A Titanic Centennial

By John Protasio

Boasting the most modern luxury accommodations, including a Turkish bath, swimming pool, squash court, gymnasium, and French “sidewalk café,” the Titanic also offered speed. Triple screw, she could make 24–25 knots. 1

The most notable feature of this “floating palace” was her safety design. She was constructed with a cellular double bottom and divided into 16 watertight compartments. The bulkheads separating the compartments all were fitted with watertight doors. 2 According to Shipbuilder magazine, “the captain can, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout and make the vessel practically unsinkable.” 3 The popular press sensationalized that characterization, labeling the ship as simply “unsinkable.”

In actuality the Titanic had a fatal flaw: The bulkheads did not extend to the top deck of the ship. In some of the middle compartments they ran only as high as “E” deck—the topmost deck being “A.” Thus, if the first five compartments were flooded, the ship would list and the water would overflow into the remaining compartments. Yet this seemed highly unlikely, leading one member of her crew to boast, “God Himself could not sink this ship.”

Less than a year after her launch, the Titanic would lie on the floor of the Atlantic, taking with her the lives of 1,502 passengers and crew.

An Ominous Start

With the ship prepared for her maiden voyage, White Star Line began to muster a crew worthy of this new vessel. The company chose Edward J. Smith as captain. Prior to sailing, there was a shuffle of senior officers on the new liner. Henry Wilde would serve as chief officer on the voyage. Former Chief Officer William Murdock became first officer, and First Officer Charles Lightoller was bumped to second officer in place of David Blair, who was transferred.

During that shuffling of officers, the binoculars for the crow’s nest went missing. Apparently Blair, who had responsibility for the glasses, had them locked in his quarters before leaving and did not inform Lightoller, who had taken his job. When Lightoller was unable to locate them, the lookouts were deprived of binoculars for the voyage. 4

Sailing day, 10 April, was marked by an incident many regarded as a bad omen. As the mammoth new liner edged out of Southampton Harbor, the suction from her huge propellers drew the moored American liner New York from her dock. The cables attached to the latter snapped like string and the vessel drifted out of control in the Titanic ’s direction. To second-class passenger Lawrence Beesley, a science teacher, it recalled an experiment he used in his classes in which a magnet atop a cork in a bowl of water attracts metal on other corks in the bowl. 5 Collision seemed certain until Captain Smith stopped the engines. Two tugboats quickly towed the New York back to her pier.

The Titanic sailed for Cherbourg, France. The next day she stopped briefly at Queenstown, Ireland, then resumed her maiden voyage to New York City. Among the first-class passengers were business tycoon John Jacob Astor, mining and smelting king Benjamin Guggenheim, railroad giants Charles Hays and John Thayer, the Titanic ’s shipbuilder, Thomas Andrews—on board to iron out any bugs—White Star Line managing director Bruce Ismay, and many other affluent figures collectively worth more than $250 million—about $5.5 billion today.

Danger: Ice Ahead

A few days later, on 14 April, the captain received an iceberg warning from the SS Caronia . She reported ice 42 degrees north latitude, 49–50 degrees west longitude. Later that day another message, this one from the Baltic, also warned of ice. Three minutes later, a wireless warning of ice came from the Amerika .

To the Titanic ’s master, Captain Smith, the warnings were of little concern. After all, ships were considerably safer now. Smith had reflected on that security five years earlier, when commanding the liner Adriatic . Asked if he thought the modern ship could remain afloat long enough for the company to abandon it, he replied: “I will go a bit further. I will say I can not imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I can not conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel [the Adriatic ]. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” 6

Moreover, the weather was clear—meaning icebergs should be seen in time. Nevertheless, Smith did not completely ignore the warnings. He informed his employer, Bruce Ismay, of the Baltic’s alert and consulted his officers. If visibility were to become the least bit hazy, they were to slow down. Otherwise he would remain in his quarters and the ship would continue making a speed of 21–22 knots.

