By Cecille Chen, SW DC Heritage Project

Hundreds of people descended upon Waterfront Park April 14 to remember those who perished in the sinking of the Titanic exactly 100 years ago. Judging by attendance, the event was a roaring success, and many attendees expressed great appreciation for the effort it took to organize a program that included large-scale projections and digital exhibits of historic Titanic images; period music from 1912; 1,517 luminaries to honor each of the lost souls; and a live performance of “Nearer My God To Thee,” the last song played by the brave Titanic musicians as the ship went down.

Titanic100 was organized late last year by a group of Southwesters who were fascinated by the Titanic Memorial and dedicated to improve our community.

J. Nickerson of the Gangplank Marina and the Washington Waterfront Association (WWA) came up with the idea of projecting large-scale images onto the façade of one of the condo buildings facing the Washington Channel.

The Titanic100 group brainstormed about ways to activate Waterfront Park.  Barbara Ehrlich of the WWA took charge of the music programming, a task that drew upon her connections in the music world through her husband, classical music aficionado David Ehrlich of the Southwest Chamber Players. Together with the Rev. Brian Hamilton, who organizes Jazz and Blues Nights at Westminster Presbyterian Church, they gathered a trio of young brass musicians from Howard University to perform the last song played on the Titanic.

While the projections required the darkness of nightfall to be fully appreciated, we wanted to light up the waterfront promenade in a symbolic way to remember those who died on Titanic.  We hit upon the idea of luminaries—lanterns made from paper bags weighted down by sand and lit from within with a tealight—as a way of representing each person who went down with the ship.  Yours truly downloaded a list of Titanic victims from the internet so that we could label each of the 1,517 bags with the name of a person who perished in the tragedy.

At this point, we had obtained financial commitments from Gangplank Marina, the Humanities Council of Washington DC, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA), and the Washington Waterfront Association, but we were still a long way off from making this idea a reality.  Faced with the significant cost of planning an event worthy of Titanic, Kael Anderson of SWNA tirelessly reached out to various SW organizations and residential associations to drum up support and raise funds to pay for the ambitious program.

The Friends of Southwest DC, led by Coralie Farlee, answered the call with a generous donation that made it possible for us to hire a projection company with the equipment necessary to project the large-scale images called for by our Titanic-sized event concept.  As well, members of the Fourth Street Neighborhood Group helped to spread the word, and we received additional donations from Edgewater Condominium, Harbour Square, Hoffman-Madison Waterfront, Riverside Condominium, and Tiber Island Cooperative Homes. We were gratified to know that our gracious sponsors shared our vision and enthusiasm for Titanic100.

Jane Boorman of Riverside Condominium convinced the Riverside residents to sign on to our madcap scheme to project images onto the façade of their building. Riverside Condo’s north tower was ideally situated near the Titanic Memorial, and its spacious, grassy lawn would be the perfect vantage point for spectators.  Riverside manager Mark Herlong patiently fielded our questions about logistics and power sources. Rick Bardach of Harbour Square promised lawn chairs so that attendees could sit comfortably.

With April 14 fast approaching, the herculean task of producing 1,517 luminaries was taken up by a group of dedicated volunteers including Karen Anderson (Gangplank Slipholders Association), Alice Baker and Susie Humphreys (Tiber Island Condominium) and Ken LaCruise (SWNA). Lida Churchville, the former chair of SWNA’s History Task Force, was a steadfast source of inspiration, providing the group with Titanic-related source materials and making sure that our volunteers were energized with delicious refreshments.

Andy Litsky (ANC6D04) coordinated a media campaign that drew news coverage from CNN, NBC, WJLA and WUSA.  Our social media guru Jason Kopp (Gangplank Slipholders Association) made sure that the blogosphere was buzzing with anticipation for Titanic100.

Ten thousand promotional flyers were printed and distributed by volunteers in the days leading up to the event. Perry Klein of The Southwester graciously gave us space for a promotional ad designed by yours truly and Southwester Editor-in-Chief James Duncan-Welke patiently dealt with last-minute revisions. The Southwester also featured an article by J Nickerson on the fascinating history of the Titanic Memorial and its designer, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.  The article is available on Titanic100’s website.

Rik Kaplan of Riverside Condominium generously donated the use of his PA equipment, and volunteered to act as sound engineer throughout the event.

On the day of the event, Dock Master Jeremy Heckler led a team of Gangplank Marina staff including Sam White, Choutte Kelly and Warren Pringle in filling the luminary bags with sand.

Having assembled 217 images, we realized that we needed an alternative way to display them before the skies darkened. Perry Klein and I cobbled together enough computers and monitors to create an exhibit. Jo Chang of SWNA helped us wrangle the cables and arrange the tablecloths to hide the hardware.

Among the many stories that emerged from the crowd:

— A young man approached me and said he was a descendant of Gerald Horrigan, the sculptor of the Titanic Memorial. He was very happy to see the recognition given to the statue carved by his ancestor.

— David Ehrlich was searching for the luminary of Francis Davis Millet, a Washingtonian and a renowned artist, who was the grandfather of David’s beloved schoolmaster at the Milton Academy.  By pure coincidence, David met a couple also searching for the Millet luminary and together found it.

— Tiber Island resident Peggy Gilgannon, whose Great-Grand Uncle had perished in the sinking, searched relentlessly for the luminary with his name.  At the conclusion of the event, with Thomas Kilgannon’s luminary in hand and tears in her eyes, and said she felt she was bringing him home.

     The projected images included 65 images of Titanic’s crew and passengers. One hundred years have passed, and yet we remain captivated the tales of heroism that have been handed down through generations. Forever etched into our collective consciousness are the stories of men who stood aside so that women and children could be saved; of a father who selflessly put his two young sons in a lifeboat, knowing he would never see them again; of a woman who refused to leave her husband’s side, even though it meant certain death; of the brave musicians who kept playing till the very end to comfort those who stayed behind on the doomed ship.

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