CLEVELAND - It is almost an eerie feeling walking up the gangway into an area representing part of the deck of HMS Titanic. The luxurious cruise ship struck an iceberg, sending the then-largest cruise ship in the world to a watery grave more than two miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland is hosting an exhibit of artifacts pulled from the 1912 ship wreckage. Throughout the exhibit are not only items pulled from the wreckage, but also there are movies and stories of the passengers who were aboard the ship that sank on its maiden voyage.
"Titanic is really a fantastic opportunity to really understand this amazing moment in the history of our technology and the history of society to see what happens when we reach so high," said Kirsten Ellenbogen, president and chief executive officer of the Great Lakes Science Center.
Her comments came as she stood in front of a large photograph of the actual Titanic reading room, where passengers could sit in the highest level of luxury. Ellenbogen and her staff worked to create a feeling of actually sailing on the ship. Visitors walk through sections of the exhibit representing cabins and the boiler room of the ship.
"Boarding the Titanic, we really try to pull you into that feeling," she said. Helping keep the mood as if it were 1912 are actors portraying real passengers aboard the ship. The actors never leave character as they answer questions on their cross-Atlantic cruise from England.
"We have the ladies reading room and the men's smoking room," said the actor portraying Margaret "Molly" Brown, who survived and gained the nickname "Unsinkable Molly Brown". Brown became a legendary figure in both American and British sea-going history because of her attitude the night the ship sank several hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
The only black passenger aboard Titanic was Joseph Phillipe LaRoche, who was a French-trained engineer who was headed to New York and had planned to take another ship to his native Haiti.
The actor portraying LaRoche conversed easily with visitors walking through the exhibit. He said the trip was peaceful and he was looking forward to a "safe arrival in New York."
LaRoche did not survive the sinking. That was the case for most men aboard the ship.
In 1912, the attitude at sea was women and children first in the lifeboats. However, executives of the White Star Line also believed the ship was "unsinkable," so they made no provisions for enough lifeboats.
Of Titanic's 2,223 passers and crew, 1,517 died when the ship hit the iceberg and began taking on water.
Among the dead was a stonecutter from Cleveland, Richard Otter, who was returning to the U.S. from a business trip to England. His great grandson, Chuck Otter, of North Olmsted, walked through the exhibit peering deeply into every photograph, hoping to catch a glimpse of his ancestor. With photographs of Richard before he left for England, the descendant of a victim touched a piece of the Titanic hull, aware his great grandfather was inside that hull when the ship struck the iceberg.
"When I look at the artifacts, I often wonder if this was his or could it have been his," Otter said. In Otter's pocket was a small piece of coal that was brought up from the Titanic's wreckage in 1999, a few years after its exact resting place was discovered. Otter holds the coal as if it were his great grandfather's hand.
"I'm sure he put his lifejacket on like everyone else and made it up to the top deck to try to get into a lifeboat," said Chuck. "Of course it was women and children only and he stayed back.”
"There was never a funeral or memorial service," said Chuck, who added his great grandmother lived for several more decades, rarely speaking of the husband whom she lost when the Titanic went down.
The story of the disaster in the Atlantic is a riveting one. The Great Lakes Science Center has done a wonderful job of pulling so many pieces of the story together. The entire Titanic story is buoyed even more by an IMAX movie, "Titanica," which was filmed at the wreckage site of the ship.
There are no more survivors of the disaster still living. However, the drama and the horror of what happened when what was called the greatest cruise ship of its time sank still holds our attention and refuses to let go.
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