Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A story begging for Hollywood - surviving the mid-Atlantic plane crash

A Lockheed Constellation 1049H – the plane that ditched in the Atlantic on 9/23/1962.
Until yesterday I'd never heard the story of Flying Tiger 923, a flight from New Jersey to Frankfurt, Germany that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean 500 miles off the Irish coast on September 23, 1962. What makes the story remarkable is that of the 76 people on board 48 survived.

I stumbled across this story in a local Colorado newspaper, which had an article about one of the survivors.  Fred Caruso is in Ireland to mark the 50th anniversary of his lucky escape. At first I thought it was possible the local Colorado paper had the story wrong, but a few minutes of Googling told me it was true. There was no shortage of links with information, including the cold, official government report into what happened. However, most of what's available comes thanks to Caruso. Caruso is using his web site FlyingTiger923.com to tell the story of Flight 923*.

I can only imagine that Caruso thinks there's a story to tell here. I'm just amazed it's taken this long for it to be told (or retold as was a news item at the time). I can't believe it hasn't received the big Hollywood treatment.

I don't know about you, but when I board a plane that is going to cross an ocean the one thought that never goes through my mind is that I might actually survive a catastrophic incident. The idea that something might actually go wrong with the plane and the pilot might have to improvise a landing strip occurs to me regularly, but never over the sea. I always assume that if something disastrous happens over the ocean that I'll be soon landing in the next life.

Sure I know Captain Sullenberger managed it. He managed to land on water, but that was the Hudson River, not the Atlantic Ocean.
Read More:

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Cork plane crash survivor cheats death twice
Flight 923's Captain John Murray** landed his plane, mostly intact, on the ocean in waves up to 20 feet in height. It wasn't a smooth landing nor did everyone survive. The left wing tore off, the plane broke in half and 25 people were killed. It's still a tremendous feat, allowing more than half of the passengers and crew to live.

A landing, safe or otherwise, in the middle of the ocean is a guarantee of nothing, other than that death has to be defied again. The plane was equipped with five life-rafts. However within seconds four of them were blown away, out of reach, gone. The one remaining life-raft was designed to carry 25 people, but 51 were alive in the freezing waters around the ditched plane.

They all clambered aboard, some of the injured were helped by others into the overloaded inflatable raft. Then they waited. And drifted - nearly 22 miles from the crash site. The fact that there were far too many in the life raft meant it was cramped and uncomfortable, but probably saved them from freezing to death. After 6 hours the Celerina, a Swiss freighter that had monitored the SOS messages, found the floating survivors.

A Canadian aircraft carrier, the Bonaventure, was also monitoring the distress calls. Despite the stormy conditions the naval ship's helicopters ferried medical supplies to the Celerina and removed the most severely wounded. Later, when the Bonaventure was near Ireland, the helicopters again transferred the wounded to Shannon Airport.

The Swiss freighter arrived off the coast of Ireland two days after the plane crash. British helicopters removed the 17 remaining wounded. They were treated at Mercy Hospital in Cork. Fred Caruso was among them. He's back now to visit to mark the anniversary of those remarkable events and to thank those who helped him 50 years ago.

The past few weeks our televisions have been full of dramas and documentaries on the extraordinary tale of the sinking of the Titanic. I would have thought these events on the Atlantic exactly 50 years after the Titanic would merit at least some attention from Hollywood. This is a great story and it needs a big audience.

* Caruso has also published a book on the subject, Born Again Irish, the title of a reflection of the good fortune he felt to be alive in Ireland in September 1962.

** Captain John Murray moved to Ireland after the crash and flew out of Shannon Airport.

{Photo thanks to Avia Deja Vu}

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Belfast's new Titanic center needs a little more 'Hollywood'

Titanic Centre, Belfast
I went up to Belfast on Saturday. In fact, the whole family went to Belfast on Saturday to go to the new Titanic center there and to be part of Belfast's Titanic festival.

It still amazes me how much I know about the Titanic these days. Before 2007 I knew no more than anyone else who ever watched A Night To Remember. I hadn't (and still haven't) seen Kate and Leonardo in Titanic from the mid 1990s. When I think back to the 80s the fact that someone found the Titanic only barely registered.