Around 1930, one of the Titanic ’s wireless operators overheard a message from the Californian to the Antillian : “To the Captain, Antillian 6:30 p.m. apparent ship’s time: latitude 42 degrees 3 minutes north; longitude 40 degrees 9 minutes west. Three large bergs five miles to the southward of us.” The message was delivered to the bridge but the ship continued at speed.

At 2140, a message came in from the Mesaba noting “much heavy pack ice and a great number of large icebergs. Also field ice.” The position mentioned was directly in the Titanic ’s path. Senior wireless operator Jack Phillips replied, “R. Tks.” (Received. Thanks.) Some maritime historians believe, however, that Phillips lost that crucial message in a stack of marconigrams.

Soon it was four bells (2200) and First Officer Murdoch relieved Lightoller as officer on watch. No arrangements were made for additional lookouts. Nor was speed reduced by even a fraction of a knot.

By 2340, people were turning in for the night. The crew was due to rotate in 20 minutes. Up in the crow’s nest, lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee stood an uneventful watch. Occasionally the two chatted about the cold, but mostly stood in silence.

Then Fleet saw it, a large, dark object directly in the path of the ship. There was no mistaking its identity—an iceberg. Quickly, Fleet rang the crow’s-nest bell three times. He lifted the phone and called to the bridge.

“What did you see?” asked Sixth Officer James Paul Moody.

“Iceberg right ahead,” answered Fleet.

A Jolt from the Sea

When the warning was passed to him by Moody, Murdoch acted quickly. He had the engines stopped and then reversed. He ordered the watertight doors to be closed. The first officer ordered the helmsman to put the helm “a hard a-starboard.”

A few seconds later there was a jolt throughout the ship. On the after bridge, Quartermaster George Row noticed a break in the rhythm of the engines. He turned and saw an iceberg, which he judged to be jutting about 100 feet out of the water.

Seventeen-year-old Jack Thayer was preparing for bed when he felt a jar so slight that if he had a bowl of water, he thought, not one drop would be spilt. 7

In C-51, Colonel Archibald Gracie was awakened by a sudden shock and noise from somewhere forward on the starboard side of the ship. At first Gracie thought the Titanic had collided with another vessel. 8

Lawrence Beesley felt “an extra heave of the engines and a more than usual obvious dancing motion of the mattress.” He then noticed the engines had stopped. Beesley was under the impression that a propeller blade was lost. 9

Stewardess Violet Jessop was in her bunk reading a prayer book when she heard “a low rending, crunching, ripping sound.” Then there was “dead silence.” She heard doors open and voices outside. 10

Ten to twelve miles distant, Charles Victor Groves, third officer of the Californian , was on watch. His liner was stopped for the night; Captain Stanley Lord intended to navigate the ice field in the morning. Groves noticed a steamer approaching from the east. From the blaze of light there was no doubt it was a large passenger liner. At around 2340 the other ship stopped.

Confusion amid Impending Doom

On board the Titanic , First Officer Murdoch pulled the engine-telegraph lever to “Stop.” The officer clearly knew he had failed to avoid the iceberg. No sooner had he stopped the engines than Captain Smith appeared on the bridge. “Mr. Murdoch, what was that?”

“An iceberg, sir. I hard a-starboard and reversed engines, and I was going to hard a-port round it but she was too close.”

“Close the emergency doors.”

“The doors are already closed.”

Soon there came in reports of flooding down below. Captain Smith knew that his command was seriously damaged. The commutator revealed the ship was already listing five degrees to starboard. He decided to ask Thomas Andrews, the ship’s builder, to inspect the damage.

Andrews and Captain Smith went below. They took the crew’s stairway, hoping not to attract undue attention. Applying their knowledge of the ship, it did not take them long to conclude that the Titanic ’s first five compartments were flooded. Andrews then informed Smith that the ship was doomed.

