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KC Lawyers Involved in Bar Association's Look at 1912 Disaster
JOE LAMBE Staff Writer
Kansas City Star

The Titanic's lookout saw the iceberg late because his binoculars were lost.

The ship still would have easily steered clear of a collision - if the helmsman had not thrown it into full reverse. And more than 1,500 people would probably have lived if the ship's manufacturer used higher quality steel and a better design.

Mistake after mistake caused one of the first great disasters of the 20th century - the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic in 1912 - according to a study prepared for a mock trial today.

The day long mock trial in Toronto's convention auditorium begins the American Bar Association's annual meeting and will have a strong Kansas City connection.

Each side includes a team of up to nine lawyers who will switch off like baseball pitchers at an All-Star game. Actors in period costumes will play the witnesses.

The litigators, including two Kansas City lawyers and Johnnie L. Cochran of O.J. Simpson trial notoriety, will return to the past armed with the new study and modern laws to try to assess blame for the disaster and fight over millions of dollars in damages.

The verdict will be rendered by a jury of 15 to 30 lawyers randomly chosen from those attending the annual meeting.

Kansas City lawyer Gary C. Robb will make opening statements for plaintiff Rhoda Abbott, and Cochran will argue for her at closing. Abbott traveled third class with a husband and two sons who drowned below deck.

The lawyers representing her side will contend that Harland and Wolff, the Belfast, Northern Ireland, company that manufactured the Titanic, built a defective product and is liable for damages. Such product liability law did not exist until the 1960's.

Lawyer John F. Murphy, a partner in the Kansas City firm of Shook Hardy & Bacon, is on the shipbuilder's defense team. He said evidence will instead put the blame on the White Star Line, owner of the Titanic.

Among key evidence will be a real engineering report done by Exponent Failure Analysis and Associates of Mineral Park, Calif.

Exponent Chairman Roger McCarthy investigated the 1981 collapse of the Hyatt Regency skywalks in Kansas City, which killed 114 persons. He used historical documents and modern science to investigate the Titanic sinking. "Most disasters start with simple actions and reactions," he said, "but a chain of unrelated mistakes is what killed more than 1,500 Titanic passengers. Take away any of those mistakes and the victims probably would have lived."

Titanic problems
"It all began with good intentions. The White Star Line commissioned Harland and Wolff to build the biggest and best and spend however much it took," he said.

The ship had 16 internal compartments and in theory could float with some of them filled with water, as long as the water did not go over their unsealed tops.

But McCarthy said he will testify that the steel in the Titanic turned brittle in cold salt water. This was not a recognized problem until the 1940's, he said, but scientists invented a simple way to test for it a few years before the Titanic's construction.

"Why not go further than anyone else in 1908 when you are building the largest moving object ever built by man?" McCarthy asked.

Also, he said, "the millions of rivets in the ship were made of` 'dirty steel,' weak and substandard even for the period.

A designer for Harland and Wolff, who went down with the ship, originally wanted enough life boats on it for everyone. But that would have cramped passengers strolling on decks, so the White Star Line ordered far fewer boats. No one was too concerned.

After all, Robb said, "both companies considered the ship unsinkable and the lifeboats were just for other ships that might need help."

"Is that arrogant?" he asked. "They considered the whole ship to be a lifeboat."

Evidence, lawyers said, will show that the lookout, even without his binoculars, warned of the iceberg in time to avoid a collision. But the helmsman put the ship in full reverse instead of turning.

"The iceberg scraped along the side of the ship and punched holes in it that, in total, were no bigger than a refrigerator," McCarthy said. But they were in the wrong place.

"If they had just rammed the iceberg (head on), they would have been better off," he said. The holes in the side caused the ship to list, and water spilled over tops of internal compartments one by one.

"Better steel and rivets probably would have at least kept the ship afloat the 100 minutes it took for a rescue boat to arrive," McCarthy said.

Instead, crews without training in lifeboat procedures under loaded the lifeboats. One boat meant to hold 40 floated off with 12 persons, who declined to return for others.

Priority seemed to go to first-class passengers. Of 658 traveling first class, 398 were saved. Only 428 survived of the 1,790 traveling third class.

The manufacturer was to blame, Robb will argue, for a design that chained off many third-class passengers below deck. Murphy will blame the White Star Line.

Murphy said he also will argue that the White Star Line is liable for sexual discrimination because its "women and children should be rescued first" policy discriminated against husbands and sons.

The trial, Murphy said, "will show that the real villain in the Titanic disaster was J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line director who saved himself in a lifeboat."

If so, historians, said Ismay, paid a price. He resigned from the White Star Line within a year and lived in near isolation at his Irish estate until he died in 1937. He did not allow any of his few visitors to speak the name Titanic.

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