A Night To Remember by Walter Lord (book)
On A Sea of Glass by Tad Fitch, J. Kent Layton & Bill Wormstedt
Titanic: Death of a Dream, The Legend Lives On (documentaries)
Various survivor testimonies
In 1898 American writer Morgan Robertson brought out a book called Futility, which detailed the plight of an Atlantic liner full of rich & complacent people. The ship weighed 66,000 tons displacement (a measurement based on the number of long tons of water its hull can displace), was 800 feet (244 metres) long, had a top speed of 24-25 knots (28mph), a capacity of around 3,000 people, lifeboats for just a fraction of these and was labelled ‘unsinkable’. On a cold April night, it struck an iceberg and sank, killing almost everyone on board. An alternative title of the book was ‘The Wreck of The Titan’, which included the name of the fictional vessel.
The subject of this piece was a real steamer, a beautiful, wonderful and incredibly elaborate ship. which had a weight of 46,328 tonnes (66,000 tons displacement), was 882.5 feet (269 metres, equivalent to 4 city blocks) long, 92.5 feet (28.1 metres) wide and had a height measured from waterline to boat deck of 60.5 feet (18.4 metres, equivalent to 11 storeys). Her name, known to millions over whom she has cast a spell since she was built, was R.M.S. Titanic, and her legacy has continued to grow over time. This is a remarkable story and would have been compelling if it had been made up. Instead, it really happened, and it’s a story that appears to encompass an entire sweep of people, actions and consequences. It could be that we are drawn to tragedies in a macabre way that we’d rather not admit to ourselves and others, or it could be that we really just want to learn more about the mysteries of life and ourselves and wonder how we would react if such a thing happened to us.
She was the largest ship in the world, designed to be the epitome of style, luxury and safety. However, she would suffer a disaster that would shatter the faith of an age. In the words of survivor Jack Thayer, commenting on the time before it happened, ‘there was peace and the world had an even tenor to its way’. Nothing since Napoleon had really shaken the confidence of this era in time, and the Industrial Revolution, leaving aside its darker sides of squalid conditions and manipulation of workers, had transformed productivity beyond recognition. This was of course in large part thanks to machines and technology, but it was man (plus woman and children!) who was operating and in control of it. The wars that had plagued Europe for centuries had ceased, and a new century had recently been born. This century would of course bring 2 World Wars, the killing of hundreds of millions by governments and dreadfully misplaced ideologies, and incredible progress in the technological manufacture of destructive weapons. It is often said that the Whitechapel Murders, carried out by the still-unknown killer Jack the Ripper, gave birth to the 20th century even though they happened 12 years prior to 1900. The Titanic’s sinking also served to wake people up with a start and cause them to rub their eyes and reconsider their sleepy complacency. Jack Thayer’s quote ends with the musing that ‘to my mind, the world of today awoke on April 15th 1912’
To help the understanding of this story, here are a few basic boating terms which need to be known:
(all the following directions naturally refer to both boats and ships)
Bow= the front of the ship
Stern= the back of the ship
Port= the left side of the ship (looking from the back)
Starboard= the right side of the ship (from the back)
Forward= moving towards the front of the ship
Aft= moving towards the back of the ship
Ahead= when the ship is moving in a forwards direction
Astern= when the ship is moving in a reverse direction
The Atlantic Ocean, which traditionally divides the Old and New Worlds, has a mind-boggling total area of 41,100,000 square miles, which converts to around 20% of the Earth’s total surface and 29% of its water surface. Even so, for those who are interested, it is still a long way behind the Pacific Ocean’s unfathomable area of 63,800,000 sqm, which consumes 33%/46% of the total Earth/water surface. Although it is nigh on impossible to calculate the amount of different species living in the ocean, the figure has been said to be over 220,000. It is no surprise then that humans have always had a fascination for the sea, and the smarter among them have also treated it with a due reverence and an unwillingness to go too close to its heart. The rugged Northern part of the Atlantic, divided from the South Atlantic by the wind-driven Equatorial Counter Current, eclipses all but the 2 polar oceans in its low temperatures. It is a harsh and jealous sovereign, demanding of man’s respect and vengeful against his arrogance. 400 miles off the grand banks of Newfoundland, well over 2 miles below a restless surface, this ocean holds fast to its most famous prisoner, once one of humankind’s crowning achievements. From the world’s wealthiest industrialists to the humblest immigrants, Titanic’s passengers, despite containing a disparaging range of social classes, mostly had one thing in common- confidence in the ship and a world that was ‘always getting better’, quite a rational argument when you think of what ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ are supposed to be. It was an age of the soft quality of innocence mixed with the harder, more negative quality of arrogance. Soft and hard, rich and poor, heroism and squalor, the Titanic story had it all. It was the swift and sudden death of a dearly-held dream.
Prince Albert had said in 1851- ‘we are living in the period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish the great end to which in the end all history points, the realisation of the unity of mankind.’ American author and satirist Mark Twain called it ‘the gilded age’, beginning in the second half of the 19th century and by century’s end having blossomed into a social gospel, a way of living, where man had defeated nature and heaven on earth was quite possible. Perhaps we could even outdo God. Life expectancy was rising, and technology (guided by man) was seen as a salvation or panacea for everything.
Ship-building was the space race of the early 20th century, and competition for the transatlantic passenger trade had become intense. The tremendous recent advances in technology had allowed for greater world-wide communication, the emergence of a global economy and international trade, and also increased opportunities for world travel. This travel was undertaken by many for pleasure, but there was also a mass migration in progress, with hundreds of thousands relocating to the Americas to start a new life in the hopes of increased prosperity. Britain had long dominated the waves both militarily and with its merchant fleet, almost exclusively having, through its premier steamship lines Cunard and White Star, the world’s largest, fastest and most prestigious ships in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, a pair of German steamship companies, backed by their young, energetic and ambitious Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had by century’s end unleashed a stream of super-large, super-luxurious and super-fast liners onto the North Atlantic shipping lanes that trounced their British compatriots. Since ocean liners were such a powerful symbol of a nation’s prosperity, the British press and public were up in arms, and White Star’s responsibility to respond to this rested squarely on the shoulders of the company’s founder, Thomas Henry Ismay.
The White Star Line had gone bankrupt when Ismay had taken it over in 1869 with a capital of 400,000 pounds. Although the Cunard already had nearly 30 years experience in the Atlantic trade, Ismay’s company had caught them up by the end of the century, when the two compaies shared the pride of the British Empire’s mercantile industry. White Star’s first major ship of this era was the Oceanic of 1899, which was launched just prior to Ismay’s death in November of that year. The company now came under the watchful eye of Thomas’s son J. Bruce Ismay, who was tasked with keeping ahead of both his German rivals and Cunard. As the new century dawned, White Star unleashed its ‘big four’, named the Celtic, the Cedric, the Baltic and finally in 1907 the Adriatic. Each was the largest in the world whe it entered service and all were both comfortable and successful. However, they were not particularly fast, only reaching between them a top speed of 17 knots. Meanwhile, a recent rates war among the great steamship companies had affected the industry enough for American tycoon J.P. Morgan to buy up White Star and several other lines and consolidate them into the monster trust known as the I.M.M (International Mercantile Marine). Ismay, who now became president of the I.M.M., was a pampered, silver-spooned boy who seemed aloof to some and was meticulous and demanding but also a good businessman willing to spend money to improve things. The Cunard, aided by financing from the British government no less, set about and succeeded in building the world’s first two ‘superliners’, named the Lusitania and Mauretania and both launched in 1906. They were simultaneously the longest, tallest and largest moving objects ever built. They were the first vessels to top 30,000 gross registered tons and were nearly 800 feet in length, with the Mauretania just slightly edging out the other vessel on both counts. Their unprecedented size gave more space over for the use of their passengers, which made them as luxurios as – or perhaps even more than – any other ship in service. They had 4 an unprecedented 4 propellers but what really set them apart however was their six turbine engines where all others had reciprocating engines. The turbines gave each ship 66,000 horsepower with the capacity for more under ideal circumstances. Unsurprisingly, they soon set world records for speed after both entering service in 1907. Like Coe and Ovett would do in the late 1970s and early 80s, they traded this record back and forth with each new journey. The Mauretania generally kept a slight edge over her older sister, and the mark set in 1909 would prove to be the ultimate. These trifles about speed were really between the 2 crews and boat enthusiasts, because the bottom line was that these ships were tremendously popular and huge sources of revenue, as well as crucially overhauling the speed of the German ships.
- Bruce Ismay knew that his line would have to outdo Cunard to satisfy his investor Morgan. However the myth that his plan was forged with Lord Pirrie, owner of Belfast shipping firm Harland and Wolff, over dinner in 1907 would seem to be inaccurate since the loans taken by Cunard and other details of their plans for their sister ships were known as far back as 1902, including in press reports on the burgeoning ships’ specifications. In addition, Harland and Wolff was allied to some extent with John Brown & Company, who constructed the Lusiatania, and it seems absurd would wait so long to make plans. In April 1907, before the dinner was alleged to have taken place, White Star had already commissioned Harland and Wolff to design a pair of liners to counter the threat posed by the Cunard sisters. However the plan evolved, one thing that was decided early on was for the new White Star liners to eschew any attempt to match the Cunard ships for speed and instead they would spare no expense in making the most comfortable, spacious and luxurious liners possible. However, it was clear that, even if they couldn’t match 25 knots, they still needed to supersede the 17 knots capacity of their own ‘big four’. White Star set out to build 2 enormous liners, with an option for a third.
ather than tAs well as the business offered by the privileged, the booming immigrant trade had become the bread and butter of the transatlantic shipping companies and bigger ships could carry large amounts of bodies in 3rd class, known as steerage in reference to the lower deck of a ship where the cargo is stored and where their quarters traditionally were. These people wouldn’t travel in luxury but could, for an affordable price, still know the prestige of travel in relative comfort on the world’s greatest liners. In the age of optimism, thousands of people were opting to travel to the New World, where dreams would be realised, a sentiment still reflected in song lyrics over a hundred years later. Much like the pamphlets that offered vague promises of fruit-picking work for all (somewhere) in California at competitive rates in Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, the talk was of this magical place where you could surely transform your life if you could just get there.
Harland and Wolff’s planners got to work, having to build special machinery just to put the ships together and, some felt, doing this in something of a hurry to please their main investor. In 1909, work started and the shipyard was alive with the sounds of activity, first with the Olympic and then the Titanic (the third of the ‘White Star sisters’, the Britannic, was launched in 1914), setting in motion a chain of events that would culminate in ‘the shot heard around the world’, a phrase used to describe several famous historical ‘shots’, including the ones heralding the start of the American Revolution and the one that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. It took time in that Belfast shipyard for the ship to take shape, and for months and months in the ‘monstrous iron enclosure’ of Harland & Wolff, all that was discernible was iron scaffolding. At that time, all of Belfast was aware of and many involved in the building of the ship. Overtime was willingly worked and people talked excitedly and often about the vessel-in-progress. Ships were built by hand in those days and it was a personal thing, Titanic’s spell starting to work its magic even before the completion of its construction. Chief Designer Thomas Andrews, who had a real feel for the labour involved, would walk around with his plans in his pocket talking to the workers and was no doubt constantly engaged in ironing out wrinkles. The steel skeleton finally started to take shape and when the ship was finally unveiled for its launch at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast on May 31 1911, it towered over the surrounding buildings and dwarfed the mountains by the water. The rudder was the size of an elm tree, the propellers like windmills. The giant, reciprocating engines, triple-screw 3-propeller design and 29 boilers, attracted the awestruck imagination of the ship-building trade journals. It was ‘Shipbuilder’ magazine who in 1911 declared the ship to be ‘practically unsinkable’, the main reason being that it could float even if 4 of its 5 watertight compartments leading back from the bow were flooded from a head-in collision. There were also watertight doors separating each compartment that could be closed with the mere flick of a switch.
On May 31st 1911, the day of Titanic’s launch, R.M.S. Olympic was delivered to the White Star Line. The 2 ships were considered sister ships and virtually identical, but Olympic’s first voyages allowed Ismay to ask for amendments to be made to Titanic to increase her tonnage and make her the largest ship afloat. Other touches added were warm running water in certain cabins and cigar holders in the bathrooms. In general, the deck space on the Olympic was considered excessive and more first-class rooms could be built on some of that space. The furnishings and other luxuries made Titanic an improvement over its sister, perhaps the most significant being the 2 private parlour suites, each containing a 50-foot private promenade with living-rooms, bedrooms and fully-equipped bathrooms, and costing as much as 4,350 dollars (which equates to an incredible 114,000 dollars in 2019) for a one-way trip in the high season. J.P. Morgan himself was meant to occupy one of these suites on the maiden voyage but cancelled at the last minute, fuelling multiple theories which will be referred to later. As well as the 16 regulation lifeboats, Titanic exceeded expectations by also including 4 collapsible boats. The total lifeboat capacity was a seemingly large number of 1,178, but that number was in fact less than a third of the maximum capacity for passengers and crew. At this point, it must be noted that the required lifeboat capacity was adhering to 1894 regulations for ships of around 10,000 tonnes, compared to Titanic’s 46,000. It was all measured then by cubic feet, and a liner of anything like Titanic’s size had never been envisaged in 1894. Harland & Wolff’s original design had called for 48 boats but when Ismay opted for the regulation number, preferring to use up space with passenger-friendly luxuries, their Managing Director didn’t press the point. Of course, to its passengers, crew and creators, the ship itself was the lifeboat, the small boats being more a kind of public relations symbol. The Titanic had 2 sets of 4-cylinder engines each driving a wing propeller and a turbine driving the central propeller, this combination giving the ship 20,000 registered horsepower. At full speed, she could make 24-25 knots. She had a double bottom divided into 16 watertight compartments and formed by 15 watertight bulkheads (upright partitions separating compartments), curiously not extending very far up the ship. The 1st 2 and last 5 went only up as far as ‘D’ deck (the highest deck of course being ‘A’ deck), while the middle 8 only went to ‘E’ deck. It hardly mattered though since nobody could imagine any 2 compartments flooding and she’d already been deemed to be unsinkable.