All that changed after my (then) 7-year-old son saw A Night To Remember. Who can understand the workings of a the 7-year-old's brain, but from that experience was born an obsession. He had to know more. No, he had to know everything.

Birthday and Christmas presents included Titanic books and Titanic DVDs - movies and documentaries. There is a cartoon Titanic movie and Barbara Stanwyck starred in a movie called Titanic released five years before A Night To Remember. Who knew? Not me anyway.
Read More:

Belfast pulls out all the stops for Titanic anniversary

Cobh remembers the Titanic - last stop before the ship set sail in 1912

The Titanic Centenary - An Irish Central Commemoration

We indulged him, probably too much. We took him to Belfast for the first time in 2008. The memory still makes me laugh. We drove to the Harland and Wolff shipyard to show him the place where the Titanic was built.

My son, smiling, at Harland and Wolff, Belfast 2008.
Note the pile of rubble behind the rusty gate.
We were all looking at an industrial ruin, but he was seeing something else, something tangible to connect him to this legend he had been reading and learning about. His face was lit up with excitement. We took a free tour of the shipyard run by enthusiasts and he loved every second of it. We stood in a huge, wreck of a room, but it was the room where the Titanic was designed. He was thrilled.

Since then we've been back up to Belfast a couple of times to visit Titanic sites and exhibitions. We have also been to Cobh and Southampton touring both cities' Titanic-linked sites. We even made it to the Titanic Museum in Indian Orchard, MA.

Thanks to his keenness we have all learned a great deal about the Titanic, thrown ourselves into his interest and although some are more enthusiastic than others, I think it's fair to say we were all looking forward to the visit to the new Titanic center.

I don't want to say we were disappointed, but we were far from blown away. I came away hoping - hoping because I really want Belfast to get this right - that this was really a first effort and the exhibition can be changed to make it better.

Given that all the reviews I've seen have been glowing I'm feeling sheepish about my misgivings. However, I thought it was missing something. There are too few actual artifacts to call it a museum and there was far too much reading to call it an interactive or multimedia experience. There was so much reading, in fact, that I left with my head hurting and a sense that I'd missed a lot.

The centerpiece - the five minute 'Shipyard Ride' - fell far short of my expectations. I thought it would be a Disney-esque journey up and down, inside and outside the Titanic. Instead it was really minutes sitting down looking at recreated scenes of men working. There was no real sense of scale, which is what I was expecting.

I guess I was kind of surprised by how 'high-brow' the whole thing was. We weren't allowed to see, let alone climb, the grand staircase. They did put one in the building, but it's off limits to those plebes who merely paid for tickets to visit. Also, the building is a series of ships bows, but nowhere in the center are visitors given that "I'm standing on the bow of the Titanic" moment that I was sure would be there. There should be an outdoor Titanic bow.

There is also very little for younger children. The few hands-on exhibits for kids are a little dull and seem more adult or at least teen-focused. I was really surprised by this because when he was seven my son loved the Titanic experience he got up the road in Holywood, Co Down when we visited the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. I just assumed the new center would borrow heavily from that.

My son, now 11, and the Titanic in the new Titanic Centre in Belfast
I don't want to be too negative. We did have a good time. I enjoyed lots of it and my son loved more. He loved the giant photographs, the model of the gantry, the giant models of the ships, the staterooms, etc. Maybe my expectations were too high.

I just can't help thinking it's a little too much history and too little Hollywood, especially too little Disney. After all, the reason we all still recall Titanic when other tragic ships are all but forgotten is thanks to Hollywood. Belfast needs to remember that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Belfast deserves no criticism for cashing in on its Titanic links

Titanic Belfast - opened on March 31
Belfast is catching flak thanks to its Titanic Belfast Launch Festival. While I can understand some of the misgivings, I'm more than willing to cut Belfast some slack on this one.

Belfast man William Neill, now a Professor of Urban Planning at Aberdeen University in Scotland, was one of the more quoted critics in recent weeks. Neill worries that the memory of the Titanic is not being "treated with enough respect." Neill acknowledges Belfast's shipbuilding history and it's "unique" place in the Titanic story, but is concerned that the city is trying to cash in with Titanic "infotainment" with its new Titanic center.

