12/20/2011 04:05 EST | Updated 02/18/2012 05:12 EST

Allure of Titanic endures for Halifax buffs 100 years after sinking

HALIFAX - Ken Pinto was just a young boy in north-end Halifax when he first heard the dramatic account of a story that would captivate him for decades.

It was the early 1960s and his father, a TV repairman, had about five sets in the house that were often tuned to old movies. But one stood out for Pinto.

He remembers the grainy black-and-white image of a luxury ocean liner, its affluent and impoverished passengers and the seeming impossibility of the majestic ship going down after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic.

The movie — Walter Lord's classic "A Night to Remember" — told the tale of the Titanic and ingrained in Pinto a fascination with the mysteries and enduring questions that carries through to this day.

"When you're four or five years old, you have the ship and the iceberg and the story is so romantic," says Pinto, who plans to hold a commemoration this April in Halifax on the centennial of the sinking.

"You have fathers and sons parting ways, families separating — it's the emotion. It's an emotional icon. It's so human — the death, the love stories, the loss.

"It just has that human factor that other disasters don't seem to have."

Pinto, now 59, wants Canada to formally recognize the disaster of April 15, 1912, when the largest liner of its time went down south of the Grand Banks after colliding with an iceberg on a calm, moonless night on its maiden voyage.

He's hoping to hold a wake, film festival, concerts, and to spur interest in the creation of a Halifax monument to the disaster's 1,500 victims and the just over 700 who survived.

Moreover, Pinto and others want to highlight the special relationship this coastal capital has with one of history's most compelling tragedies.

Author and guide Blair Beed has been leading bus tours through the city with a focus on the Titanic for 38 years.

He grew up in a neighbourhood near one of the city's three cemeteries that contain the remains of 150 Titanic victims who were brought to Halifax after being recovered at sea.

But despite the port's central role in the Titanic story, Beed says many of the tourists he takes to the city's two dozen Titanic sites weren't aware until recently of its deep ties to the ill-fated ship.

"We know the story of the ship that sank and that some died and some survived, but a lot of them don't go on and mention the Halifax segment," said Beed, who wrote "Titanic Victims in Halifax Graveyards."

"I want to add that extra chapter — what happened after the ship sank? What happened to the victims floating in the ocean? What was the response of the city?"

Key to that story are the cable ships that were dispatched to pick up bodies from the rough Atlantic days after it became clear that the Titanic had gone down and only those who made it into the lifeboats had survived.

The Minia and Mackay-Bennett sailed to the area only to find bodies bobbing in the frigid waters, many positioned upright in life-vests as if they were walking in place.

The local crew had the grim task of identifying victims by going through their personal effects — business cards, letters, jewelry — and painstakingly cataloguing them in a record of the more than 300 bodies recovered at sea.

"They went out and did this horrendous work of collecting bodies and burying them at sea," said Garry Shutlak, a senior archivist at the Nova Scotia Archives. "It was not a nice job."

As the Mackay-Bennett sailed up the harbour, church bells began ringing until every one of the 70 churches in the area tolled its bells to honour the dead as they were delivered to a cable wharf laden with coffins.

"The city quite literally was in mourning," said Shutlak, who has been studying the Titanic since the 1970s. "All of this had an effect on this city."

Beed also says that emotional connection with the Titanic can be felt in streets that remain unchanged since the ships and their "cargo of death" arrived, leaving an indelible mark on the waterfront.

"We're the people who are the guardians of the memory of the dead and I think that's what gives us a prominence that other places don't have," he says, adding that the Titanic cemeteries attract people through the year.

"She was built in Belfast, but remembered in Halifax."

Asked if he ever tires of talking about the Titanic, Beed says there are always new wrinkles and revelations to the enduring tale, explaining that the many unanswered questions keep the mystique alive.

Was it brittle steel that doomed the ship? Were women and children told to abandon ship first? Was there another vessel nearby that could have saved people? Did the crew respond with the appropriate urgency? Were third-class passengers really locked down below?

The questions still resonate for Titanic buffs, who have watched interest in the disaster ebb and flow over the years only to see it surge in 1997 with the release of James Cameron's dramatic film account of the story.

Beed says he is still drawn to the human stories.

"It's really the stories of people running around at the last minute and people who are thinking of different things they should do to maybe survive a little longer," he says.

"Imagine a man and a woman, and the girls can go in the lifeboat and the boy has to stay with the father. Who could make that decision? And yet they did it that night."

Like Beed, Pinto says there is a bit of mystery to its staying power.

"Nobody understands why this thing goes and goes and goes," he says. "I'm certain it will never go away. I'm certain that 10 to 20 years from now they'll be making movies of the Titanic again."