After completing her rather less than thorough sea trials the previous day, Titanic eased out of Belfast Harbour on April 2nd 1912 bound for Southampton. This was a big event with people waving off the ship but laced with a tinge of sadness after 4 years of work for that part of the process to be over. At Southampton, which had had a port for thousands of years and whose entire existence was bound up with the sea, she would undergo final tests and then pick up the majority of her passengers and crew in preparation for her maiden voyage. The Waterloo-Southampton trains were rammed in the hours and days leading up to the voyage, and the opulence of the liner and the famous passengers only added to the prestige and sense of occasion. The great ship blew its whistle, sirens went off and people rushed to make their appointment. It should be noted that there were a few dissenting voices who were uncertain about this huge and unknown ship on its maiden voyage, and survivor Ruth Becker remembers her mother being nervous. Survivor Eva Hart’s mother had a premonition, feeling that calling a ship unsinkable was ‘flying in the face of God’. Following the disaster, and when all the information about both victims and survivors was made public, the sheer diversity of people was one of the things that quickly caught the imagination of even those who had nothing of any kind invested in the ship. The whole microcosm of Western society lay nearly 3 miles down at the bottom of an ocean whose vastness was, as earlier noted, quite impossible to comprehend. The 300 luminaries of the day dominated proceedings of course, and the net worth of what Wall Street called the ‘millionaire special’ was over 500 million in 1912 dollars, a staggering 13 billion and more in 2019. Among the famous names, who were the pop stars of their day, were millionaire playboy Benjamin Guggenheim, Mr and Mrs John B. Thayer, he the President of the Pennsylvania railroad, Presidential Military Aide Archibald Butt and Mr and Mrs Isidor Straus, co-owners of Macy’s. John Jacob Astor and his wife were not yet on the ship at Southampton and as we know J.P. Morgan cancelled at the last minute, becoming a key part of the ‘Titanic Conspiracy’, whose several separate strands included theories that Morgan knew that the ship had been swapped for the Olympic and was going to be sunk on purpose as an insurance scam, so cancelled his ticket. Another theory proposed later was that some of the luminaries, including the richest of them all Astor, were (unlike Morgan) opposed to the creation of the Federal Reserve, which despite its government-sounding name was privately set up after being planned at a secret meeting on Jekyll Island, Georgia in 1910 and has to many people had a ‘license to print money’ as well as setting interest rates and apparently manipulating the money supply without audit ever since.
A 3rd-class berth on Titanic was comparable to 2nd class on a standard ship and 2nd to 1st. Besides the more famous passengers were hundreds of other families with their own stories. Millvina Dean was a baby when she survived the disaster and went on to be its final living survivor at the time of her death in 2009, just 3 years before the 100th anniversary. She was on her way to Kansas, where her father was planning to open a tobacconist’s shop. Also among the cast of characters for the drama to come was J. Bruce Ismay, who during voyages liked to alternate between being the Chairman of the line, one of the crew and ‘just another passenger’. The captain was Edward J. Smith, 62 years old, a veteran of 38 years at sea and continuing his tradition of skippering the White Star ships on their maiden voyages after having also helmed Olympic’s first trip. One claim subsequently denied by White Star was that Smith was due to retire and that he would have done so after the Titanic’s scheduled arrival in New York. Many passengers chose ships based on the captain, and this included Smith on many occasions. He was a bearded, well-decorated patriarch and well-loved by passengers and crew alike. However, a couple of quotes he’d given a few years earlier seem in retrospect to be omens of his less than decisive actions following the collision with the iceberg. In 1907, when he’d helmed ‘The Adriatic’, he’d remarked that ‘I cannot imagine any condition that would cause a ship to founder, including this one. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that’. Towards the end of his career, he was quoted as saying that his nearly 40 years at sea had been ‘uneventful, never having been near any kind of wreck or disastrous predicament’, and that he was ‘not good material for a story’. Also aboard was Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Harland and Wolff and the Titanic’s builder, a man proud of his creation and dedicated to ironing out any kinks. He knew every detail of the Titanic, understood ships like some understand horses and was an expert at predicting how a ship would react to certain circumstances. Just as he had in the shipyard, he would be found during the voyage roaming the ship taking volumes of notes. His room was piled high with plans and blueprints and when he often dined with the ship’s surgeon, the good doctor would urge him to occasionally take a break. The vast mechanical marvel also contained a crew, many hired last-minute, who were ill-equipped for its immense size. They mostly didn’t know each other, and even experienced old hands like 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller felt overwhelmed. The deck was a 6th of a mile long, and Lightoller felt it was very hard to really know.
Just before midday on April 10th, Southampton Docks was a whirl of activity. Under a grey and foreboding sky, the cry of ‘all ashore that’s going ashore’ rang out. On the stroke of noon, the Titanic moved slowly away towards the mouth of Southampton Harbour. Suction from the huge propellers actually started to pull the ‘New York’, docked in the harbour, away from her berth. A certain collision was finally avoided but one passenger remarked that it was a bad omen. Capt. Smith was unruffled as he eased the ship out of the harbour, but his complacency would later be crucial. On the evening of Apr 10th, Titanic stopped at Cherbourg in France for passengers and mail. John Jacob Astor, recently-divorced and now hastily married to a beautiful, much younger woman, boarded the ship here. Queenstown, Ireland (now known as Cobh) was the last European stop on the 11th. There, an Irish priest would happen to snap the final pictures onboard the Titanic. At Queenstown, the last 100 of the 771 steerage passengers boarded. To summarise the classes, 1st class was (literally in this case) above everything, 2nd class aspired to 1st class status, and 3rd class people were nothing, ‘non-people’, segregated in the lower decks and not allowed to physically contact anyone on the other decks. They were treated as cattle, if at least in this case pedigree cattle. Some saw toilets for the first time and were generally seeing on the Titanic a different world to anything they’d ever known. Many had sold up for a new life in an unknown world, packing away in boxes and cases their worldly possessions to seek their fortunes, or at least a better state of survival. Excitement and nervousness surely competed in their minds as their dominant feeling. They came from over a dozen countries, and 3rd class was an exotic potpourri of customs, complexions and languages. The Irish mountains was the last the passengers would see of Europe as the ‘floating palace’ pulled away from Queenstown. For the rest of the voyage, the ship would contain 891 crew and 1316 passengers.
The officers were, in order of rank:
Chief Officer Wilde
Ist Officer Murdoch (who wrote to his sister that he had a ‘queer feeling about the ship’)
2nd Officer Lightoller
3rd Officer Pitman
4th Officer Boxhall
5th Officer Lowe
6th Officer Moody
As the uneventful days of Friday 12th and Saturday 13th of April passed, a routine developed. The stokers and firemen down below sang as they worked, while Colonel Archibald Gracie and others in 1st class took advantage of the summer palace, including swimming in 6-foot deep saltwater swimming pools heated to a comfortable temperature, plus the lavish Turkish baths, cooling rooms and saunas, unheard of for a ship. Each deck was vast and had a different flavour, and a journey from the marvellous staircases in first-class, built to a standard arguably never equalled in their elegance and attention to detail, would take in all manner of impressive scenery and ‘beautiful people’. One survivor remembered thinking it was all too good to last, and Eva Hart said that her mother slept in the day and sat up every night as her premonition stayed in her mind. On the 12th, warnings were received of ice fields, which seemed to 1st Officer Boxhall ‘well to the North of Titanic’s course’. The winter of 1912 had been unusually warm and many icebergs had broken off from the Greenland course and were drifting South with the Labrador current towards the North Atlantic shipping lanes. Chief Wireless Operator John Philips and his assistant Harold Bride received at least 8 telegrams in the wireless room between April 12th and 14th warning of hazardous ice. Overwhelmed with personal messages that needed to be sent for the benefit of the illustrious passengers and which they depended on sending to get paid their fairly meagre wages, Phillips and Bride relayed these ice warnings to the bridge only periodically. The legend of Titanic trying to set a Transatlantic speed record is inaccurate and impossible when comparing its speed with that of the Lusitania and Mauretania, but it was apparently trying to overhaul Olympic’s speed of the previous year, an example of ‘beat thy neighbour’, a familiar flaw in human instincts. One first-class passenger distinctly heard Ismay talk to Smith about this beating of Olympic. Rumours notorious travel quickly on ships, and this particular one was not discouraged by Ismay. They even planned to arrive a day early for good publicity. Ismay showed (showed off?) a telegram of ice warnings as a piece of ‘inside information’, and complacency was once again in evidence.
The drama was poised to unfold.
Sunday April 14th
There were apparently ice warnings arriving from 9am and they continued through the day. Later, some of the passengers braved the bitter cold to wander out on to the deck to marvel at the spectacular sunset before enjoying a particularly sumptuous Sunday dinner. Church services were held in all 3 classes and in 2nd class the Reverend Carter, with the irony that always seems to be attached to major historical events, led the congregation in the hymn ‘For Those In Peril On The Sea’. The ice warnings collectively indicated an ice field of 80 miles directly in the ship’s path, but nobody put the messages together. The last warning in fact marked out with latitude and longitude a rectangular field of ice which the Titanic was already in, the bridge never getting that message either. By 7.30pm, the temperature was down to 39 degrees Fahrenheit, not far above freezing point. The officers were aware that the ship was likely to encounter ice before the night was over, and at 9pm Smith and Lightoller were on the bridge discussing it. Gazing out into the black night, Smith told Lightoller to let him know if he had doubts about their ability to evade possible hazards. They did everything that was expected of them by 1912 standards, and in fact may have reasoned that before wireless existed, ships hadn’t been regularly ramming into icebergs, so they could surely navigate around them. At 10pm, Boxhall relieved Lightoller, who bid him a good shift. The ship was making 22 knots, the sky was cloudless and the sea like glass. When you stood on Titanic’s decks, especially with the calm sea that existed on April 14th, you could simply never believe that, save for some throwback to a previous age with a sudden attack on the ship, the freezing temperature of the water would bear any relevance to this Sunday night for the passengers. At 10.20pm, about 10 miles away, the Leyland liner ‘The Californian’, a slow 6,000 tonner travelling from London to Boston with room for 47 passengers but carrying none, stopped due to drifting ice blocking her path. At 10.30pm, the temperature of the sea had dropped to 31 degrees, just below freezing. At 11pm, The Californian’s sole wireless operator Cyril Evans tried to contact a stressed Phillips on the Titanic about ice fields and was told to ‘shut up, I’m busy’. Evans was accompanied at that time by 3rd Officer Groves, an eager and curious young seaman, who was, as was his custom, spending time in the wireless shack catching up with the latest news and fooling around with the wireless set. Wireless was still at this time an ‘erratic novelty’. Range was short and signals hard to catch, and Phillips and Bride had been hard at it relaying the trivial and frivolous private traffic of rich passengers who couldn’t resist utilising the new miracle and sending messages back home to friends. On this occasion, such frivolities inadvertently spelt the doom of 1,500 people, mostly those in an entirely different social class and world, not to mention the demise of the ‘age of innocence’. The operators, working 14 hours a day on 30 dollars a month, were stressed and tired as the in-basket piled up with paper, and just when they were getting on top of it, the Californian, so close that she ‘blew their ears off’ with messages about ice warnings, bothered Phillips and received his terse response. Evans hung up his headset at 11.35 and turned in for the night. He would be awoken 6 hours later with the most incredible news that anyone on the North Atlantic that night could imagine.
