Titanic: A tragedy very much alive

(CBS News) The 1997 film "Titanic" told one version of the story of the sinking of that supposedly unsinkable ocean liner which sank exactly one hundred years ago today. Descendants of some of those on board have their own stories to tell, and they told them to our Michelle Miller:

One hundred years ago today, at 2:20 on the morning on April 15, 1912, the Titanic - a ship believed by many to be unsinkable - sank after hitting an iceberg.

More than 1,500 people died that night in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, where Titanic's haunting hulk still rests.

It's a story you would have to live under a rock (or an iceberg) not to know at least something about.

Just this year, nearly 100 books on the Titanic have been published, in English alone. There's a new museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the great ship was built; and another in Southhampton, England, the port from which she set out.

In Pigeon Forge, Tennessee - which has no connection whatsoever to the actual event - millions of visitors have come for a "Titanic experience."

This fascination with Titanic is not new. Nor is the search for the larger meanings of that epic event.

To one survivor, Jack Thayer, the Titanic disaster ushered in a new, and frightening world. "To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912," he wrote.

"For Jack Thayer, who went on to fight in World War I and sent two sons off to World War II, the Titanic was the beginning of modernity for him," said Paris Review editor Lorin Stein.

For James Cameron, whose 1997 Oscar-winning movie was just released in 3-D, Titanic became an obsession.

"Certainly there have been bigger disasters - Hiroshima, the tsumani in Indonesia which took 250,000 lives a few years ago," Cameron said. "But Titanic, there's just something perfect about it as a lesson in human nature. The people showed heroism; people showed cowardice. The guy in women's clothes, the people who stepped out of the boat [and] gave their seat to others. I think we all wonder, if we had two hours to live, how would we act?

"It's the ultimate test of character."

The noble actions of Ida and Isidor Straus, who, in those last two hours, chose love over survival, have been celebrated for a hundred years.

When offered a place in a lifeboat, Ida Straus chose to stay with her husband.

"She said, 'We have lived together and now we will die together," said her great-grandson, Paul Kurzman. "And arm-in-arm, walked along the deck, prepared to die as the ship when down at sea."

Kurzman pulled out a locket that was recovered from his body.

For him, there are no bitter memories of that night: "They had a death that was beautiful, if one may use that term. They died as they lived."

Jackie Astor Drexel is the granddaughter of John Jacob Astor, the richest and most famous man on board the Titanic. She said, "In many ways, the sinking of the ship blew apart our family. . . . People just never wanted to talk about the Titanic."

Astor and his second wife, Madeleine, were on their way home from their honeymoon the night Titanic hit the iceberg. Madeleine survived, John Jacob did not.

Madeleine (Jackie Astor Drexel's grandmother) was just 18 years old and pregnant when her husband helped her into Lifeboat #4, along with other women from the first class cabins.

"He asked if he could go along with his wife, who was pregnant with my father," Drexel said. "And they said 'No, women and children first.' He said 'Fine.'"

"Is it true he saluted your grandmother?" asked Miller.

"No," Drexel said. "He said, 'You're going to get cold,' and he threw his gloves to her."

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