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April 16, 2012

Prayers and silence mark Titanic centenary

ABOARD MS BALMORAL — With prayers, a hymn and a moment of silence broken by a ship’s deep whistle, passengers and crew on a memorial trip marked 100 years to the moment since the Titanic sent more than 1,500 people to a watery grave.

As the 1912 disaster was commemorated around the world, the city that built the vessel — Belfast, Northern Ireland — looked back on the tragic sinking with a distinctive mixture of sorrow and pride.

In the North Atlantic, passengers lined the decks of the MS Balmoral, a cruise ship that has been retracing the route of the doomed voyage, as the ship stopped early Sunday at the spot where the Titanic went down in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

After a short service and a moment of silence, three floral wreaths were cast onto the waves as the ship’s whistle sounded in the dark.

Jane Allen from Devon in southwest England, whose great-uncle perished on the Titanic, said the moment vividly reminded her of the horror of the disaster.

“All you could hear was the swell splashing against the side of the ship. You could see the white breakers stretching out to sea,” she told the BBC. “You are in the middle of nowhere. And then you look down over the side of the ship and you realize that every man and every woman who didn’t make it into a lifeboat had to make that decision, of when to jump or stay on the ship as the lights went out.”

Another cruise ship, Journey, which traveled from New York, also held a service at the site, 400 miles (640 kilometers) off the coast of Newfoundland.

The Titanic, the world’s largest and most luxurious ocean liner, was traveling from England to New York when it struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. It sank less than three hours later, with the loss of all but 700 of the 2,208 passengers and crew.

A century on, events around the globe marked a tragedy that retains its grip on the world’s imagination.

In Belfast, a memorial monument was unveiled Sunday at a ceremony attended by local dignitaries, relatives of the dead and explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor in 1985.

A brass band played as the granite plinth bearing bronze plaques was uncovered beside Belfast City Hall. Officials say it is the first Titanic memorial to list all victims alphabetically, with no distinction between passengers and crew members, or between first-, second- or third-class travelers.

“We remember all those who perished and whose names are herein inscribed — men, women and children — who loved and were loved, their loss still poignantly felt by their descendants,” the Rev. Ian Gilpin told the crowd.

After a minute’s silence, a choir sang “Nearer My God To Thee” — the hymn Titanic’s band is reported to have played as the ship went down.

Belfast spent decades scarred by its link to the disaster, but has come to take pride in the feats of engineering and industry involved in building the ship. Last month, a gleaming new visitor attraction, Titanic Belfast, opened on the site of the shipyard where the doomed vessel was built.

“The focus of the world is on Belfast and we are doing her proud,” said Una Reilly, chair of the Belfast Titanic Society. “We are all proud of this ship. What happened was a disaster; she was not.”

On Saturday, thousands attended a memorial concert in Belfast featuring performances by Bryan Ferry and soul singer Joss Stone. At St. Anne’s Cathedral in the city, a performance of composer Philip Hammond’s “The Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic” was followed by a torch-lit procession to the Titanic memorial garden in the grounds of city hall.

The requiem — performed by male choristers dressed as ship’s crew and female performers in black — also included words by Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson, who imagined the victims reflecting on all they had missed in the last 100 years.

“We passed instead into myth, launched a library full of books, enough film to cross the Atlantic three times over, more conspiracy theories than Kennedy, 97 million web pages, a tourist industry, a requiem or two,” Patterson said. “We will live longer than every one of you.”

Remembrance ceremonies also were being held in the ship’s departure port of Southampton, southern England — home to hundreds of Titanic crew who perished — and in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where more than 100 victims of the tragedy are buried.

The most famous maritime disaster in history was being marked even in places without direct links to it.

Venues in Las Vegas, San Diego, Houston and Singapore hosted Titanic exhibitions that include artifacts recovered from the site of the wreck. Among the items: bottles of perfume, porcelain dishes, and a 17-foot piece of hull.

Helen Edwards, one of 1,309 passengers on the Balmoral memorial cruise who spent the past week steeped in the Titanic’s history and symbolism, said the story’s continuing appeal was due to its strong mixture of romance and tragedy, history and fate.

“(There are) all the factors that came together for the ship to be right there, then, to hit that iceberg. All the stories of the passengers who ended up on the ship,” said Edwards, a 62-year-old retiree from Silver Spring, Maryland. “It’s just a microcosm of social history, personal histories, nautical histories.

“Romance is an appropriate word right up until the time of the tragedy — the band playing, the clothes. And then there’s the tragedy.”

As the world paused to remember the victims, a U.S. official revealed there may be human remains embedded in the ocean floor where the Titanic came to rest.

James Delgado, director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, said Saturday that one photograph taken during a 2004 expedition shows a coat and boots in the mud. He said the way the items are laid out makes a “compelling case” that it is where “someone has come to rest.”

Delgado released the full image this week to coincide with the disaster’s centenary. It was previously seen in a cropped version.

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