By 11.40pm, Titanic’s passengers were mostly cuddled up in their cosy (and not quite so cosy) cabins while a few card players and society gentleman lingered in the 1st class smoking room. In the crow’s nest, the shivering lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee peered into the night. It was calm, clear, very cold, moonless, with a cloudless sky and the stars shining. The Atlantic Ocean at that moment looked like polished plate glass. The lookouts had been warned by Lightoller to ‘keep a sharp look-out for ice, particularly small ice and growlers’ but after an officer reshuffle at Southampton, nobody seemed to know where the binoculars were stowed. In the event, they may not have done any good on a night that was pitch black save for the stars in the sky and the ship’s lights. As the largest and most glamorous ship in the world travelled through the water at 22 knots (25.3 mph) on Sunday 14th April 1912, a shape got larger and closer, spotted by 25-year-old Fleet, who then telephoned the bridge with the immortal words, ‘iceberg right ahead’. Because the water was so flat, they didn’t see the iceberg until it was too late, since waves need to break at the base of a berg for it to be seen from a distance. As the ice drew nearer, the ship turned, ordered by 1st Officer Murdoch hard to starboard, which actually meant an instruction to move the tiller (steering lever) to starboard in an attempt to turn the ship to port, a procedure that took a full 37 seconds. It was incredibly cumbersome trying to turn such a huge liner in a hurry, but as the bow sluggishly swung to port, the lookouts thought for a moment that they might just avoid a collision. Alas not. Ice glided along the starboard side as the iceberg towered 100 feet above the water, meaning that there would be around 800 feet of it below the surface. A monster from nature. Stewards gossiping in the 1st class dining-room heard a faint, grinding, rumbling, vibrating jarr coming from deep below the ship, rattling the silver already set for breakfast. Had the ship dropped a propeller blade? To some, it seemed like a heavy wave had struck the ship. A bump was heard on the opposite side of the ship from the collision by Eva Hart’s mother, she of the premonition. As ever, she was fully-dressed and ready to leave her cabin if required. Some passengers who knew what had happened heard a dull thump, felt the ship quiver, heard a scraping noise along the ship’s side and saw a wall of ice glide by and chunks of ice get thrown onto the deck. Some on deck saw the berg in the night, but the excitement came and went quickly and it was too cold to stay out any longer on deck. Some ice landed on the starboard well deck, which was the steerage area’s recreation space, and 3rd class passengers threw some at each other or played football with it. One passenger took a chunk to use in his highball, while many terrified steerage families carried all their worldly possessions onto the 3rd class promenade area.
Murdoch had already ordered the ship stopped, but the engine-room telegraph handle wasn’t turned to stop until after the collision, and the emergency watertight doors were then closed. Murdoch ordered hard to port to try and fishtail the ship past the berg but it was too late. The ice had already scraped against the ship’s steel hull, buckling plates, popping rivets and apparently creating a large gash below the waterline. Captain Smith rushed onto the deck and was told by Murdoch what had happened. Down below in boiler room 6, the gash caused by the berg seemed to cause the starboard side to give way and a fat jet of sea water rushed into boiler room 5, with Second Engineer Hesketh and Leading Stoker Barrett escaping just before the room’s watertight door closed. An avalanche of coal had also poured out of a bunker with the impact of the collision. It should be noted the contrast between what was experienced and known about down below and what was happening on the upper decks. Just as ‘real life’ is said to involve inevitable hardship, and the tourist industry tends to want to hide some of the harsh realities of poor areas from moneyed holidaymakers, the ‘real situation’ is often known more intimately by the humble workers while the rich are the most unaware and out of touch. To the rich on the top decks of the Titanic, the collision was a trifle, a slight jarr, something that might spill one’s drink but no more, while down below the workers were well aware of the gallons of water pouring in by the second. The forward steerage cabins certainly knew something was terribly wrong as well, and the collision had been to them not a jarr but a tremendous noise that sent many of them tumbling out of bed. Up top, rumours started to spread about the dropped propeller blade and the ship stopping to prepare to go around the iceberg. Nearby, The Californian had noticed a blaze of deck lights showing a large steamer. Captain Stanley Lord ordered contact by Morse lamp. At 11.40, 3rd Officer Groves saw the big steamer stop and most of the lights go out, not unusual as this was often done to encourage passengers to turn in for the night. It didn’t occur to Groves that the lights hadn’t gone out but that the ship had in fact veered sharply to starboard after her initial turn to port and was now stopped and facing northward almost directly toward the Californian. Passengers on the Titanic were seized with a restless curiosity, particularly since the journey had been boringly uneventful, ‘a picnic’ for the workers. At 11.50pm in the first 6 of the 16 watertight compartments, water was rushing in so fast that the air rushed out under tremendous pressure. Green sea water swirled around the steps of the spiral staircase leading to the passageway connecting the fireman’s quarters and the stokeholds, where the boilers were located and fired. In the 3rd compartment aft closest to the bow and containing the cheapest accommodation on the ship, a passenger saw water seeping in under the door and up to his shoes. The post office, taking up 2 deck levels, had workers dragging 200 sacks of mail to the sorting room with water sloshing around their knees. The water rose up to the deck above in a matter of minutes and soon after that, the lights went out in boiler room 5.
On the bridge, Captain Smith, considered a natural leader and adored by all for his combination of firmness and urbanity, must have been wondering how this night would end. 4th Officer Boxhall was sent to do a quick check below but didn’t go down far enough and reported no problems. The carpenter was then sent to sound the ship and emerged gasping ‘she’s making water fast!’. The mail hold was filling rapidly and had already been abandoned. Ismay, demanding to be given information, was told of the iceberg and the serious damage to the ship. Thomas Andrews ran into Capt. Smith while they were on separate inspection trips and they then took a tour of the ship together, seeing the water coming in at various points, including the squash courts and the rapidly-flooding mailroom. The working alleyway on ‘E’ deck was a broad corridor and the quickest route from one end of the ship to the other. It was quickly filled with pushing and shoving passengers, some of them stokers forced out of boiler room 6 but the majority steerage passengers working their way aft, laden with boxes, bags and trunks. Engineers were struggling to make repairs and get the pumps going. Far above on ‘A’ deck, first-class passenger Lawrence Beesley found his feet not falling right on the steps, straying forward as if the steps were tilted down towards the bow. The ship was, as others noticed, ‘listing’, 5 degrees to starboard to be precise. Andrews’s quick calculations, which he relayed to Capt. Smith soon after midnight, reported water in the forepeak (the furthest forward lower compartment next to the bow), all 3 holds (the spaces for carrying cargo), the mailroom and boiler rooms 5 and 6, reaching 14 feet above the level of the keel (the structure around which a ship’s hull is built) in the first 10 minutes. It was thought for years that a 300 feet gash had opened up the 1st 5 compartments to flooding, but modern ultrasound surveys have found that the damage actually consisted of 6 small openings in an area of the hull covering only 12-13 square feet and about 10 feet above the bottom of the ship. In any case, Andrews explained to Smith that Titanic couldn’t possibly float with her first 5 of 16 watertight compartments flooded. The bulkhead between the 5th and 6th compartments went only as high as ‘E’ deck so the flooding of the 5 compartments would sink the bow so low that water from the 5th would overflow into the 6th, then the 7th and so on, rather like an ice cube tray. It was a mathematical certainty, flying in the face of ‘Shipbuilder’ magazine’s 1911 confidence in her unsinkability. A little while after, Capt. Smith was standing on the deck of a liner twice as big and twice as safe as the Adriatic and he’d just been told that it couldn’t float. At this point though, it was curiosity rather than panic that brought 1st and 2nd class passengers out onto the frigid deck, where they chatted and waited for an official explanation.
At 12.05am, Smith ordered Chief Officer Wilde to uncover the lifeboats, 1st Officer Murdoch to muster the passengers and 4th Officer Boxall to wake 2nd Officer Lightoller and 3rd Officer Pitman. Smith next went to the wireless shack containing John Phillips and Harold Bride. Phillips had become so tired that Bride had offered to relieve him at midnight, 2 hours before his shift was due to start. He’d just started to take over when suddenly in came the Captain with the grave news. The Captain instructed them to ‘send the call for assistance’, and at 12.15 Phillips was back and tapping out the letters CQD, at that time the international call of distress, over and over again into the cold blue Atlantic night. At that precise time on the Californian, 3rd Officer Groves listened in on the headphones. He was getting good at reading simple messages but, not knowing the equipment well, had failed to wind up the magnetic detector and heard nothing. All over the Titanic, word started to spread, fairly quietly, without bells, sirens or a general alarm, and mostly amounting to word of an an inconvenience that could delay the arrival in New York by a day or so. The ladies were ordered on deck with lifebelts on. At this point, readers should try to imagine these people in their warm, comfy cabins being ordered onto the freezing deck for seemingly no reason. This enormous ship, aside from a slight list, appeared undamaged, and now they were about to be told that they were required to be lowered into small rowboats ‘as a precaution’. Passenger Lawrence Beesley was standing on deck before it was crowded and later said that ‘The Titanic lay peacefully on the surface of the sea, motionless and quiet. To stand on the deck, many feet above the water lapping idly against her sides, gave a wonderful feeling of security. To feel her so steady and still was like standing on a large rock in the middle of the ocean’. At 12.15am, it was hard to know whether to joke or be serious. Should locked doors be smashed open to get to the upper decks for fear of reprisals in New York? At this point, it was early in the slow inevitable creep towards death by freezing water and nobody knew for sure that any talk of this sort would be a total irrelevance. Some did move quickly, others were more complacent, just like the age. Some took possessions of monetary and/or sentimental value, including the famous wind-up, musical toy pig of fashion journalist Edith Russell, some didn’t. One passenger took a revolver and a compass. Some dressed well, including Denver millionairess Molly Brown, who looked stylish in a black velvet 2-piece suit with black and white silk lapels. In steerage, the single men and single women had been quartered at opposite ends of the ship. Inevitably, there had been some couplings and flirtations during the journey and some of the men travelled to where the women were.
Into the bitter night, the whole crowd milled, each class keeping to their own decks. 1st class was in the centre of the ship, symbolically at the centre of things, 2nd a little aft and 3rd at the very stern or in the well deck near the bow. Quietly, they stood around waiting for the next orders, reasonably confident yet vaguely worried, eyeing themselves in lifeboats with uneasy amusement and making half-hearted jokes about life jackets being ‘the latest thing this season. Everyone’s wearing them!’, which was almost true on the Titanic by this point. Colonel Archibald Gracie suggested that he cancel his appointment with the squash pro for the next morning. Without an alarm or P.A (public announcement) system on the ship, there were no words that could be clung to to make the situation clear, and at 12.30am, 50 minutes after the collision and still 1 hour 50 minutes before the sinking, everything was in a state of limbo. Some passengers went to the gymnasium and were encouraged to try out the equipment while waiting for further instructions. John Jacob Astor sat casually on a mechanical horse, cutting open a life jacket to show his wife what was inside it. Meanwhile, the crew moved swiftly to their stations, the boat deck teeming with seaman, stewards and firemen ordered up from below. The passengers were mustered to go onto the boat deck with a sense of urgency ranging from polite knocks on doors in 1st class to pounding on doors and a shouted order to get out in 3rd class. Back in 1st class, a Frenchman called Michel Navratil, travelling under the alias of Michael Hoffman, woke his 2 young sons, who he was kidnapping from their mother in a bitter and emotional custody battle. 2nd officer Lightoller was a late arrival to the drama, having woken up from his slumber when the ship hit the iceberg but returned to his cabin, being off-duty. He could hear the roar of the funnels blowing off steam and the rising sound of voices and at 12.10am was summoned by Boxhall. Lightoller was cool, diligent and cautious, the perfect 2nd Officer. There were 16 numbered wooden lifeboats, 8 on each side of the ship, plus 4 canvas ‘Englehart’ collapsible lifeboats, lettered A to D. In total, the boats could hold 1,178 people out of 2,207 people on board. None of the passengers and few of the crew were aware of this discrepancy, but were of the mind that ‘God himself couldn’t sink this ship’, as one of the deckhands had said to a lady passenger while carrying luggage aboard back in Southampton.
There’d been no boat drill so there was an element of confusion, but the crew were professional and gradually the canvas covers of the boats were removed. One by one, the cranks were turned, the davits creaked, the pulleys squealed and the boats slowly swung out free of the ship. The going was slow. Lightoller was in charge of the port side and attempted to get the women and children loaded in. The response was anything but enthusiastic. Why trade the bright decks of the Titanic for a few dark hours in a rowboat? Astor ridiculed the idea, saying they were much safer on the ship. Once passengers were in the under-filled boats, they had to be lowered 60 feet to the water by crewmen who hadn’t had the benefit of a practice run, and it was a nervy and tense procedure which resulted in near-accidents and drama. On the starboard side, things moved quicker but Ismay rushed to and fro, urging the crew to move faster. 3rd Officer Pitman, not knowing Ismay, shrugged off this ‘officious stranger’ until he realised who Ismay was. On this side, a few couples and single men were allowed on the boats. ‘Women and children’ first was the rule. As number 5 creaked downward, Ismay continually chanted ‘lower away’ while waving one arm in huge circles and hanging onto the davit with the other. 5th Officer Lowe exploded at him, ‘if you’ll get the hell out of the way, I’ll be able to do something’. The abashed Ismay walked away and some gasped at the 5th Officer berating the Chairman of the line, remarking that there would be a ‘day of reckoning’ in New York. The process of loading the lifeboats would take 1 hour 25 minutes in total, from 12.40am to 2.05am, 15 minutes before the ship’s final plunge. The first was lifeboat 7 on the starboard side, launched with 28 on board out of a capacity of 65, a pattern that would continue.
