On Sunday, April 14, Titanic wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride received six ice warnings from surrounding vessels. Five of these were received by Captain Smith, who did not seem overly concerned. As night fell, he ordered an iceberg watch, and, after attending a dinner held in his honor by the Wideners, he retired to his cabin at 9:30 PM, after checking in with 2nd Officer Lightoller. Both men remarked on how calm the sea was, and Lightoller pointed out that if the earlier breeze had persisted icebergs would be easier to see, as the water would be lapping against their bases.
Jack Phillips was busy transmitting messages from first class passengers when the sixth ice warning came in. It never made it to the bridge, but even if it had, it is doubtful that the officers would have changed their course or speed. Smith had ordered that the ship’s speed be maintained unless visibility grew worse. He felt confident that because of the clear conditions, an iceberg would be spotted in plenty of time. Because the coordinates from the ice warnings had not been properly plotted, the crew was unaware that an ice belt stretched 78 miles across Titanic’s path.
At 11:40 PM lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, who had been keeping watch in the crow’s nest since 10:00 PM, spotted an iceberg directly in Titanic’s path, approximately 500 yards away. They immediately signaled with three rings on the crow’s nest bell, then Fleet picked up the telephone to communicate with the bridge. Sixth Officer James Moody answered and received the message: “Iceberg right ahead.” First Officer Murdoch ordered the ship turned “hard-a-starboard” and the engines full astern. While the massive ship began to turn, it was too late. The iceberg brushed along the starboard side of the ship, leaving chunks of ice on the deck. Within ten minutes of the impact, water had already risen 14 feet above the keel in the forward compartments of the ship. By midnight, it was up 24 feet and flooding the mail room. After completing his own inspection, Captain Smith asked ship designer Thomas Andrews to assess the situation. The conclusion he drew was dire: the iceberg had done damage too substantial for the Titanic’s safety features to keep the ship from foundering. While any two watertight compartments could flood and the ship stay afloat, five compartments were filling with water. And as they filled, they would spill over into the next compartment, continuing on as the ship went down by the head. Andrews estimated that the ship had one to two hours before it sank.
Timeline of the sinking:
April 15, 12:05 AM: Captain Smith orders the crew to uncover the lifeboats and prepare them for launching.
12:15: Jack Phillips and Harold Bride send out distress calls, which are picked up by Titanic’s sister ship Olympic, as well as the Cunard Line ship Carpathia. Titanic’s orchestra is assembled in the first class lounge to play lively tunes and keep passengers from becoming alarmed.
12:25: Orders are given to begin loading lifeboats with women and children. Several of the first lifeboats are lowered less than half full, as many passengers do not believe the ship is in real danger, and feel staying on board is safer than being out in the freezing Atlantic in a lifeboat.
12:45: The first distress rockets are fired as the first lifeboat, number 7, is lowered to the water. There are only 28 aboard, although the capacity for the boat is 65. Dorothy Gibson and her mother are on this boat.
12:55: Boat 6 is lowered, again with 28 on board rather than the full capacity of 65. Mrs. Molly Brown is aboard this boat.
1:15: The bow has now sunk so far that water is lapping against the Titanic’s name, and the ship has taken on a distinct list to port. At this time passengers begin to grow alarmed, and the boats begin to leave the ship closer to capacity (though by now 6 of the ship’s 16 lifeboats have already left, including Boat 8 which the Countess of Rothes and her cousin boarded, and Boat 3 carrying Mrs. Charlotte Cardeza and her son).
1:20-1:30: Boats 10, 12, 14, and 16 are lowered as panic begins to set in. When Boat 14 is lowered Fifth Officer Lowe fires his gun into the air to keep people from jumping into the boat.
1:30: Titanic’s distress calls become more urgent: “We are sinking fast,” and “Women and children in boats. Cannot last much longer.”
1:40: Boat 13 is launched with 64 passengers, mostly second and third class women and children. At this point 13 of the ship’s 16 lifeboats are in the water. The bow is almost underwater and passengers have moved toward the stern where the remaining lifeboats are located.
1:50: John Jacob Astor puts his wife in Boat 4, then asks Officer Lightoller if he might join her due to her delicate condition. Lightoller refuses, sticking to the “women and children only” policy, and Astor stays on board the ship. Mrs. John Thayer and Mrs. George Widener are also on this boat, leaving their sons and husbands behind.
2:00: Collapsible C is lowered with J. Bruce Ismay on board.
2:05: The last boat successfully launched, Collapsible D, descends only a few feet before reaching the ocean. By now the water has reached the Promenade Deck and the forecastle is underwater, which quickens the pace of the sinking.
2:10: Harold Bride and Jack Phillips are released from their wireless duties by Captain Smith.
2:17: Jack Phillips, who refused to leave his station, sends his last distress call as the water floods into the wireless room. Titanic’s bridge goes under, which sends Collapsibles A and B afloat. The forward-most funnel falls into the ocean, creating a wave that washes Collapsible B (which is upside down) away from the ship. John Thayer’s son manages to find a spot on this overturned boat.
2:18: Titanic reaches a disturbing 50 degree angle, which causes anything not bolted down to slide towards the bow. The lights go out, and then the ship breaks in half. The bow section sinks, but the stern rights itself temporarily.
2:20: The stern goes vertical and then it too sinks, 2 hours and 20 minutes after Titanic first struck the iceberg. 1,500 people are left stranded in the frigid Atlantic, while 700 people float nearby in lifeboats. They have to wait two hours before the Carpathia arrives at the scene to pick up the first survivors.
The next post will feature first hand accounts of the Titanic tragedy.
Sources: The Titanic Collection Guide by Eric Sauder and Hugh Brewster, Encyclopedia Titanica, The Titanic: The Extraordinary Story of the “Unsinkable” Ship by Geoff Tibballs