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April 4, 2012

Titanic's sinking began world's fascination with disasters

Epic disasters — the anguished cries, the stories of heroism — are the central narratives of our age, both enthralling and horrifying. And our obsession began a century ago, unfolding in just 160 terrifying minutes, on a supposedly unsinkable ship, as more than 1,500 souls slipped into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. And the band played on.

It was the Titanic. And ever since, we've been hooked on disasters, in general — but the tale of the great luxury liner, in particular. And the approaching 100th anniversary of the sinking has merely magnified the Titanic's fascination.

There were catastrophes before that fateful Sunday night in April 1912, but nothing quite captivated the newly wireless-connected globe's attention. It was more than news. It was a macabre form of entertainment.

Bigger, deadlier disasters followed, but they all borrowed from the storylines — morality plays, really — established by the Titanic's sinking: The high-profile investigations ... wall-to-wall news coverage ... issues of blame, technological hubris, ignored warnings and economic fairness — all were themes that played out in the BP oil spill, the space shuttle disasters, Hurricane Katrina, the Exxon Valdez and the recent grounding of the Costa Concordia.

"The story is ageless, like all great stories," said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The elements in this case of triumph, tragedy, and hubris, of bravery and cowardice, all wrapped up in one brief moment. That speaks to people."

And to this day, The Titanic is big business in movies, books, songs, poetry, and museum exhibits hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. Dozens of tourists have paid tens of thousands of dollars to dive in Russian submersibles to visit the ship's watery grave and see in the ocean floor "where the Titanic dug in and the ship created this knife-like sharp edge," Delgado said.

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