There was a soundtrack to all this activity as the ship’s band, off duty when the collision occurred, played initially in the first-class lounge and later on the boat deck. The band was the best on the Atlantic, the White Star having raided the Mauretania for the bandleader. The pianist and cellist had been easily wooed from (ironically) the Carpathia, the ship that some but not them would be seeing again in a few desperate hours. There were 8 musicians in total and the beat was fast, the music loud and cheerful. From a modern vantage point, the music seems to have given the real events happening at this point even more of the feel of a movie. Still the truth hadn’t dawned, one old seaman stating that the ship was good for 8 hours yet, and inconvenience was still the prevailing feeling of many. In the nearly-empty smoking room on ‘A’ deck, 4 men deliberately avoided the noisy confusion of the boat deck. At the very stern, Quartermaster Rowe paced around, having heard nothing for an hour before suddenly seeing a boat being lowered away. He was ordered to the bridge with a box of 12 rockets. Some watched the water rise and seemed to sense what was happening. Thomas Andrews ordered a stewardess to put on her lifebelt ‘if you value your life’. The charming and dynamic Andrews understood people well and was everywhere, handling people differently depending who they were. He kept the bad news quiet to most or played it down but told John B. Thayer that he didn’t give the ship much more than an hour to live. It must have been horrific and highly surreal for Andrews to be walking around inside the ship, knowing that all the fixtures and fittings, the magnificently ornate decorations and everything else would, in 1-2 hours, be lying at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. That was a certainty, now all that lay in the balance was the fate of the 2,200 people on board. Down below, the door to a flooding coal bunker burst open from the tremendous pressure of the inrushing water. In the wireless room, around the time that the first lifeboat was launched, Phillips was working away, sending the new SOS signal as Bride rushed to and from the bridge with news. Sending this signal had been Bride’s bright idea, as it had recently been agreed by an international convention for its ease of understanding. Phillips laughed at Bride’s joke that ‘it may be your only chance to use it’.
At 12.45am, the first SOS in history was sent. Curiously, Captain Smith had also laughed at Bride’s joke, and the Captain’s behaviour was curious to say the least. Lightoller later testified that Smith had not been barking out orders with urgency and was in fact hesitant throughout. The officers on more than one occasion had to suggest to him the next move, and it appears that some complacency was in evidence, or perhaps just a lack of experience of this situation despite his many years at sea. Following the initial CQD, the Frankfurt had responded quickly at 12.18am but without giving a position (shortly after, it was learned that she was 150 miles away). The night crackled with signals as the news was passed along and spread in ever-widening signals, including by Cape Race, the lighthouse which had a Marconi wireless station set up inside it. Harold Cottam of RMS Carpathia had been on the bridge when the first CQD had been sent and at 12.25 he was about to turn in and was undressing when he decided to have a last listen on his rather primitive wireless set (range-approximately 250 miles) and received the message from Phillips ‘come at once, we’ve struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man. Position 41.46N, 50/14W’. There was a moment of appalled silence before Cottam, still half-dressed, quickly rushed to the bridge to inform 1st Officer Dean, and then woke Captain Arthur Rostron. They were 58 miles away. The Carpathia was an intermediate-sized Cunard liner of 13,500 gross registered tons and with a maximum speed of around 14 knots (16 m.p.h.). It was just over half the length of the Titanic and had left New York on April 11th on the Mediterranean run, bound for Gibraltar, Genoa, Naples, Trieste and Fiume. Her 150 1st-class passengers were mostly Americans following the sun in this pre-Florida era, while the 575 steerage passengers were mostly Slavs and Italians returning to their native lands . Captain Rostron had been at sea for 27 years but was in only his 2nd year as skipper and his 3rd month on the Carpathia. When he was awoken with news of the CQD, he acted fast, ordering the ship turned and urging Cottam to confirm his absolute certainty of the message. Rostron worked out his ship’s new course but at 14 knots it would take 4 hours to reach Titanic. Rostron told the Chief Engineer to call out the off-duty watch, cut off the heat and hot water and pour every ounce of steam into the boilers. Dean was told to knock off all routine work and organise the ship for rescue operations, opening all gangway doors and swinging out the boats to receive passengers. Among Rostron’s other incredibly detailed instructions were for first-aid stations to be set up in each dining saloon and all restoratives and stimulants collected. Passengers would be divided into classes, and soup, coffee, brandy and whisky were prepared for survivors as well as 3000 blankets. Rooms were converted into dormitories. Rostron also urged everyone to keep quiet so as not to have the sleeping passengers underfoot. Stewards were stationed on every corridor to tell any curious passengers that there was no trouble and that they should return to their cabins. The ship sprang to life and the coal was poured on in the engine rooms. The old ship got up to an unprecedented speed, driving ahead. At 1.15am the stewards were mustered to the main dining saloon and informed what was happening by their Captain, whose words seemed to be so typical of that era which would soon sink without trace. ‘Every man to his post and let him do his full duty like a true Englishman. If the situation calls for it, let us add another glorious page to British history’. Rather less grandly, Rostron charged all with ‘the necessity for order, discipline and quietness and to avoid all confusion’. From now, the formerly-groggy men who received these orders were sleepy no more. They all hastened double-quick to carry out the Captain’s orders.
The Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, had a strong signal and a close bond with the Titanic but was 500 miles away. However, there was another ship whose lights winked just 10 or so miles off the Titanic’s port bow, and 4th Officer Boxhall saw clearly through the binoculars that it was a steamer. As he tried to get in touch with the Morse lamp, he felt he saw an answer but could make nothing of it and decided it must be her mast light flickering. Captain Smith ordered Quartermaster Rowe to fire the distress rockets every 5-6 minutes, and at 12.45am, 5 minutes after the first lifeboat was plunged into the Atlantic, the first rocket shot up from the starboard side. A blinding flash seared the night far above the masts and rigging, then burst and a shower of bright white stars floated slowly down toward the sea. Some of the children must have marvelled at this fireworks display which, along with the uptempo ragtime music, gave the impression of a macabre party. Apprentice James Gibson on the bridge of the Californian saw that the mysterious steamer hadn’t moved for an hour. He could make out her sidelights and a glare of lights on her aft deck and at one point felt she was trying to signal with her Morse lamp. He tried to answer with his own lamp but soon gave up. At 12.45am, 2nd Officer Herbert Stone saw a sudden flash of white light and thought it strange that she would fire rockets at night. On the Titanic, even those passengers who were land-lovers understood what rockets meant, and the atmosphere took another turn. Some wives refused to go, some went willingly, and there were many farewells. Arthur Ryerson told his wife that he ‘must obey orders’ and that ‘I’ll be alright’, perhaps the only way to get some of the women in. Lucien Smith assured his wife that ‘everyone will be saved’. Captain Smith shouted ‘women and children first’ into his megaphone. Mrs Isidor Straus famously proclaimed that ‘I’ve always stayed with my husband so why should I leave him now?’ The Strauses had been together for 41 years and had written to each other whenever they were apart. They’d been through the ashes of the Confederacy, started a small china business in Philadelphia and then built Macy’s into a national institution. Now they were in the ‘happy twilight’ of successful life and it all culminated with the famous maiden voyage of the enormous, glamorous liner. ‘Where you go, I go’, said Mrs Straus. Mr Straus was offered a boat with his wife but refused to go before the other men. They sat down together on deckchairs. Most of the women did go, either wives or single women accompanied by single men who, in the tradition of the time, had volunteered to look out for these unprotected ladies at the start of an Atlantic voyage. By 1am, even the carefree were feeling uncertain. Passengers who went back for their valuables found their cabins underwater. Time was running out, and Andrews helped to urge the women to get in the boats. The rockets were fired and heard at regular intervals and there was both urgency but still relative calm, most people’s growing unease internalised. Chief Officer Wilde, 2nd Officer Lightoller and 1st Officer Murdoch fetched firearms in case they needed them.
The boats were being swung out, filled and dropped into the sea quicker now but also more sloppily, the sense of urgency slowly growing but still with some caution on the part of the officers, lest urgency spill over the fine line into panic. At this point, the water was climbing up the stairs of the emergency staircase that ran from the boat deck all the way down to ‘E’ deck. Some passengers lost their nerve trying to climb into the boats, some shrieking hysterically and some losing their footing and falling into the boats. A shortage of trained seaman made the confusion worse, many of the best men being used to man the early boats and other old hands engaged on other jobs. Lightoller was rationing the seaman now, 2 to each boat. A yachtsman who swung himself out on the forehead fall onto a boat which had only able seaman was the only male allowed by Lightoller into a boat on the port side, as the ‘women and children first’ mantra may have got skewed to ‘women and children only’, while Murdoch on the starboard side let more men in, especially if they belonged to 1st and 2nd class. Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon and his wife and her secretary Miss Francatelli asked to enter boat 1, which infamously left with just 12 people out of a possible 40 and only 2 of them women. Greaser Walter Hurst caustically remarked that ‘if they’re sending the boats away, they may as well put some people in them’. It is well-known that none of the boats were filled to anything like capacity, and there may have been a thought that they might hover around the ship and return later, but the vast majority never did. Down in ‘E’ deck, many 3rd class passengers got nowhere near the boats, a swarm of them milling around the foot of the main steerage staircase. They’d been there ever since they’d been called from their cabins. Amid the low ceilings, naked light bulbs and scrubbed simplicity of the plain white walls, they looked more like inmates than passengers as they swarmed around, many of them Finns and Swedes and others who didn’t speak English. When at 12.30 orders were received to put the women and children in the boats, they had to be escorted in small groups on the long journey through the maze of passengers normally sealed off from 3rd class. Up the broad stairs to the 3rd class lounge, across the open well deck, past the 2nd class library and into 1st class quarters, where they were stopped in their tracks and looked in disbelief at the magnificent surroundings. While they were helped to some extent, it is also thought that the majority were ‘neglected to death’. Getting them in the boats still wasn’t easy. Other steerage passengers found their own way to the boats, some barriers that separated them off from the other classes falling down, most knocked down. Like a stream of ants, they found their way under their own steam through the 8 decks and seemingly endless passageways to the boats, now their only salvation. Some got lost and resorted to using the emergency ladder meant for the crew’s use. This ladder was near the brightly-lit windows of the 1st class a la carte restaurant. They looked in and marvelled at the tables beautifully set with silver and china for the following day. Some beat on the barriers, demanding to be let through, but still the regulations were followed despite the fact that soon these rules would be rendered completely irrelevant. Think of someone probably about to die. At some point every rule holding him back and all the preconditions of having to live in a society disappear. For every steerage passenger who made it through, there were hundreds milling around aimlessly at various points and some still in their cabins. Staff in the 1st class restaurant were neither passengers nor crew and not employed by the White Star line. They had no status and were also French and Italian, objects of deep Anglo-Saxon suspicion in 1912. They never had a chance, herded together in their quarters on ‘E’ deck. Only 3 made it because they happened to be in civilian clothes. Down in the engine room, there was no thought of getting away as they struggled desperately to keep the steam up, the lights lit and the pumps going.
One by one, the boats rowed slowly away from the great ship, oars bumping and splashing in the glass-smooth sea. All eyes in the boats were glued on the Titanic. Her tall masts and the 4 big funnels stood out sharp and black in the clear, blue night. The bright promenade decks and the long rows of portholes all blazed with light. They could see the people lining the rails and could hear the ragtime playing in the still night air. From this perspective, it seemed impossible that anything could really be wrong with this great ship yet there they were and there she was, well down at the head. Brilliantly-lit from stem to stern, she looked like a sagging birthday cake. The boats moved clumsily away, some told to make for the steamer whose lights shone in the distance, agonisingly close. Captain Smith told the passengers of boat 8 to go towards the boat in the distance, land its passengers and go back for more. Quartermaster Rowe was told to send a Morse message that ‘we are the Titanic sinking, please have your boats ready’. Rowe called again and again to no avail. On the Californian, 2nd Officer Stone and Apprentice Gibson counted 5 rockets by 12.55 and tried the Morse lamp. At 1am, there was a 6th rocket and at 1.10am Gibson informed the sleeping Captain Lord, who advised him to keep on Morsing. Stone noted that the ship looked ‘very queer’, clearly listing, and her red side light had disappeared. The other ships didn’t seem to understand, the Olympic asking as late as 1.25am if the Titanic was coming to meet them. The Frankfurt asked for more details and Phillips angrily tapped back, ‘you fool. Stand by and keep out!’ Capt. Smith entered periodically to warn that the power was fading and later that the water had reached the engine room. On the Carpathia, Harold Cottam’s set in his small wireless shack was miserable, with a range of just 150 miles, so when he stopped receiving from Titanic, he couldn’t know for sure what had happened. He heard her report at 1.10 that they were ‘sinking head down’, at 1.35 ‘engine room flooded’ and finally at 1.50am the final plea ‘come as quickly as possible, old man. The engine room is filling up to the boilers’. After that, a deafening silence. Cottam hunched tensely over the set, still only in his shirtsleeves despite the cold.
