The Devil and the deep blue seaMartin Doyle
The Titanic did not choose to hit an iceberg. It simply did not see it, despite clear conditions and two observers on duty. A recent analysis suggests that a naturally-occurring optical illusion hid the presence of the iceberg from their eyes.
Yet even as the ship went down, you’d imagine that most people could have been saved simply by getting into lifeboats. One problem: there were only enough lifeboats for about half the people on board. The other problem was that poorer passengers deep in the hold of the ship were sealed off like prisoners anyway and couldn’t even get to lifeboats.
Here in Wellington, a reminder of disaster came last week when a man in Christchurch announced that he was planning to give back to Wellington a piece of the TEV Wahine that he salvaged in 1968: the wheel. We’re all familiar with steering wheels in cars and know that that’s what enables us to control which way we’re going. The odd thing about that day in 1968 was that the weather conditions were so fierce [winds up to 275 km/h] that the Captain could not control the movement of the ship. Not even the lifeboats could be lowered.
It’s with these two disasters in mind that I think moves by the council in recent times to assess our readiness for the Big One are timely. I think most people see the downtown area as Wellington’s Achilles heel. If we had a major shake, you’d have all sorts of bits and pieces falling off the old buildings.
This risk has been brought home to me when I’ve been with Christchurch people visiting the Capital. One couple refused to even enter an underground carpark, another refused to cross the road to look in a shop window due to the old masonry on the outside of the building. In both cases, I thought to myself: “Gee, what are worrying about? Nothing’s going to happen.” But for these people, something had already happened and they could see a lot to worry about here in Wellington.
I value our old buildings, but ‘heritage’ should never be put before human life. Rip them down now while we still can. Likewise, ‘the way things are’ should not prevent us rethinking the whole setup downtown. In an emergency, it’s shocking how few escape routes are available to people [think thousands] having to flee Willis Street and Lambton Quay (and all points beyond). In the event of a tsunami, or cataclysm of whatever kind, they will be like the poorer folk locked in the lower decks of the Titanic: no way out.
If a veiled iceberg waits for us, that is it.