While Hill may have a point, other critics went completely off the deep end with their narky comments. One columnist even compared the Titanic's sinking with Auschwitz and 9/11, saying that in "2101, it's unlikely the people of New York will want MTV staging a concert at Ground Zero."

Let's get this out of the way: there is no comparison between the Titanic and Auschwitz or 9/11. None.
Read More:

A Mayo village recalls the Irish who perished aboard the Titanic

James Cameron documentary shows new animation of how the Titanic sunk

The Titanic's Centenary

Now, to be honest I found the decision to have an MTV concert this coming Friday a little weird too. However, the people of Belfast are not 'celebrating' Titanic's sinking, let alone the 1500 dead, but rather the achievement of getting the Titanic Centre built. Maybe Belfast didn't get the tone of this coming weekend pitch-perfect, but so what?

The crux of the issue for the critics is that Belfast is trying to use its Titanic connection to earn some filthy lucre. For these people Titanic and her dead should be remembered mournfully without fanfare and certainly without the ringing of cash registers. I say 'hooey' to all that.

First of all, nobody can say Belfast was quick off the mark to market its Titanic connection. It's taken them 100 years. People have been making money off the tragic events of April 14-15, 1912 for decades, but only now is Belfast trying to join them. I wonder if these same people criticized James Cameron for his Titanic or even Walter Lord for A Night To Remember for the same reason? Those two and everyone else associated with those movies were, after all, cashing in on the same tragedy with their own "infotainment." In fact, those movies created the 'Titanic industry' we have today. I see no reason to fault Belfast for getting in on the act.

Also, what about the dead? Would they really be remembered more appropriately if there were no Titanic "infotainment?" We can compare the Titanic's dead to those of other shipping disasters from the same era. How many of the 1,012 dead are remembered from the 1914 Empress of Ireland disaster? How about the 1,021 who died when the General Slocum burned and sank in New York's East River? How many New Yorkers remember even one of those people? I daresay virtually none.

Yet all this week stories of the victims of the Titanic are being aired again. Why? Because of the fanfare and "infotainment." Without that only a few would care about Addergoole, Co. Mayo and even fewer would care about Patrick Dooley or Charles Melville Hays or even the musicians who played right up to the liner's last minute. If not for the 'infotainment' the stories of the lucky survivors would be just about forgotten now. There would be no Encyclopedia Titanica online. So spare me your tears because the choice is not between remembering with respect vs "infotainment," but between forgotten and infotainment.

Also, Belfast just deserves a break. The city is only now waking up from a long nightmare. Other than 'the Troubles' what do people know of Belfast? Nothing much really, but the Titanic is a cultural icon, the subject of successful movies, commemorated in many cities with monuments and museums. Yet Belfast's connection to the Titanic* is only rivaled by Southapmton's.

The Titanic is a tragedy, sure, but it is long in the past. There is virtually nobody alive today who remembers the Titanic or who lost a loved one on the Titanic. It was a tragedy on a par with other long forgotten maritime disasters of the era. It was far less a tragedy than the one that unfolded in Europe between 1914 and 1918. Indeed, the Titanic is less a tragedy than what Belfast endured during 'the Troubles.'

That the Titanic is remembered at all is thanks to the entertainment industry's capacity to turn a horrific but largely accidental event into a romantic tragedy. Belfast is - finally - connecting itself to the legend, the myth of the Titanic. It is not cashing in on anyone's grief.

* Let's just keep that whole rivets thing quiet, okay?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Irish homeowners are not "revolting" - they're treating their incompetent government with contempt

Ireland's Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan,
who bungled the Household Charge.
It seems just about anywhere the new Irish household charge appears in the foreign press the words "boycott" or "revolt" are used to describe the fact that so many people did not pay the fee by Saturday night's deadline. Yesterday's New York Times quoted an Irish parliamentarian who refers to the "mass boycott." The Financial Times says the Irish government is facing a "revolt" over the new tax. {You might even see such words around here.}

Words like "boycott" and "revolt" suit those political campaigners who have been leading the charge calling on the people not to pay, but what's going on is nothing like a boycott or a revolt. It's more a case that hundreds of thousands of Irish people have weighed up the pluses and minuses of paying and come to the conclusion that not-paying is not such a bad idea. Why? Because the government blew this one in a big way. The charge was designed and implemented badly. Very badly. 100% ineptly.