By now, the roar of steam had died, the nerve-racking rockets had stopped but the slant of the deck was steeper and there was an ugly list to port. By this point, there was no trouble persuading people to leave the ship. A young boy used a woman’s shawl and got on a boat in disguise. Lifeboat 14 was rushed by a wave of men being beaten back with the tiller. Lowe threatened them with his gun and fired 3 times along the side of the ship as the boats dropped down to the sea. A big mob pushed and shoved around Collapsible boat C but the officers finally got it off. Bruce Ismay was around this boat, calmer than before and helping to get the boat ready for lowering, now every inch a member of the crew. At the last moment, he climbed into boat C, just 1 passenger of 42 in the boat. Inside the ship, one passenger stayed sitting in the 1st-class smoking-room reading alone. Reverend Bateman called to his sister-in-law entering a boat that ‘if I don’t meet you again in this world, I will in the next’, taking off his necktie and tossing it to her as a keepsake. Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet took off their life jackets and dressed in their best, ‘prepared to go down like gentlemen’. What choice the valet had in what was basically an act of suicide is something worth pondering. At the point where it became ‘every man for himself’ a little later, all semblance of duty and employer/employee relationships quite rightly went out the window. As Titanic’s life afloat ebbed away, the passenger areas inside the ship started to flood. The water, which up to now had only existed outside the ship, was now inside and creeping up the staircase as the ship got lower and lower. The forward, first-class staircase went down to ‘E’ deck, and to stand on the boat deck and look over the balustrade into an open well through 5 decks and see green sea water swirling around, getting higher and higher, must have been a terrifying moment for anyone witnessing it. As the number of boats left to be packed and lowered away dropped to 2, the water had now reached ‘C’ deck, rising fast. Paradoxically, all the lights still burned bright, illuminating the clear night, and the music was up-tempo, lively ragtime. 2nd Officer Lightoller, steadfastly sticking to what seemed like a system of ‘women and children only’, wouldn’t even let John Astor, the richest man on the ship, into Lifeboat 4, so stern was his policy. Astor asked the number of the boat, either to locate his wife or (to Lightoller’s mind) to make a complaint later. At 2am, there was only Collapsible D left, ready for loading. The lights were beginning to glow red and chinaware could be heard breaking somewhere below. One male passenger drained a full bottle of gin and later survived. Lightoller took no chances with the last boat, since there were now 47 seats for over 1,500 people even though most had moved aft. He had the crew lock arms in a wide ring around the boat, only letting the women through. 2 baby boys were placed in the boat by their father, Mr ‘Michael Hoffman’, the Frenchman who was kidnapping the children from his estranged wife. At 2.05am, the boat was lowered into the sea.
With the boats gone, a curious calm came over the ship. The excitement and confusion of that phase of the drama were over, and those left behind stood quietly on the upper decks, trying to keep as far away from the rail as possible. One man opened his wallet and poured his money over the side of the ship while others played on the gymnasium’s equipment and one lady played the piano, waiting for the end. As the freezing water appeared to be rising towards the boat deck (as opposed to the boat actually sinking into it), there were hopeless efforts to clear 2 more collapsibles lashed to the roof of the officers’ quarters. Passenger Jack Thayer felt far away, as though he were looking on from some other place. 60 feet below the deck, deep down in the boiler rooms, the engineers and firemen toiled away in the stifling and dangerous heat, trying to keep Titanic’s lights glowing and her power to transmit messages strong. Quite a number worked down there until almost the last minute, when there was nothing else that could be done and the engineers finally released them, and by the time many of them came up to the upper decks the lifeboats were all gone. In the wireless shack, Phillips was still working the set with Bride standing by but the power was very low. At 2.05, Capt. Smith entered the shack for the last time. ‘Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin, now it’s every man for himself’. Phillips continued working, sending his final wireless message at 2.10am, while Smith went round the ship releasing different groups of workers, repeating the ‘every man for himself’ mantra. Some jumped for it and managed to reach the lifeboats, others stayed on board to see what fate had in store. By the forward entrance to the grand staircase, the band, now wearing life jackets, scraped lustily away at ragtime. The calm continued for a while on the boat as people braced themselves for the drama to come. Within the ship, the heavy silence of the deserted rooms had a drama of its own. The crystal chandeliers of the a la carte restaurant hung at a crazy angle but they still burned brightly. Some of the small table lights had fallen over. The main lounge with its big fireplace was silent and empty. One passerby could hardly believe that just 4 hours earlier, the room had been filled with the most exquisitely-dressed ladies and gentlemen sipping after-dinner coffee. According to Walter Lord’s book, he smoking room was not completely empty and a steward had apparently looked in at 2.10 and found Thomas Andrews standing all alone in the room, with a stunned look on his face. Lord writes that ‘his life jacket thrown away and all his drive and energy were gone’. Andrews didn’t answer when asked if he was going to try to save himself and simply gazed at a large painting of Plymouth Harbour called ‘The Approach of The New World’, which hung above the elegant marble fireplace. However, later research found that the incident had happened prior to the steward leaving the ship at 1.30am and that Andrews had been seen on the bridge at 2.10. Out on the deck, people waited, some prayed and the band played on. Others seemed lost in thought, a mass of humanity awaiting its fate calmly and still without too much outward panic, hundreds now accumulated at the stern of the ship. They had only 10 minutes to live at this point though they wouldn’t have known that and would perhaps have retained some faith in the great ship that it would last longer than expected or even perform some kind of miracle with a hitherto unknown safety feature magically kicking in at the last minute. Reflection time was short but perhaps the ignored ice warnings would have played on Capt. Smith’s mind, the last telling them exactly where to expect the berg. Phillips could ponder the ice warning that he had replied angrily to earlier and which had never reached the bridge. At 2.10 in the wireless shack, Phillips continued to work, Bride later talking of the reverence he felt for him amid the chaos of those last 10 or 15 minutes. He and Bride knocked unconscious a stoker who’d tried to take Phillips’s life jacket, deliberately consigning him to a certain death. They’d reached several ships by now, who were steaming towards the stricken liner. Other than the Carpathia and later the Californian, it’s unclear at what point they turned back or if they reached the spot. 20 miles away, the mystery ship was seen off the port bow, agonisingly close.
When the wireless operators finally cleared out, Phillips disappeared and Bride joined the men trying to free Collapsibles A and B. It was a ridiculous place to stow boats. With the deck slanting, it was impossible to launch them but they’d decided to float them off so they toiled on, including Lightoller. Boat B was pushed to the edge of the roof and slid down on some oars to the deck, landing upside down. Boat A was a struggle as well and the men were tugging at both collapsibles when the bridge dipped under at 2.15 and the sea rolled aft along the boat deck. There was a sudden crowd of people pouring up from below who all seemed to be steerage passengers. The band were still there and at this moment the ragtime ended and the strains of a slower song, led by violinist Hartley, flowed across the deck and drifted in the still night far out over the water and within earshot of the boat. Harold Bride remembered this song as the hymn ‘Autumn’ though his testimony was later proved to be somewhat flawed in a number of respects. Most would claim that the song played at this point was ‘Nearer My God To Thee’, which would of course have had an unbearable poignancy and would become an anthem of later dramatic representations of the disaster. Down dipped the Titanic’s bow and its stern swung slowly up. As the tilt grew steeper, a wave went surging aft up the boat deck, hitting dozens of people and crashing through the dome of the forward first-class staircase, destroying the dome itself and sending huge amounts of water cascading inside it. The forward funnel toppled over, striking the water on the starboard side with a shower of sparks and a crash of tonnes of steel heard above the general uproar. It was actually a blessing to Lightoller, Bride and the others clinging to overturned Collapsible B, which was washed 30 yards clear of the plunging, twisting hull by the force of the wave and the falling funnel. Colonel Archibald Gracie rose ‘as if on the crest of a wave at the seashore’ but in the process lost his friend Clinch Smith, with whom he’d made a pact to remain together to the end, for ever. By the 4th funnel, the ship was swinging higher and higher, and a survivor heard a popping and cracking, a series of muffled thuds and the crash of glassware. The slant of the deck grew so steep that people couldn’t stand and instead slid into the water. Amid the chaos, nobody knows exactly what happened to Captain Smith except his tragic final demise. He was seen just before the end by a steward walking on to the bridge, still with his megaphone in hand. Bride saw Smith dive from the bridge into the sea and he was also seen later in the water by a fireman, holding a child. Those in the boats either watched in absolute silence or buried their heads on each other’s shoulders, unable to look. Seen and unseen, the great and the unknown tumbled together in a writhing heap as the bow plunged deeper and the stern rose higher. At 2.18am, the lights went out, flashed on again then went out for good, plunging all involved into a horrifying darkness. Not quite though as a single kerosene lantern flickered high in the after mast. The muffled thuds and tinkle of breaking glass grew louder and a steady roar, a cacophony, thundered across the water as everything not bolted down broke loose.
There has never been a mixture like it. Among the mind-boggling array of items were 29 boilers, 800 cases of shelled walnuts, 15,000 bottles of ale and stout, huge anchor chains each weighing 175 pounds, 30 cases of golf clubs and tennis rackets, tonnes and tonnes of coal, 30,000 fresh eggs, 5 grand pianos, a 50-phone switchboard, 2 reciprocating engines, a revolutionary low-pressure turbine, 8 dozen tennis balls, a cask of china for ‘Tiffany’s’, an ice-making machine and 16 beautifully-packed trunks for the wealthy Ryersons. Out in the boats, they could scarcely believe their eyes, some having watched for nearly 2 hours as the Titanic ominously sank lower and lower, hoping against hope that God or someone would save them. They saw decks and decks of people waiting, looking like bees, milling around and hoping. Survivor Ruth Becker remembered that ‘the ship looked beautiful in the dark night, the ocean like a millpond’. As the bow sank, some headed for the part of the deck not yet in the water, postponing the plunge and in fact lessening their chances by being crowded with others. 2nd Officer Lightoller instead jumped for it, later describing hitting the water, at this point 4 degrees below freezing point, as like ‘1000 knives being driven into my body’. The lifebelts were largely futile in water like this. Next was heard a different kind of sound, a tremendous booming, cracking, popping, explosive sound, which was the ship breaking in 2 between the 3rd and 4th funnels. As the bow fell, the stern settled back, and even now it may have seemed to some that the stern might hold and become its own lifeboat. Alas, it came to an even keel just briefly before rising to be perfectly perpendicular and then going down on its own. When the final plunge happened, it was the most horrifying moment of all, beauty of the night turned to a violent ugliness. There was an unearthly din, the black hull hanging at 90 degrees against a Christmas-card backdrop of brilliant stars. There was also a groan not unlike a primitive leviathan in the throes of death as the Titanic slid under, picking up speed as she went. And then she was gone. In Collapsible C, Ismay bent over his oar, unable to bear seeing her go down. Many in the boats just sat freezing cold and in a daze, showing no emotion. On The Californian, Stone and Gibson watched the ship that had fascinated them all night suddenly disappear. 20 minutes earlier at 2am, the steamer’s lights had been very low on the horizon and the 2 men felt she must be steaming away, as they then told the Captain. The sleepy Lord asked the time and for details about the rockets and rolled back over to get back to sleep. As the sea closed over the Titanic, Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon remarked to her secretary ‘there’s your beautiful nightdress gone’, a remark that you would like to think was ironic but probably wasn’t. The Titanic story was, no pun intended, a story of shallowness and depth. Later, there were tales of great heroism and humans reaching out to each other, some sacrificing themselves to save others.
Over the grave of the great ship hung a thin, smoky vapour. The glassy sea was littered with crates, deck chairs and many other objects that emerged from below. Survivor Eva Hart said later that ‘the sounds of people drowning is something I can not possibly describe to you and neither can anyone else. Then there’s a dreadful silence that follows it’. It is truly impossible to imagine 1,500 people in the 28-degree (well below freezing) water screaming and thrashing around, clinging to the wreckage and each other. ‘Every man for himself’ can bring out our most primitive instincts for survival, and our sense of our own civilised modern ways soon goes out of the window as we feel life ebbing away. For those who kept their heads and their stamina, Collapsibles A and B, one swamped, one upside-down, were 2 possible sources of escape from the most awful of watery fates. After the fall of the funnel had washed them away, some lucky and strong swimmers came upon them. Eventually, there were 2 dozen people, including a tennis star, a couple of Swedes, a fireman with badly-burned hands and a steward. Boat A drifted away and the people kept coming. Collapsible B was closer and those grasping for it were more vocal. Bride and Lightoller were there before the Titanic sank, the former under the boat gulping for air. Colonel Archibald Gracie was there too and hauled himself onto the boat, as did Bride. The boat wallowed under the weight of 30 men and some were beaten off with oars. ‘One more will sink us all’, some on the boat shouted to those in the water. Another swimmer nearby never asked to come on and was in any case too far gone to take hold of an oar and climb aboard. This may have been Captain Smith. Imagine in the water a man of his authority and rank. In the dark, nobody would know who he was but if they did, would and should he get special treatment? The instinct would be to prioritise his safety and still treat him as a leader but what was the right course of action? At this point in the dark, all were more or less equalised, their survival now a matter of physical strength, will and luck rather than ship status. Lightoller solved the riddle somewhat by displaying leadership qualities which would have been beyond most, with or without the freezing conditions, the horror of the situation and the intense feelings of discomfort and despair. Therefore, his elevation to a position of authority was due to his practical step of physically taking charge rather than having a symbolic right.
