The Downing of the Lusitania and 9/11

In 2006, I orchestrated the lessons learned in Emergency Preparedness for the 9-11 Commission at the 11th Public Hearing at Drew University, NJ.  If I had only read Erik Larson’s 2015 book prior to the hearing, “Dead Wake, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania”, I would have seen the outline for the theme of the hearing:  Emergency Preparedness.

1198 people died on the Lusitania including 3 German stowaways.    2996 people died as a result of the attacks on 9-11, including 19 hijackers.

At 2:33 PM, the “Lusitania sunk”.  18 minutes. “A great ship, present one moment, gone the next, leaving what appeared at a distance to be an empty blue sea” as Erik Larsen reported.

The WTC buildings collapsed.  103 minutes with no previous history of buildings “sinking”.

Conclusion:  emergency preparedness lessons have not been learned.


Remember the President’s Daily Brief, where it was mentioned that planes could be used as weapons? These were warnings that did not become actionable.  In the Lusitania case, Larson said that the UK Admiralty did receive warnings on the fact that Germany had ordered attacks on all vessels in the North Atlantic “whether troop transports or any other British vessel it encountered”, and that they had sunk neutral ships.  Those warnings were not fully or carefully relayed to the Lusitania. As Larsen states, “Now five days into its voyage, the Lusitania made its way towards Britain alone, with no escort offered or planned, and no instruction to take the newly opened and safer North Channel route.” “At some point…the (British) Admiralty learned of the German Embassy’s advertisement published in New York…that seemed to warn passengers against traveling on the Lusitania.  The ship’s date of departure and its expected arrival in Liverpool a week later were now in the foreground of public awareness”.  While warnings rang out across the world and were known in detail by the UK Admiralty, they did not get communicated to the Captain.  “Nor was any effort made to escort the Lusitania or divert it from its course”, according to Larsen.

In the case of 9-11, the warnings were not nearly as clear and there was no intent to ignore warnings, nor not communicate them.  However, there is an eeriness in the comparison of the blinking “red” dots prior to both events.

“First” First Responders were Civilians:  Never Forget

As the 9-11 Staff Statement 14 said, “Along with the passengers and crew

aboard the airplanes, the first responders on 9/11 were the first soldiers on the frontlines of a new kind of war. Some of them became its first casualties; some of them became its the first heroes”.  On board the Lusitania, the passengers and crew became the first responders and they also became some of the first mass casualties of the German decision to torpedo civilian passenger ships. In addition, as Erik Larsen depicted, the passengers on board helped each other as best they could survive the ordeal, similar to 9-11.  In one case, the author describes a woman who was drowning as the water rose over the ship and she fell deep underwater.  “Her head struck something” and she “found (herself) clinging to the bumper of life boat 22”.  “A man reached for her.  She was so grateful she asked him to write his name on the inside of her shoe, ‘lest in the experience to follow I might forget’”. Similar mantra of 9-11 – “Never forget”.

Preparedness: 18 minutes/102 minutes

“The private sector on 9-11 was largely unprepared”, as I wrote in the 9-11 Commission Report.  Full evacuation had not been practiced.  Employees did not know where the stairwells were.  In sum, there was acknowledgement that preparedness as a concept was not taken seriously and not practiced.  (In the WTC or anywhere for that matter).  As we saw on 9-11, one minute the World Trade Center towers were standing; in 102 minutes both towers were gone.

In the case of the Lusitania, lifeboat activation had not been fully drilled either by the crew on the ship or the passengers.  Erik Larsen said, “the first attempts to launch the Lusitania’s lifeboats was shattered the illusion of safety projected by having so many boats on board”. Explanations as to how an evacuation would proceed had not been communicated.  Erik Larsen describes how “many passengers decided to forgo the boats and take a more direct path” to survival (probably because they had no experience with the boats).  Some passengers had made plans for an emergency since there had been rumors of a potential threat to the ship, but in the event, those plans could not be executed.Passengers had not practiced putting on life jackets in spite of instructions; many put them on backwards and drowned.  Others could not find their life jackets because they did not realize they were located in their rooms, not on the deck.  Many jumped without their life jackets on. Erik Larsen said “A life jacket did not guarantee survival.  Many who entered the sea had their jackets on incorrectly and found themselves struggling to keep their heads above the water.  The struggle did not last long…”

The scenes from 9-11 remind me of Erik Larsen’s statement “One of the most disconcerting sights reported by survivors was of hundreds of hands waving above the water, beseeching help.”I remember later watching the videos of the jumpers and listening to the tapes of the 911 callers.

Communications:  Chaos

The 9-11 Commission Staff Statement 12 stated, “The second part of private sector preparedness is communications. Once a decision is made to react to an emergency, there must be an effective way to communicate that

decision to tenants and/or employees, to account for tenants and employees in the aftermath of an event, to communicate with concerned family members, and to continue operations. The tenants of the WTC varied widely in their success in meeting these challenges.”   It is astonishing that the same conclusions made in 2001 were seen in Erik Larsen’s account of 1917.

For the sinking of the Lusitania, the first messages came as rumors to the American consulate in Queenstown, Ireland.  This was telegraphed to the US Ambassador in London.  As in many disasters, the first reports were erroneous and the Ambassador was under the impression the passengers were safe.  During a dinner the night of the sinking, the Ambassador received “small slips of yellow paper” with information.  In New York, information came from the German ocean liner Vaterland that was interred during the war, who had received a message “via wireless” that the ship had sunk. In the Cunard’s office, however, a coded telegraph had arrived that said the ship was gone. President Wilson found out the news later the day after the sinking.  Family members learned of the deaths of kin “mostly by telegram”.  As Erik Larsen said “There was the usual confusion that follows disasters.  For days, dozens of cables shot back and forth between offices.”  “A few passengers reported to be dead were alive” and vice versa.  “Time zones and sluggish communication made it even harder on friends and kin”.  “Cables took hours to receive, transcribe and deliver”.  The shipowner had little information to provide, according to Larsen.  The process for collecting the dead, treating the wounded, and finding the missing who were alive also was chaos.

This all mirrored 9-11.  However, we were in the booming age of communications. Blackberrys did not work.  Cell phones did not work.  Cables were down.  The satellites on top of the WTC were gone.  Firemen could not communicate within the buildings.  All we had was voice mails to loved ones… which might have been better than the letters left by passengers of the Lusitania… sort of.

I could write more on this comparison, but in conclusion, I found it bittersweet to find so many similarities between the preparedness elements of the Lusitania and 9-11.  How is it possible, I ask myself, that we are still learning the lessons of the need to prepare and practice for disasters?