11pm on 14th April 2012 saw small family groups, all clutching candles, strolling down the port road to St Nicholas Church. Some were already chatting outside while others, more devout, were following the service within.
The chanting of the priest, though low, was still audible on the other side of the road where it made a musical backdrop to the greetings and gossip of those waiting for midnight.
About 4000 miles away it was a calm Saturday night, the stars twinkling in their thousands in the cold air as the lookouts strained their eyes to see ahead.
There seemed to be a kind of haze or mist in the distance, and it was difficult to see where the sky finished and the horizon began.
The ship’s officers had never seen a night like this; the ocean a flat calm as the cold Labrador current, full of fresh water from the melting icebergs it was carrying, ran into the warm Gulf Stream and formed a thermocline where the two currents - one sub zero, the other several degrees above it – ran side by side as the warmer slowly made way for the colder one pushing its way into it.
That year had seen the Earth and Sun closer than it had been for 1,400 years, causing record high tides that had channelled more icy water than usual into the Atlantic.
The weather in Porto Rafti was fair for the season in Greece. Cool enough to wear a jacket when out at night, but not cold enough to chill you if you didn’t.
Very different from the Atlantic where early warm skies that had allowed passengers to sunbathe that afternoon had now suddenly lowered to just a few degrees above freezing. It was cold enough to keep those still awake well cocooned in the warmth of the lounges and bars.
First Class were still enjoying the very replete and satisfied feeling that came from their 11 course dinner earlier. The chef’s highlights: poached salmon, filet mignon and sautéed duck’s breasts in figs and port (the dishes following each other in quick succession) had gone down very well, indeed, that evening.
In fact, they were still being talked about, and complimented on, over brandy and cigars by those standing in front of the blazing fireplace in the smoking room.
The only ones still on deck at this time were the two lookouts who, well wrapped up, were peering into the night with the sharp cold stinging their eyes and faces.
The ship’s position was 41degrees 46 minutes north, 50 degrees 24 minutes west as it steamed on a slightly south of due west course for New York. It was about parallel with Boston now and 400 miles away from the Newfoundland coast.
The captain was having an after dinner nap in the chartroom, next to the bridge, with the first officer a third through the 22:00 – 0200 watch.
More people with candles were walking down the high street now as it neared 23:20, and joined the small crowd outside the church. Those who hadn’t seen neighbours for the past year feigned delighted surprise at meeting them once again, and fell into animated discussion of various trivia.
The candles were still unlit. The holy flame would only exit the church at midnight, so there was still plenty of gossip time.
The lookouts blew on their hands and rubbed them over their faces, in between peering into the distance.
There still seemed to be a thick haze between the flat sea they saw immediately before them and the stars - particularly bright tonight - immediately above.
How could they know that the mixture of the two sea currents – the warm and the cold, the salty and the fresh - had caused an air inversion, with colder air trapped below the warmer layer above that was causing the strange haze or mist that blotted out everything immediately above sea level, but allowed vision above it.
All they knew was the extreme discomfort of the crow’s nest high above the vessel, with the stinging North Atlantic breeze generated by their 45 kmph passage blowing straight into their faces.
“Hey, Fred, can you see anything? I thought I saw a shadow.” He looked again as Fred squinted and peered deeply into the night. “No – can’t see anything, just thick haze.”
For a moment there was silence then, swirling out of the smoky miasma, ominously close, suddenly loomed a large object: whiter than the dark sea surrounding it and totally dwarfing the ship.
“Oh my God, iceberg,” yelled Fred as, simultaneously, he turned to ring the bell behind him three times. Then, in a circular motion, he turned and grabbed the bridge phone. “Iceberg dead ahead!”
“Hard a starboard,” yelled the first officer and the helmsman, looking white-faced at the monolith, strained his muscles to turn the wheel as the officer rang the ship’s telegraph to ‘stop’ then back to ‘full astern.’
For a while, the ship didn’t seem to move as the seconds ticked past, then it slowly started to swing to the left (on some ships you turned the wheel right for the rudder to turn left).
But it didn’t quite clear and an underwater spur, jutting out of the berg, pressed into the ship’s side, popping the rivets in six places along a long seam 249 feet long.
The fatal one was the sixth blow, inflicted by the ship when it swung out in the turn, where the hull was opened over a 45 foot length. With 4 watertight compartments flooded, the vessel could still float; but with 5 flooded and a further one compromised, she would definitely sink. It was 23:20.
As the priest came out of the church, the crowd surged forward. Each wanted to be the first to receive the holy flame. It was now a minute after midnight. Easter Day had started and Christ had risen.
It was a time for rejoicing, the start of the feasting that would soon begin in each home with the serving of traditional meaty magiritsa soup.
At the same moment the captain was on the bridge. He and the ship’s designer, also on board, had concluded the damage could not be contained.
And as the priest gave the flame to the crowd, intoning the blessing: Christos Anesti (Christ has risen), the captain looked at those around him and, in a trembling shocked voice, announced: “we are sinking. Prepare the lifeboats!”
The hot holy flame, quickly spreading itself through the crowd was now paralleled by the icy water jetting in through the cracks. Euphoria and resurrection in one place was now being evenly balanced by sad resignation and watery burial in the other!
And as the local families came to the end of their soup, and the last tasty morsel slipped down their throats, so the largest ship in the world on 15th April 1912, the RMS Titanic, slipped down to its final resting place 4 km below the surface. It was 02:18 and exactly 100 years ago to the minute.
As history tells us hubris was an important component of blame; the media trumpeting that “even God himself could not sink this ship.” And initial disbelief among the passengers as to it being a real emergency led to several boats leaving the ship only partially full - an action that increased the final death toll by nearly 500 souls to 1,514.