The unsinkable ship that wasn't

Monday Book Review

January 18, 1993|By Geoffrey W. Fielding

TITANIC: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY. By Don Lynch. Illustrated by Ken Marschall. Hyperion. 227 pages. $60.

SEVERAL score books have been written about the Titanic disaster, plus thousands of newspaper and magazine articles. Yet "Titanic: An Illustrated History" must be considered among the finest and most complete. At $60, it should be. Mr. Lynch, historian of the Titanic Historical Society, relies on previous accounts -- 42 books are listed in the bibliography, including four by Baltimoreans Walter Lord and Thomas E. Bonsall -- to plot graphically the course of this magnificent passenger liner.

The story starts with the ship's conception by J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the British White Star Line, and ends on April 15, 1912, as the Titanic, on its maiden voyage, is holed by an iceberg, breaks apart and slides beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

With the ship went 832 passengers and 685 crew members, about three-quarters of the crew. Only 706 people survived: 492 passengers and 214 crew members. Ismay was one of the survivors.

The main cause of the large loss of life was the over-confidence of the designers and builders, Harland and Wolff, of Belfast, Ireland. Though it was never actually stated, the builders thought the Titanic was unsinkable. Typical of ships of its day, the ship also had too few lifeboats. And some that pulled away were not fully loaded. By the standards of its time, the Titanic was considered safe. But as a result of the disaster, lifeboats enough for everyone became mandatory, and other safety measures were taken, such as a 24-hour radio watch at sea. Sized for coffee table display, this illustrated history includes photographs never before published and superb paintings by Mr. Marschall. They show the Titanic not only as it looked steaming at speed, but also on the bottom, "a dead-ringer of the ship I had been crawling over for two weeks in a cramped little sub with a #F flashlight," writes Robert B. Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 and explored it extensively the next year.

"For those of you who can't visit the Titanic in person," he says in the introduction, "this beautiful book is the next best thing."

And he is right.

Geoffrey W. Fielding is a Baltimore writer and former British merchant seaman.

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