Someone on the lifeboats suggested a prayer. Like everything on the Titanic, the religious denominations were various, and the Lord’s Prayer was eventually settled on. The 712 survivors on the 20 lifeboats could scarcely comprehend having just witnessed the largest ship in the world, man’s monument to civilisation, technology and progress disappear beneath the waves, but they now had a separate ordeal to face, one that would last for many cold and uncertain hours. While they were praying, other sounds drifted over the water, namely the sound of hundreds of swimmers crying for help, a sound that was a roar, a scream, a wail that haunted survivors for years. Individual voices were lost in a steady, overwhelming clamour, rather like thousands of fans at a Cup Final or locusts on a midsummer night in Pennsylvania. 20 minutes was about the time that could be expected for survival in below-freezing water. The cries of the night meant one thing to lively, impulsive 5th Officer Lowe. Row back and help! Having escaped in boat 14, he’d rounded up 10, 12, 4 and Collapsible D and all 5 were tied together 150 yards from the ship. He took command, realising that sending multiple boats was suicide, but reasoning that his small flotilla manned by able seaman could do some good. His 55 passengers were divided among the other 4 boats and one boat went back. It was nerve-racking work playing musical chairs with rowboats at 2.30am in the middle of the Atlantic, and Lowe was impatient with some while shoving a terrified young boy in disguise into boat 10. It took time for all this and for the number of swimmers to thin out to make the expedition safe, an agonising thing to have to do, to let people die in 28 degrees in order to save others. It was after 3am but there was little left by the time they got there. Boat 14 spent an hour playing blind man’s bluff listening to voices in the night and only picked up 4 in the end. 3rd Officer Pitman decided to go back too but one woman begged him not to sacrifice their lives in a useless attempt to try and save others. Pitman gave in and boat 5, carrying 40 out of 65, spent the next hour heaving gently in the calm Atlantic swell while the occupants listened to the swimmers just 300 yards away. Boat 2 was also 60% full and did nothing. Others felt differently, including brave and spirited Molly Brown, who later inspired the play ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’. Her boat, number 6, (28 occupants out of a possible 65!) went no closer however, as Quartermaster Hichens painted a vivid picture of swimmers grappling at the boat, which would be swamped and capsized. Fireman Henderson in Boat 1 (12 occupants out of a possible 40) said they should go back but Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, about as far from Henderson in terms of social class as can be imagined, said he didn’t think they should try for fear of swamping, so the boat drifted aimlessly. Only 13 people out of over 1,500 in the water were picked up by the 18 boats. Number 14 was the only one that went back, other survivors were picked up simply due to the close proximity of the boats. Why did trained men react so differently? And what about the passengers who survived in the boats? It is of course easy to say that they should have turned back, especially with the fact that some of the women would have known that it was their husbands screaming for help, but who could really blame them? At some point, one’s own life becomes the most important thing to the vast majority of people, and the very real fear of suction as the boat went down and swamping as the desperate clung to life and anything else they could hold on to, kept them at a distance.
As the cries died away, the night grew strangely peaceful. Eva Hart remembers that even as a 7-year old, once the lights had gone out, the ship had gone, the cries had stopped and all that was left was the blackness of the night, she felt that the world was at that moment standing still. The first drama had finished but the shock, the confusion and excitement had not yet sunk in. A curious calm came over people but loneliness also now set in. One passenger watched the shooting stars and thought of the insignificance of the rockets in comparison. Slowly, life in the boats picked up, 4th Officer Boxall firing off green flares from Boat 2 that seemed to bring people out of their trance and give them some cheer. Some thought the flares came from rescue ships and the boats hailed each other in the dark while some drifted apart. With no compasses, they had no idea where to go. Passenger Lawrence Beesley, trying to calm a crying baby, discovered that he and the lady holding the baby had close mutual friends in Ireland. Touchingly, Mrs Astor lent her shawl to a steerage woman to comfort her little daughter who was whimpering in the cold. She was thanked in Swedish. As if the sinking wasn’t strange and surreal enough, now there was the curious phenomenon of the richest and poorest sharing lifeboats, a strange quirk of fate having brought them to a physical proximity that was disallowed by ship segregation and which would never have happened in regular life. They now had a common purpose to their actions, the age-old need for survival. Their definitions of the word would have been remarkably different in civilian life but the sinking had for a short time almost equalised them, as it had the 1,500 scrambling in the freezing water after the sinking. It was cold in the boats, one lady so cold that Pitman wrapped a sail around her. A stoker’s teeth chattered and another man looked so cold that he reminded the other passengers of a snowman. A woman collapsed and in number 13, an elderly lady offered an extra coat to a man wearing only a thin jumper, but he refused and said it should go to a young Irish girl instead. There were a number of lady oarsmen, the wealthy Mrs John B. Thayer in boat 4 rowing for 5 hours in water up to her shins. In boat 6, Mrs Brown organised the woman 2 to an oar, propelling the boat 3 or 4 miles in a hopeless effort to overtake the light that twinkled on the horizon most of the night. As the night wore on, the early composure began to give way, Mrs Charles Hayes in boat 3 continually hailing the boats that came near, repeating over and over ‘Charles Hayes, are you there?’. An Italian woman in Boat 8 screamed for her husband until the Countess of Rothes sat next to the signora rowing and trying to cheer her up. Squabbling broke out, often about trifles. One woman drove the others mad by constantly setting off an alarm clock.
Many arguments revolved around smoking, and some women begged men to stop. This was of course decades before Edward Bernays, double nephew of Sigmund Freud, used his famous uncle’s teachings for commercial purposes, one of which was to create generations of female smokers through a staged event where debutantes help up cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’. Back in the sparsely-filled boat 1, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon gave Fireman Hendrickson a good cigar while his wife was too sick to care, her head down and vomiting away the night. With only 12 in the boat, any squabbles were amplified. Fireman Pusey bemoaned the loss of his kit and his pay, telling Sir Cosmo that the latter could at least replace everything he’d lost. Sir Cosmo gave him 5 pounds to start a new kit, but the Duff Gordon’s monopoly of the boat and refusal to row back made the fiver look somewhat like a pay-off. When Lady Duff-Gordon reassembled everyone for a group photo later, the others looked a lot like the Duff-Gordons’ personal crew, something the socialites found it hard to live down for a few years. In boat 6, Major Pouchen, used to giving orders, tried to take command of the boat but Quartermaster Hitchens had other ideas, telling Peuchen that his role was to row and keep quiet. Just before the sinking, he had urged the women in this boat to row harder, worried about the dreaded suction from the ship. The women had shouted back at him and the night echoed with bitter repartee. The light on the horizon wouldn’t be reached and they were without water, food, compass or charts, hundreds of miles from land and without a clue which direction they were heading. Hitchens ordered them to drift but Mrs Brown urged them to keep rowing just to keep warm. In the battle of wills, Mrs Brown took the spoils and Hitchens was rendered silent. Other society ladies, who’d never lifted a finger in their lives, rowed in other boats, including Mrs Astor in boat 4, whose husband had been the richest man on the ship. As they weren’t rowing back to pick up survivors, where exactly they rowed is open to question.
Even in Collapsible B, as the men clung on for dear life, there was time for bickering. Colonel Gracie’s teeth were chattering and his hair frozen stiff, but when he asked a man if he could borrow his cap, he was refused. Nerves were frayed on this boat as the air was leaking out from under the hull and every minute it sunk a little lower in the water. The sea occasionally washed over the keel and one impulsive move might pitch everyone into the sea. An air of horror and desperation hung over everything. They needed cool leadership, and the deep rich voice of 2nd Officer Lightoller piped up and took command. Organised action was required and he got all 30 men to stand arranged in a double column facing the bow and had them lean to counteract the swell. Lightoller spotted 2nd Wireless Operator Bride and was told that the Baltic, Olympic and Carpathia were all on their way, and they searched the horizon for signs of anything to bolster their sagging spirits. Slowly the night passed, and as dawn broke a breeze sprang up, the sea grew choppy, bitter waves splashed up into the boat and the spray stabbed their bodies and blinded their eyes. One man and another rolled off the stern and disappeared from sight. The rest fell silent, completely absorbed in the battle to stay alive. The Chief Baker Charles Joughin had found an original way to stay alive. When the call had come to get to the boat deck soon after midnight, he’d realised the need for provisions and with his 30 men ransacked the ship’s supplies of all bread, over 100 loaves in all. He’d then retired to his cabin on ‘E’ deck for a nip of whisky. He later hauled women up and threw reluctant women into the boats and had refused a place in boat 10 as skipper because he didn’t think it was right. He went back for more drinks, barely noticing the water reaching the top of his shoes. Around 1.45am he returned to the boat deck and began throwing deckchairs from ‘B’ deck, pitching 50 overboard, then retired to the ‘A ‘deck pantry at 2.10am, this time quenching his thirst with water. He’d reached the well deck as Titanic gave a sickening twist to port, throwing most of the people into a huge heap along the port rail. Joughin, alert but relaxed, displayed a remarkable equilibrium as the stern rose higher, corkscrewing to port. The deck was listing too deeply to stand on and he worked his way up the side of the ship holding onto the starboard rail until he reached the poop deck (the partial deck above the main one and at the back of a ship). He stood on the stern end of the ship, which had risen 150 feet above the water. As the sea closed over the stern, he stepped off into the water, not even getting his head wet. He paddled off, hardly bothered by the cold, and at 4am discovered Boat B. Not able to get on, he trod water until a friend from the kitchen helped him on, still thoroughly insulated.
All eyes now scanned the south-east horizon. At 3.30am, they saw a distant flash and heard a far-off boom. A stoker in boat 13, almost unconscious from the cold, suddenly bolted up, recognising the noise as a cannon. Soon, lights began to appear and a big steamer emerged like an apparition, firing reassuring rockets to show that help was on the way. Captain Rostron on the Carpathia had done everything he could after the initial distress call had come through, but after that had come the waiting. Extra lookouts were there, all straining for any sign of ice or the Titanic, but there was just the glassy sea, the blazing stars and the sharp, clear, empty horizon. By 2.35am, all was ready and suddenly Rostron noticed a green flare. All on the bridge thought that it must be from the great ship, still afloat. Perhaps they’d be on time after all. At 2.45am,a glistening berg was spotted, lighted by the mirrored light of a star, then there were more. The Carpathia drove on, never slackening, twisting and turning and dodging icebergs on all sides. On and on they surged as the men breathlessly watched for the next berg and spotted more green flares in the distance from time to time. The Carpathia was firing rockets every 15 minutes and everyone on the ship was ready and wild with excitement. A sailor later remarked that ‘the old boat was as excited as any of us’. However, Rostron’s heart was sinking at 3.45am as they drew near the spot without a sign of her. At 4am, they reached the spot and the ship was stopped. Another green flare blazed up, the flickering light showing the outline of a lifeboat about 300 yards away. In Boat B, they let out a yelp of joy. In Boat 3, newspaper and a lady’s straw hat were burned as signals, others dipped handkerchiefs in kerosene and lit them, and Boxall burned a last green flare in Boat 2. Cheers and yells rang out and the dawn seemed to brighten in mauve and coral colours. The sky blazed with thrilling warm shades of pink and gold. To the north and west, about 5 miles away, stretched a flat unbroken field of ice as far as the eye could see. The sight was so astonishing that those Carpathia passengers who’d slept through everything until now couldn’t grasp it at all, though some snapped pictures of history as they took photos of the lifeboats approaching. Rostron restarted the engines and headed for the light but an instant later, a huge iceberg loomed ahead and he had to swerve it. As he edged toward the lifeboats, the sea grew choppy and a voice from the dark hailed him, ‘we have only 1 seaman and can’t work very well’. It was 4th Officer Boxall in Boat 2. Next to him, a lady in near-hysterics cried out, ‘the Titanic has gone down with everyone on board’ and was sharply told by Boxall to shut up. On the Carpathia, all eyes were on the lifeboat bobbing towards the gangway, and they saw pale, strained faces and heard only a baby wailing in the boat. Lines were quickly dropped and at 4.10am, the first boat was picked up and Miss Elizabeth Allen climbed slowly up the swinging ladder and tumbled into the arms of Purser Brown. She was the first passenger saved! Although he instinctively knew it already, Rostron confirmed with the shivering Boxall on the bridge that the Titanic had gone down. Day was breaking now and other lifeboats could be seen all around, scattered over a 4-mile area. In the grey light of dawn, on what could be termed the first day of the new sceptical, realistic, ‘modern’ age, the boats were hard to distinguish from scores of small icebergs that covered the sea next to 3 or 4 towering monsters of 150 to 200 feet high.
Life started to stir on the Californian with the coming of the dawn of Monday April 15th 1912. 2nd Officer Stone brought his relief, Chief Officer Stewart, up to date about the strange boat with its 8 rockets, its disappearance, and the other rockets they’d observed at 3.40am that clearly came from somewhere else. At 4.30am Stewart woke Captain Lord and repeated the story, the captain pulling on clothes and pondering how to work out of the ice field and get on to Boston. Lord didn’t bother checking on the new ship to the south, which wasn’t sending any signals, but Stone was moved to wake Wireless Operator Evans at 5.40am to tell him. Evans, who’d turned in for the night just before midnight soon after being rebuked by Phillips on the Titanic for bothering him with ice messages, fumbled for the headphones in the half light of day and tuned in. 2 minutes later, Stewart rocketed up to the bridge with the shattering news that the Titanic had struck an iceberg and sunk.
