailing into New York harbor in 1862 with an 83-foot-long, 9-foot-wide gash in her outer hull but her inner hull unscathed, both designers and shipping lines had viewed oceanliners as virtually indestructible and lifeboats as perfunctory during peacetime.
Therefore, it was perhaps unsurprising that the initial newspaper reports were grossly incorrect, claiming that the ship was “being towed to Halifax with no loss of life”. The first paper to receive/break the news was the (Montreal) Gazette, which appear reporting an assistance signal from the ship reassured its readers of the ship’s safety. The Gazette which had a news-sharing agreement with the New York Times, sent the story forward. Back then The New York Times was not yet a prestigious “newspaper of record” but just one of several papers serving the city.
Its managing director Carr Van Anda published the story which echoed the Gazette’s story in the morning edition of the April 15, 1912; however, he suspected that a lack of communication from the ship meant that the worst had happened, and printed a headline in the afternoon edition stating that she had sunk. It was a scoop which helped the paper’s reputation, since other newspapers reprinted the White Star Line’s ambiguous story about the Titanic having trouble after hitting an iceberg.
In next day in London, one of the most iconic images of the disaster was made. Ned Parfett, who was 15 in the photograph, was selling the Evening News outside the White Star Line offices at Oceanic House. Before the decade was out, he too would be dead; initially too young to come when the war came, he enlisted in 1916; on October 29th 1918, less than two weeks before the Armistice, he was killed in a German bombardment.
* Yes, she was advertised as “unsinkable” in brochures by White Star Line in 1910. The New York Times repeated this when it reviewed RMS Olympic, the first of the White Star trio. After the disaster, the shipping line turned its considerable muscle towards backtracking these claims. That many today including news agencies believe that she was never advertised as “unsinkable” testifies to that PR campaign’s success.