The situation was indeed dire. The liner carried just 16 conventional lifeboats and four Englehardt collapsibles. The collective capacity of those 20 vessels was 1,178 people. But there were 2,207 souls on board the Titanic, meaning 1,029 of them would be at the mercy of the sea—at the time a fatally frigid 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

A few minutes after midnight, Captain Smith ordered his officers to prepare to abandon ship. He then went to the wireless room and told Phillips and junior operator Harold Bride to “send the call for assistance.” Phillips sent out “CQD”—the standard call of distress in that pre-“SOS” era—and gave the ship’s position.

The crew began to uncover the lifeboats and soon encountered several difficulties. Many passengers refused to board the boats. Some men balked at boarding before others. Some women refused to leave their husbands. Others simply would not believe a modern liner such as the Titanic could sink. After all, she was unsinkable—wasn’t she?

Finally, after much confusion, a few boats were filled. First Officer Murdoch gave the order to lower Lifeboat 7. Others soon followed.

On the after bridge, Quartermaster Rowe became suspicious. He had earlier felt the jolt and seen the iceberg. Now he was seeing lifeboats floating off the side. Rowe phoned the bridge for an explanation.

Captain Smith ordered Rowe to gather the ship’s signal rockets, directing him and Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall to “fire one and [thereafter] fire one every five minutes.” Thus the two began firing the rockets in hopes that a nearby ship would come to their rescue.

On board the relatively close-by Californian , Second Officer Herbert Stone saw the rockets and, with the ship’s speaking tube, informed Captain Lord. Lord told Stone to hail the other ship using the Morse lamp. Oddly, the captain neither went to the bridge for a firsthand look nor awakened his wireless operator to try to determine exactly what was happening in the distance.

Swallowed by the Sea

Inside the Titanic ’s wireless cabin, Senior Operator Phillips was making better progress. By 0030 he had made contact with the Cunard liner Carpathia . Her wireless operator informed the Titanic that his ship was 58 miles away and was “coming hard.”

As time passed, it became more evident to those on board the Titanic that the ship was sinking. Panic broke out. A mob made a rush on Lifeboat 14. Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, who was in charge of the boat, cried, “If any one else tries that, this is what he’ll get!”—firing three shots from his revolver into the air. With no further trouble the boat then was lowered to the sea. 11

On the starboard side, Lifeboat 13 was in the process of being lowered when a crew member on board called back, “Any more ladies on your deck?”

“No,” replied Lawrence Beesley who was standing nearby.

“Then you had better jump,” said the crew member. Beesely clambered aboard and the boat was lowered away. 12

The bulk of the passengers, in steerage, were barred from the lifeboats during much of the sinking. Yet the formal report on the disaster said that there had been no discrimination on the basis of class. That “thorough” investigation failed to call a single steerage passenger to testify, though a steward stationed there stated that the men were kept below as late as 0115. 13

Some third-class passengers survived. Nine-year-old Frank Goldsmith, along with his mother and father, came to a gate. The man stationed there allowed only women and children to pass. “So long, Frankie,” his father said. “I’ll see you later.” Goldsmith and his mother were led up to a boat. 14

At 0140 the Titanic ’s eighth and final rocket was fired. Still, there was no response in kind. Giving up, Boxhall took charge of Lifeboat 2. A few minutes later the last few boats were lowered. Now the only ones still on board were two of the collapsibles, stored atop the officers’ quarters.

By this time Captain Smith began to relieve his men. He went to the wireless cabin and told Bride and Phillips: “Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it’s every man for himself.” The two remained at their post. 15

On the deck atop the officers’ quarters, Lightoller and a few others were trying to lower the two collapsibles. Colonel Gracie and his friend Clinch Smith tried to jump up to that deck, but the weight of their life-preservers stymied their effort. Gracie crouched down, and as a wave rolled in he made a leap. The crest of the water carried him up to the deck, but when he turned, Smith was nowhere to be seen. 16

A wave then swept away Lightoller and those working to free the collapsibles. Behind them the forward funnel broke off and crushed several people. At the same time, the falling funnel created a second wave that pushed more people away.