At this point, it needs to be mentioned what was happening back in everyday civilian life, far from the drama on the sea. As we have already seen, the messages that had come from Titanic following the iceberg collision had been met with disbelief by the other ships, and the astonishing news of the CQD was also at that time filtering back to shore via Cape Race. In the city room of the New York Times, the managing editor of the paper studied the wireless messages and made a flurry of phone calls. On a hunch that would make his paper famous, he went out on a limb and changed the morning headlines to reflect the news that the Titanic had collided with an iceberg and started to sink by the head at midnight. The next day, the Times was the lone voice predicting the worst. In America, radio was the new toy and without restrictions, so anyone who could put together a set could get on the waves and be informed as best they could from the often faint messages coming through. One message questioning who’d been saved on the ship got garbled to ‘all Titanic passengers saved’. Since even today there is dispute over the total numbers of passengers, how many were saved and how many lost, it’s not hard to imagine the confusion of that first day. In the New York offices of the White Star Line however, unquestioning optimism reigned. Vice-President Philip Franklin was accosted by reporters on Monday morning but he assured them that ‘inconvenience’ was the worst that the passengers had faced. Inaccurate news that the passengers were being towed to Halifax led to White Star sending trains to meet them which were quickly turned back when it was established that the Carpathia had the survivors of the sinking. ‘The gravity of the damage to the Titanic is apparent but the important point is that she did not sink. Man is both the weakest and the most formidable creature on Earth, and his brain has within it the spirit of the divine. He overcomes natural obstacles by thought, which is incomparably the greatest force in the universe’, wrote the Wall Street Journal. By mid-afternoon however on Monday April 15th, the tone had changed. On the roof of Wannamaker’s department store in New York, there was a wireless station, which had been set up purely for the amusement of its customers. A young man called David Sarnoff, who later achieved fame through R.C.A. (Radio Corporation of America) and became a pioneer of radio and television, was one of the first to get the faint but clear message from the Olympic that Titanic had foundered with a huge loss of life. Once the news had been passed on, it was as if bedlam had been let loose. Reporters beseiged the White Star’s office, and though Philip Franklin first talked only of ‘rumours’ and ‘the hope that all will be saved’, by midnight he openly wept as the truth could no longer be denied. ‘I thought her unsinkable, based on the best advice. I do not understand it’, said Franklin. This kind of disbelief would continue for days, weeks, months and even years.
What they saw from the boats as they approached the Carpathia looked like a picture from a child’s book about the Arctic. The sun was edging over the horizon and the ice sparkled in its first long rays. The bergs looked dazzling white, pink, mauve or deep blue depending on how the rays hit them and how the shadows fell. The sea was now bright blue and little chunks of ice, some no bigger than a man’s fist, bobbed in the choppy water. Overhead, the eastern sky was gold and blue promising a lovely day. The shadows of night lingered in the West and a passenger remembered looking at the Morning Star, which continued to shine long after the others had faded. Near the horizon a thin pale crescent moon appeared. The boats started to try and outrun each other to reach the Carpathia, and some in them began singing. There were organised cheers while others remained silent, stunned by the sinking or overwhelmed by relief. On Collapsible B, Lightoller, Bride, Gracey and the rest were too busy trying to stay afloat and alive to cheer. Stirred by the morning breeze, the waves now washed over the boat and rocked it back and forth, each motion letting air escape and sinking the keel a little lower into the water. Under Lightoller’s direction, the men had shifted their weight back and forth but after an hour had become so exhausted that even the sight of the rescue ship meant little to these men. The Carpathia had stopped 4 miles away and they wondered how they could last until they were spotted. Suddenly, as the lights spread over the sea, they saw a new hope. Boats 4, 10, 12 and D were 800 yards away, strung together in a line. Lighttoller fished an officer’s whistle out of his pocket and blew a shrill blast. In number 12, The 20 men were faintly seen, and boats 12 and 4 made their way towards the officer, slow going despite Lightoller’s encouragement. Finally, the 2 boats arrived but barely in time. Boat B was now so delicately balanced that the wash from Boat 4 almost swept everybody off. Lightoller cautioned the men not to scramble but the boat made a sickening roll as each man made the jump. It was about 6.30 when Lightoller finally got Boat 12 off towards the Carpathia. Boat 14, containing Lowe, spent an hour trying to pick up survivors and only found 4. Some of the boats got away from each other. The swamped Collapsible A contained only 12 out of 30 who’d first swum to it, and it was abandoned after the passengers had been transferred. One by one, the boats crept up to the Carpathia, the process starting at 4.10 and lasting over 4 hours. Ismay stumbled aboard around 6.30 mumbling ‘I’m Ismay’ and trembling. He refused food and drink but requested a private room so he could be alone, the beginning of a self-imposed exile from active life. Within a year, he’d retired from the White Star Line and purchased a large estate on the west coast of Ireland where he remained until his death in 1937.
By 8.15 all the boats were in except number 12, still several hundreds yards away and barely moving. The breeze grew stiff and the sea grew rougher. Now containing 75 people and the only lifeboat that could ever be said to have been filled to capacity at any point during the disaster, Lightoller nursed it along and they got there at 8.30am as the crowd at the Carpathia’s rail watched breathlessly. Lightoller and Officer Wilde had launched the boat, then containing just 30 people, from the Titanic 7 hours earlier. Upon arrival on the Carpathia, Harold Bride immediately collapsed. By now the Californian was standing by and agreed to search the scene while the Carpathia made for New York. The thorough Rostron had one last look for survivors and found few traces of the great ship at her grave, just patches of cork, chairs, palasters, cushions, lifeboats, and one body. A service was arranged in the main lounge where those present gave thanks for the living and paid their respects to the lost. At 8.50 Rostron was satisfied there couldn’t possibly be another person alive in the water and ordered full steam ahead for New York, carrying 712 survivors. Those who made it to the Carpathia found ‘blankets piled to the ceiling’, brandy and hot coffee, an officer to meet each survivor and eventually time to process and ponder their ordeal and the horrors they’d witnessed. The priority for the weak, bone-chilled survivors was of course to try and locate missing loved ones, and 12-year-old Ruth Becker searched for 4 frantic hours before finally being reunited with her mother and 2 younger siblings, alas a rare story of successful reunion. On the crowded Carpathia, people slept on floors and tables, and the passengers were later commended for many acts of kindness to those who came from the Titanic, many lending or giving away items such as toothbrushes and clothes, and offering their cabins without a murmur. Some passengers started getting on with their lives quickly, for others it took longer. Ismay, who had been in need of sedation when he’d arrived, remained sequestered in the doctor’s cabin, still trembling and shot with opiates, not appearing to eat, drink nor see anyone. 17-year-old Jack Thayer sipped brandy and realised it was his first ever drink of hard liquor. Far below, the Carpathia’s engines hummed with a swift, soothing rhythm. Far above, the wind whistled through the rigging.
Back in Belfast, those from Harland and Wolff who’d built the ship were stunned by the news, as were those in Southampton, who’d contributed most of the crew. 549 men from Southampton were lost, leaving widows and fatherless children. The White Star office there was also beseiged, but details were unclear and confusion reigned. Back in New York, the sinking was now officially accepted though without the precise details. This didn’t stop headlines being made about details of the sinking, however. The American press had already scapegoated and pilloried Ismay before he’d even arrived back on the Carpathia once his survival had been made official. The rescue ship was offering no news to those awaiting it in New York, even refusing a telegram from President Taft pleading for news of his military aide Archibald Butt. Captain Rostron elected instead to save the wireless for official traffic and private messages from survivors, relayed by Operator Cottam with help from his Titanic counterpart Harold Bride once he’d recovered. It would be 3 and a half days after the first reports before the wait for real news ended.
On the evening of Thursday 18th April, The Carpathia approached New York City harbour. As she edged toward Pier 54, 30,000 people lined the docks and the streets of Battery Park in the waterfront rain. The harbour had probably never witnessed something as emotional and significant as the arrival of the rescue ship. As the Carpathia steamed up the north river, tugs chugged beside her full of reporters shouting questions and money offers through megaphones. At 8.37pm, she reached the pier and began unloading the Titanic’s lifeboats, which prompted gasps of emotion in the realisation that these tiny craft were all that remained of the world’s largest liner. At 9.35pm, the first survivors tumbled off the ship to be met by reporters begging for a story. One reporter had got on the Carpathia and been promptly decked by one of the officers on the ship. Many of the survivors such as Georgetta Dean, whose daughter Millvina would eventually be the final living survivor, now had children to raise alone in a strange new land. Many steerage survivors had the added confusion of not speaking the mother tongue. Some locals offered them dollar bills, yet more examples of human decency in dark moments. On the same day, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, the so-called ‘city of sorrow’, the cable ship Mackay-Bennett, manned by an-volunteer crew and loaded with 100 coffins, set off on the macabre journey to search for bodies which had drifted away from the site of the Titanic’s foundering and were being kept afloat by the life jackets that they wore. Over 300 bodies were found, ranging from the poorest immigrants to John Jacob Astor. The ship had limited embalming supplies, so severely damaged or unidentifiable bodies were committed to the deep at a depth of 2 miles, each burial preceded by the appropriate words. Remnants of the ship also remained, such as deckchairs and panelling from the lounge, the wood from which was carved into a cribbage board by a crewmen of the Mackay-Bennett. The last body was found in June by a German steamer, the victim a table steward from the dining saloon. 356 bodies were found in all but they didn’t include famous names such as Benjamin Guggenheim and Captain Edward J. Smith, of whom all manner of stories would be recounted regarding his actions and whereabouts after the sinking. Both Smith and 1st Officer Murdoch were involved in rumours of an officer shooting himself in the head, an event that may or may not have taken place.
Testimonies from survivors were ‘improved’ by reporters and all manner of stories began to circulate, the public caught up in the excitement and not caring about the truth of the stories. As the famous Hollywood film director John Ford said, ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. The public were overwhelmed, and King George of England and President Taft exchanged condolences. The official numbers once they were in were rather damning in terms of enormous and undeniable class discrepancies. 1,522 passengers and crew had been lost, and among the survivors the ‘women and children first’ policy, that had seemed to be the way of it, didn’t appear to square with the loss rate of 3rd class children being higher than that of first-class men!. Though denied by the White Star Line, it became clear that steerage were to a great extent disregarded and forgotten. With perfect symbolism, their quarters were the lowest on the ship and they’d struggled to get up top when the lifeboats started to be loaded. In the subsequent enquiries and survivor testimonies, it emerged that some of the crew had in fact barred the way to the boat deck for 3rd-class passengers (symbolically keeping them down) or opened the gates without telling anyone. Some had been generously helped by passengers to get up to the deck but most were left to fend for themselves. Some steerage met the challenge with enterprise, crawling along the crane from the well deck aft, but most milled helplessly about their quarters, forgotten and soon to be lost for ever. Just before the ship sank, Lightoller and others had been sure all the women had been seen off in lifeboats when they suddenly saw dozens of steerage women running towards the boats. Of the casualties, only 4 of 143 1st-class women had died, 3 of those choosing to remain on the ship, 15 of 93 2nd-class women and 81 of 179 steerage. Only 1 child of 29 in 1st and 2nd class had perished, while shockingly 53 out of 76 steerage children had been lost. Nobody seemed to care about 3rd class even after the disaster, including the press, who voraciously searched for news elsewhere, and the official enquiries. Only 2 out of 43 survivor accounts in the New York Herald came from 3rd-class passengers. Congress’s detailed investigation concerned itself with what an iceberg was made of (‘ice!’, said 5th Officer Lowe) but only talked to 3 steerage passengers and didn’t follow up on their testimony of being kept from going on the boat deck. No hush up was required since there seemed no interest. At the British enquiry, the official representative of third-class passengers saw no discrimination, and a clean bill of health was given to the system that had failed the steerage passengers. However, no 3rd-class passenger testified and the only surviving steward stationed in steerage freely conceded that the men were kept below decks as late as 1.15am. The steerage passengers seemed to expect this and silently accept it, even as the ship was sinking.
Regarding the investigations, since a British ship owned by an American company had been lost, 2 enquiries either side of the Atlantic were set up. The American Senate hearings started on April 19th in a ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and were at the same time theatre, psychodrama and also a social event. J. Bruce Ismay denied trying to influence Captain Smith regarding the speed of the ship and testified that he’d instinctively hopped into a lifeboat that was about to leave without being full. Ismay ‘performed’ well though the press sought to leap on and exaggerate any signs of weakness, and one paper listed ‘the lost’ on one side of a page, citing a handful of illustrious passengers, and ‘the saved’ on the other side, with the sole name of Ismay. Ismay stated that ‘my conscience is clear’. 80 witnesses testified at the month-long hearings and the maverick Senator William Alden-Smith, who’d called for the hearings, sought to sue White Star for negligence but found that no official violation of written law could be found so no steerage passengers could be compensated at this time. Passengers and crew with complaints aginst the White Star line would have to wait a lot longer for the meagre reparations handed out. The formula of ‘limited liability’ meant that the damage money would be a proportion of what had been saved, in this case a mere 20 lifeboats. The figure White Star finally negotiated with the lawyers, 664,000 dollars to American claimants and 3.5 million to British, was clearly higher than the formula demanded but still a fraction of what had been lost in terms of life and property.
After the New York hearings, the British crew headed home for Plymouth, where they had been summoned to testify at the British enquiry, presided over by the distinguished Lord Mersey. Neither enquiry fixed blame on the I.M.M, The White Star Line or its employees, but happily, they both made clear the need for regulatory changes that still protect seafarers to this day. Never again would men fail to heed ice warnings and fling a ship into an ice field, putting all their trust in a few thousand tonnes of steel and rivets. From now, Atlantic liners took icebergs seriously and steered clear or slowed down. Nobody believed any longer in the idea of an unsinkable ship and icebergs would be subject to the International Ice Patrol, a service that goes through the North Atlantic lanes and blows up icebergs before they become a hazard to navigation. Liners now had a 24-hour radio watch, so never again could the world fall apart while a wireless operator lay sleeping off duty just 20 miles away. Regarding lifeboats, the outdated safety regulations that Titanic had adhered to and in fact exceeded (having capacity for 1,178 people instead of the 962 required with the formula based on cubic feet), were done away with. The new formula was simple- lifeboats for all, and they would not be filled according to class.