The charge itself – €100 ($133) for the year payable by the owner of each house and apartment in the state – is more annoying than crushing. There was even an option to pay the tax on a quarterly installment basis.

Considering the hefty sums people pay in income tax and VAT (sales tax of 23%) €100 is no where near the most onerous levy Irish people pay. Heck it's even less than €160 ($213) annual license fee for having a television in the home, a fee that most Irish people pay without grumbling.

Read More:

Half of Irish homeowners join boycott on $131 tax

Anti-household charge protest attracts 5,000 demonstrators in Dublin

Ireland's leader Enda Kenny pays no price for bad-mouthing the Irish people

Before this new charge was introduced for the 2012 tax year there was no tax on homeowners at all. {No property tax, although there is a fairly steep stamp duty payable on the purchase of a home.}

So it is a new tax, but did the Irish people really revolt against the government's austerity program when they decided not to pay this new tax? Is it really the case that after four years of accepting the punishing cut backs and tax hikes that this €100 charge was the straw that broke the camels' back? No. No, what really happened is that many Irish homeowners thought they might get away without paying this one.

From the start it was clear that government was flying by the seat of its pants on the household charge. They had no database of who owned what property. Sure they knew who lived where, but they didn't know who were the renters and who were the owners.

When this point was put to members of the government they went into full tyranny mode. The Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan oversaw the planning and implementation of the Household Charge and he, in particular, became the face of this hectoring, bullying government.

The government declared that they were going to get the information they needed by strong-arming the electricity and natural gas companies into revealing what they knew. The state-owned banks too would be forced to comply.

That tactic didn't work, but it was revealing: the government was going to struggle making people pay. The government's lack of information as to who owed and who didn't meant no bill or invoice could be sent to those who had to pay. The more this question was raised the more aggressive the government became. The public didn't so much fear as smell fear.

It wasn't just the lack of invoice, however. The tax came with a list of exemption criteria, but the criteria were unclear. If the vox pops on the radio are an indication many people who aren't exempt seemed to believe they are. It was all as clear as mud.

The government carried on brow-beating long past the point when it was obvious that it wasn't working. As the clock ticked down towards the March 31 deadline the government then took to threatening homeowners with cuts to local services. That too failed, possibly because it was too late, possibly because the waste in the mostly unaccountable local government spending is obvious to all or possibly because many people just didn't want to pay the €100.

The government made such a mess that 800,000* Irish homeowners thought they'd take their chances on the possible fine for late payment. This only served to highlight another serious design flaw in the Household Charge: the penalty for not paying on time is too small.

Those who fail to pay within the first 6 months will owe €116 ($154). The penalties rise a bit after that, but if you leave it for a year you owe only €142 ($189). A €42 ($55) penalty is just too small to cause anyone worry, especially if you believe that this government is incapable of figuring out who really owes and who doesn't. (Compare that penalty to the €60-90 that's owed by those who fail to put €2 into a parking meter.)

To me this is the essence of what's going on here – hundreds of thousands of people have treated the new Household Charge as not much more than a parking meter. They figure there's a good chance they'll get away without being caught and if they are caught the price they'll pay is too small to worry about.

This isn't so much a revolt against imposed austerity as a statement by the people on the capabilities of the government to actually enforce the law. For generations Irish people have skirted the law when the opportunity has arisen and this is more of the same. They've looked the government in the eye and said, "I'll pay - when you make me." It's up to the government to prove them wrong.

* Even the figure of 800,000 who didn't pay is open to question as the government doesn't really have an accurate figure for how many households there are in the country. Simply incredible.

** Just for the record: I paid. My wife says I'm too American.

{Photo thanks to Independent.ie.}