Slowly the ship dipped under the water. Within a few seconds she was perpendicular to the Atlantic. The liner broke in two, the forward section sinking while the after part righted itself. But a few moments later it too plunged under the icy Atlantic’s waves. Thus at 0220 on 15 April 1912, the great Titanic sank.

Assessing the Blame

Above the liner’s grave, hundreds of people struggled in the subfreezing cold of the water. Some managed to reach the capsized Collapsible A. Others, such as Jack Thayer, made their way to capsized Collapsible B. 17 Colonel Gracie was clinging to a crate until he saw Collapsible B. He was grateful that Second Officer Lightoller was there to organize the men atop the lifeboat. 18

At 0330, an hour and ten minutes after the Titanic had foundered, the Carpathia arrived at the scene and her crew began to pick up survivors. To make certain of the liner’s fate, Carpathia Captain Arthur Rostron asked Fourth Officer Boxhall, “The Titanic has gone down?” “Yes,” was the reply. “She went down at about 2:30.” 19

In all, 705 people survived, including Second Officer Lightoller, Harold Bride, Jack Thayer, Colonel Gracie, Frank Goldsmith, and Violet Jessop. Among the 1,502 who perished were Jack Phillips, Thomas Andrews, Clinch Smith, and Captain Smith. At the time it was the worst maritime disaster in history.

Many factors, taken in aggregate, caused the tragedy. Ice conditions were abnormal. Visibility was hampered by a lack of moonlight, waves brushing the iceberg, surface haze, and the want of binoculars for the lookouts. Lifeboat regulations were seriously outdated, as witnessed by the Titanic having vessels capable of carrying just a fraction of those on board. No international rules regarding many aspects of maritime communications existed; thus the wireless operator in the Californian —as was customary—had retired for the night around 2330.

Interestingly, if First Officer Murdoch had kept the Titanic on course, she would have struck the iceberg head on and probably just two of her compartments would have flooded. Yet he should not be blamed for the disaster. He took what seemed the logical course of action. Any criticism of him would be unfair.

It would not be unfair, however, to blame Captain Lord of the Californian . Despite being told that a nearby vessel was firing rockets, he did not go to the bridge to see for himself, nor did he rouse the wireless operator to try to make contact with the mystery vessel.

Yet some come to his defense. The “Lordides,” as they are called, say there was another vessel firing rockets that night, and it was that ship the watch on the Californian had seen—not the Titanic . But no evidence has ever surfaced to indicate there was any other ship in the area that night firing rockets.

Part of the pro-Lord theory holds that the Titanic ’s reported position was in error. Lord’s defenders believe the ship sank several miles south of that position. Yet Robert Ballard, the man who decades later discovered the sunken Titanic , concluded that the ship was just one mile south of the position broadcast by her wireless operator that night. 20

Another point Captain Lord’s apologists raise is that both Second Officer Stone and Lord himself were of the opinion that the neighboring vessel was a small steamer. They saw no blaze of light such as the White Star liner would have emitted. What is overlooked is that sometime earlier, when the Titanic first appeared on scene, Third Officer Groves had noticed a great deal of light. One member of the Californian ’s crew reported seeing a “glare of lights on her after deck.” 21 Lord and Stone failed to see a significant glow because by the time they saw the Titanic , she had turned two points to port.

Lord’s defenders point out that both the Titanic and the Californian were signaling with Morse lamps, but neither vessels’ officers saw replies. The steamers may have been just beyond the range of those signal lamps, however.

The “Lordides” further say that some Titanic survivors reported seeing the Californian move. But the Californian had remained stationary, so it could not have been her—thus some other ship was in proximity to the Titanic , they contend. But other survivors were just as adamant that the other ship had not moved. In fact, during the night the Californian turned in a circle, which may have caused the illusion of movement for some witnesses.

The overwhelming weight of evidence supports the findings of the official inquires. The Californian saw a ship stop at 2340—about the same time the Titanic struck the iceberg. Between 0045 to 0145 the Californian ’s second officer saw rockets. It was about that time the Titanic fired hers. The Titanic sank at 0220, about the same time Stone observed the mysterious neighbor vanish.