Even more than the great ship, her cargo and the lives of 1,500 people, a lot more vanished on the fateful night. Since the disaster, class distinctions in this situation have been drastically reduced or, some perhaps rather optimistically say, eliminated. As happily often happens in the face of disaster, people rushed to help, and in this case relief agencies were set up worldwide to help widows, orphans and penniless steerage survivors, who finally received recognition. The seeds of a social conscience were sown by what is often required for this to happen, for humans to see past their own destinies and egos and tend to those more needy than themselves. However, disasters also need scapegoats, and as well as the new safety procedures, the enquiries also agreed on the guilty party. Although Ismay had been ‘drawn and quartered’ by some elements of the press, the accepted villain was actually named by Ernest Gill, a crewman on the Californian. He offered an account of Captain Lord’s disregard of the rockets and criminal negligence, claims that Lord scoffed at. It should be said that crewmen on very low wages were offered a year’s wages or more for a ‘story’, which could later be embellished by a skilled newspapermen. Like Ismay, Lord was haunted by the fallout for the rest of his life, maintaining that a 3rd mystery ship had been between the Californian and Titanic before steaming away, which accounted for Lord and the Californian’s lack of action on the fateful night. When pressed by Lord Mersey himself at the British enquiry, Lord had said that ‘a ship in distress does not steam away from you’. His protests fell on deaf ears and he didn’t receive the official exoneration afforded to Ismay and Captain Smith, instead made the official scapegoat for the whole disaster. Lord was fired by the Leyland Line just 4 months after the sinking, his reputation in ruins. He kept quiet for many years but was upset by his portrayal in the 1958 film ‘A Night To Remember’, where he was depicted as sleeping in his cabin while hundreds were dying a short distance away, and was reinvigorated in his determination to clear his name. Lord went to see a man called Harrison, who was the General Secretary of the Mercantile Marine Service Organisation, of which Lord had been a member for 60 years. Lord explained that he’d been wrongly accused of allowing 1,500 people to die, and when Harrison took out the old files and examined them, he became convinced that Lord had a case. Who was the ship between the 20 miles separating the Titanic and the Californian? Speculation said that it was a Norwegian whaler called The Samson, which was illegally involved in the seal hunting trade and had steamed away when finding herself between the 2 boats, but it was later proved that the boat was in an Icelandic port at the time of the disaster. Lord died in 1962, a few months shy of the 50th anniversary of the disaster and a full 30 years before his case was suddenly reopened. The findings were mixed, and although no question of murder was concluded, the suggestion of negligence was there to further torment Lord’s family and fail to restore his tarnished reputation.
First class and the well-known would never have it so good as they had back in 1912. At that time, there were no movie, radio or television celebrities and café society was totally unknown, so it was the prominent social figures who the public depended on for the vicarious glamour that enriches drab lives. When the Titanic sailed, the New York Times listed the prominent passengers on the front page, and after the sinking John Jacob Astor’s loss was given a prominent 2-page spread. He’d thought nothing of paying 800 dollars for a lace jacket from a dealer on deck as the ship stopped briefly at Queensland. The wealthy Ryersons had 16 trunks of luggage. The 190 1st-class families were attended to by 23 handmaids, 8 valets and assorted nurses and governesses, not to mention all the stewards and stewardesses attending to their every need. In New York, the rich survivors were met by doctors, nurses, secretaries, special trains and private cars. As stated earlier, a deluxe suite on the Titanic with its private promenade deck, one of which J.P. Morgan was due to sail in before his late cancellation, went for as much as 4,350 in 1912 dollars. To put this in perspective, 2nd Wireless Operator Harold Bride, on 20 dollars a month, would have had to have worked for 18 years to make one trip in style. The world of the Edwardian rich was close and intimate and they would bump into each other at the Pyramids, the Cowes Regatta or the springs at Baden-Baden. And their mutual idea had been to take the maiden trip on the Titanic. After the collision with the iceberg, John Jacob Astor had learned of the damage to the ship from Captain Smith before the general alarm. The stewards and waiters working on the ship had often served the same elites and knew how they liked things done. Even the prosperous but relatively modest (by Astor standards at least) Thomas Andrews was helped to dress. The superiority of Anglo-Saxon courage was also loudly proclaimed on the Titanic, and the ‘stowaways’, those who jumped from the deck before the sinking, were all ‘foreigners’. At the Inquiry, ‘some Italians’ were presumed to have rushed the boats, the word being used to mean coward, requiring the Italian ambassador demand an apology. The stoker who attacked Phillips was described as a ‘negro’ for effect. At the same time, some of the nobility of some of the men also disappeared along with the general chivalry of the time, tempered still by the gradual rise of feminism. Today, love and loyalty between families still exists but little personal touches like going to the White Star line in person rather than phoning to check on loved ones have disappeared with the times. The disaster also destroyed the confidence of the age and the feeling that an answer had been found to a civilised, orderly life. For the past 100 years, there’d been no war and a steady rise of technology and industry, and life was ‘alright’. The Titanic woke them up and gave technology and man’s greatest achievement a terrible blow, shown to be ever so fragile beneath the grandeur on its very first trip. The Titanic disaster had equalised everyone in the water, and if wealth did no good then, did it mean anything the rest of the time? Ministers preached that ‘The Titanic was a heaven-sent lesson to awaken people from their complacency’. The lesson appeared to work but more was required to press home the point. 2 years after the sinking, the technology that was supposed to improve mankind’s life in an unbroken continuum of progress that would eventually lead to perfection was instead used in an exercise of mass destruction of human life in the First World War I, the fallout from which was a large contributing factor towards an even greater act of mutual massacre 20 years later. The introduction of Income Tax in 1913 had already struck a blow to the Edwardian rich, whose lifestyle had been so on show on the Titanic, and then came the control of money by private interests through the Federal Reserve. The ‘uneasy era’ had started, and the 20th century took a hammering.
For 75 years, Titanic never left popular culture and many secretly dreamed of finding the wreck, which lay nearly 3 miles down. Dr Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts was the man chosen by fate to scale the underwater Mount Everest to make contact again with the great ship in a joint U.S/French expedition which was years in the making. The French had developed a piece of sonar technology to search the area around where the lifeboats had been picked up, and although the first search had yielded nothing, it had narrowed things down by showing them a large area where the wreck wasn’t to be found. A month later, using Ballard’s own Argo Imaging System, a remote-controlled underwater video system, the magic moment finally came. The days had passed with endless monotonous footage of the sea floor and a feeling that a third expedition would be needed. In the early hours of Sunday September 1st 1985 however, those working the graveyard shift suddenly noticed anomalies in the otherwise smooth ocean floor. At first it was pockmarks that looked like small craters, then debris, a boiler and the hull. Cheers went up though they turned to an uncomfortable feeling when someone pointed out that the time was approaching 2.20am, the hour that the ship had sunk. Ballard realised he’d come upon a graveyard, ‘a place of lost souls’. He would return a year later with well-advanced technology that could explore the wreck in close up. After a 2-and-a-half-hour descent, Ballard could just make out a wall of steel that seemed endless. As the team’s lights hit the wall, it was blazoned in colour and finally seemed real beyond the legend that had been building for 75 years since the first second after it had gone down. The portholes suddenly seemed like eyes looking back, perhaps even disapprovingly at the voyeuristic explorers. It was clear that the bow had plunged 2.5 miles in under 10 minutes, ploughing into the silt and forever hiding the gash that the iceberg had cut into her side. The stern had broken off and evened out briefly, which had led those still on it at the time to believe that it might hold, before it gave way and made its own plunge. On the ocean floor, the stern, swept relatively far from the bow, looked in 1985 like it had been hit by a nuclear blast. Ballard reasoned that the bow being full of water at the time of the sinking had made it ‘pressure compensated’, meaning that there was no air left in it. The stern however had held on to its air, causing a tremendous build-up of pressure that was released in an implosion on the way down. A mile of debris was scattered around between the bow and stern like salt from a shaker. At one point, they saw a ‘smiling face’ appear, which was the head of a painted ceramic doll from the ship, perfectly preserved. Incredibly, there were still a variety of small creatures going about their day in the blackness of the ocean depths some 3,800 metres down, where water pressure is 11,000 PSI (pounds per square inch), something comparable to a single person supporting the weight of 30 Boeing 747s. The human bodies had been quickly consumed of course but due to the tannic acid used in the production of leather items, they like the ceramic items were perfectly preserved. On the stern Ballard placed a bronze plague, given to him by survivor Eva Hart in memory of her father, and the crew wept.
Ballard had originally intended to keep the location of the wreck a secret so as to stop others disturbing the grave, but this proved naturally impossible for an insatiable world. Emotional debates raged among historians, oceanographers and survivors about whether Titanic’s treasures should be salvaged (akin to graverobbing in some survivors’ eyes) or left in peace. In 1994, after an extended court battle, exclusive salvage rights were given to R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. The artefacts found, which included unmailed postcards, a passenger’s leather bag last opened in April 1912 and a music stand that may have been used as the band played on right to the end, were painstakingly preserved and restored then put on display and are now viewed in various sights. The tastefulness of the displays and treatment of the items contrasts with a programme called ‘Return To The Titanic’, which was broadcast in 1987. It was in the main an interesting programme that featured several artefacts recovered from the ship, but host Telly Savalas, broadcasting live in Paris, was also charged to warm the audience up before each of the numerous commercial breaks with the continual build-up to the climax of the programme, where a safe would be opened containing the jewels of the Edwardian rich that went down with the ship. No comment is required regarding the fictional film ‘Raise The Titanic’, based on a Clive Cussler novel.
Following 1958’s ‘A Night To Remember’, a well-made and faithful adaptation of Walter Lord’s seminal book on the sinking, there was James Cameron’s 1997 ‘Titanic’, which inserted a love story full of dreadful dialogue into the story but also used CGI to far advance the 1958 film in terms of the drama and scale of the sinking. It was the most expensive film ever made and became the most successful ever. With the coming of the internet, there is now a treasure trove of information that keeps on coming though debate still rages about certain details, including the aforementioned possibility that the ship that went down may have actually been the Olympic, deliberately sunk in an insurance scam. This possibility is roundly dismissed by the vocal majority, who have always been troubled enough by the sense of fate in the official account of the sinking. If the Titanic had heeded any of the 6 ice messages, if ice conditions had been normal, if the night had been rough or moonlit, if the iceberg had been sighted 15 seconds sooner, if her watertight bulkheads had been 1 deck higher, if she’d carried enough lifeboats for all, if the Californian had had 24-hour wireless, and so on, things could have been different. But they weren’t and all went against her, a Greek tragedy. The best that has ever been possible since the disaster has been to weigh all the evidence carefully and give an honest opinion about what happened on the incredible night the Titanic went down, as well as trying to learn the hard lessons. The mystique continues to grow, perhaps because of the metaphorical value of the story. For most, the creep towards inevitable death is slow. On the Titanic on April 15th, death came relatively quickly to 1,500 people, but the hours leading up to the moment of truth may have seemed like a lifetime. There may also be sensed something significant in the fact that the Titanic story is one about water. That magical liquid covers approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface, and we are all composed of around 65% of it as well. We depend on the fresh version of it for our survival and as stated earlier, the wise man should also fear and respect it in terms of the vast bodies of water that contain it. Then there is the idea that as a microcosm, the whole world was on that ship, or at least a fairly comprehensive representation of extremes of lifestyle and temperament. The class system and the belief that the world couldn’t actually be equal largely determined who lived and died, but at the same time imminent death sought to remove distinctions. At the same time that the privileged Lady Duff-Gordon was making a remarkably shallow remark about the loss of her secretary’s nightdress just as the ship went down, depths of emotions were also being felt that would in some cases take a lifetime to reconcile. The survivors later said that the disaster had brought on the rest of their lives a sense of calm and a new perspective. John B. Thayer, quoted at the beginning of this piece as saying that ‘the world of today awoke on Apr 15th 1912’, also said that ‘nothing was revealed that wasn’t known the night before’, implying that there is something deep down in every person that knows that reality is never quite so. Perhaps the survivors found the ultimate reality, that every day must be appreciated to the full.
The last words will be left to Michael McCaughan, Curator of Maritime History at Ulster Folk & Transport Musuem, speaking (slightly paraphrased) at the conclusion of the fantastic 2-part documentary, ‘Titanic: The Complete Story’, which was a major source of what you have just read.
‘Titanic is seen in today’s world as another example of man interfering with aspects of the natural world, and it lies there today as a lesson for the present and future. The continuing appeal of the Titanic does seem to be as a parable, a universal lesson in the mystery of the human condition, a dramatic revelation of man’s nobility and his fallability in this mysterious and capricious world in which we live.’
1 thought on “Legends And Folly: The Remarkable Story of R.M.S. Titanic”
Smartly written; the use of vivid language allows the reader to become immersed in events being narrated. Greetings from Argentina.
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