Even if it had been just a small steamer that had fired rockets that night, it would not excuse Captain Lord’s inaction. The missiles resembled distress signals, yet he failed to respond to them in a seamanlike fashion.

A Drama for the Ages

After the disaster, reforms were adopted. Atlantic travel routes were shifted south. The International Ice Patrol was established to track icebergs. Regulations were put in place requiring ships to carry an adequate number of lifeboats—and drills became mandatory. Maritime rules were established requiring that radio communications in passenger ships be staffed around the clock.

Seventy-three years after the tragedy, Robert Ballard led an expedition to find the lost liner. In September 1985, the ship’s broken halves were discovered lying about a third of a mile apart, the distance between them strewn with debris. But no evidence of a 300-foot gash in the Titanic —believed to be the cause of her sinking—was found. Ballard concluded that a series of punctures were made as the iceberg poked the liner along her starboard side.

In 1994 a sample of the ship’s steel was recovered. Tests revealed that it became quite brittle in very cold water. 22

Why does the Titanic continue to hold our imaginations? It could be because it reveals the arrogance of man and simultaneously his impotence against the forces of nature. Perhaps it is because the sinking was a jarring entry to a young century that two years later saw war on a scale that forever changed our world. Or maybe it is simply because it was a human drama of the highest order—one unrivaled by the greatest fiction, no matter how often revisited. Whatever the case, without question or doubt the story of the Titanic overshadows all else in the realm of single-vessel marine disasters.



1. Walter Lord, A Night to Remember (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1955), p. 148.

2. Geoffrey Marcus, The Maiden Voyage (New York: Viking Press, 1969), p. 5.

3. Ocean Liners of the Past: The White Star Liners Olympic & Titanic (New York: Arco Publishing Company, 1970), p. 26.

4. Patrick Stenson, The Odyssey of C. H. Lightoller (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984), p. 148.

5. Lawrence Beesley, The Loss of the S.S. Titanic (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912), pp. 11–12.

6. The New York Times , 16 April 1912.

7. John B. Thayer, The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic (Riverside, CT: 7 C’s Press, 1940), p. 14.

8. Archibald Gracie, The Truth about the Titanic (New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1913), p. 14.

9. Beesley, Loss of the Titanic, pp. 36–38.

10. Violet Jessop, Titanic Survivor (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Sheridan House, 1997), pp. 125–26.

11. Lord, A Night to Remember , p. 63.

12. Beesley, Loss of the Titanic, p. 55.

13. Lord, A Night to Remember , p. 90.

14. Remember the Titanic audiocassette (Riverside, CT: 7 C’s Press, 1974).

15. The New York Times, 19 April 1912.

16. Gracie, The Truth, p. 48.

17. Thayer, The Sinking, p. 25.

18. Gracie, The Truth, pp. 72–76.

19. Arthur Rosron, Home From the Sea (New York: Macmillan, 1931), p. 61.

20. Robert Ballard and Michael S. Sweeney, Return to Titanic (Washington, DC: National Geographic), pp. 60–61.

21. Leslie Reade, The Ship that Stood Still (New York: Norton & Company, 1993), p. 357.

22. Robert Gannon, “What Really Sank the Titanic,” Popular Science, February 1995, p. 55.


An Auction to Remember

A trove of more than 5,000 artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of the Titanic goes up for bid at a New York auction house—Guernsey’s—11 April, the 100th anniversary of the ship’s departure from Ireland on her maiden voyage.

Among the items: jewelry, clothing, table china, binoculars, and for the true Titanic aficionado—a 17-ton slab of her hull.

But there is a catch. The collection is being sold as one lot—you have to buy it all. So bring your gold card; the appraised value is $189 million, meaning it could sell for more. Additionally, to ensure that the lot is properly conserved and at least in part publicly displayed, a court must OK the winning bid.

 

 
 

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