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Titanic tragedy: 100 years later

Today we mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking.  I could take this time to discuss why the sinking has continued to captivate us, even a hundred years later, or talk about the cultural ramifications of the sinking, or the much-needed changes made to outdated safety regulations.  But I think that the best way to remember this tragedy is to hear from those who lived through it.

Stewardess Violet Jessop

Stewardess Violet Jessop on the impact with the iceberg:

Crash!  Then a low rending, crunching sound, as Titanic shivered a trifle and the sound of her engines gently ceased.

Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley

Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley:

As I dressed, I heard the order shouted, “All the passengers on deck with life belts on.”  We all walked up slowly with the life belts tied on over our clothing, but even then we presumed that this was merely a wise precaution the captain was taking.  The ship was absolutely still, and except for the gentle, almost unnoticeable, tilt downwards, there were no visible signs of the approaching disaster.

Alfred White, a greaser in the engine room:

I was on the whale deck in the bow calling the watch that was to relieve me when the ice first came aboard.  The collision opened the seams below the water-line but did not even scratch the paint above the line.  I know that because I was one of those who helped to make an examination over the side with a lantern. I went down into the engine-room at 12:40 AM.  We even made coffee, so there was not much thought of danger.  An hour later I was still working at the light engines.  I heard the chief engineer tell one of his subordinates that number six bulkhead had given way.  At that time things began to look bad…I was told to go up and see how things were, and made my way up a dummy funnel to the bridge deck.  By that time all the boats had left the ship, yet everyone in the engine-room was at his post.  I was near the captain and heard him say, “Well boys, it’s every man for himself now.”

Wireless operator Harold Bride

Harold Bride, wireless operator:

I went out on deck and looked around.  The water was pretty close up to the boat deck.  There was a great scramble aft, and how poor [Jack] Phillips worked through it I don’t know know.  He was a brave man.  I learned to love him that night, and I suddenly felt for him a great reverence to see him standing there sticking to his work while everybody else was raging about.  I will never live to forget the work of Phillips for the last awful fifteen minutes.  I thought it was about time to look about and see if there was anything detached that would float.  I remembered that every member of the crew had a special lifebelt and ought to know where it was. I remembered mine under my bunk.  I went and got it.  Then I thought how cold the water was.

Eighteen year old first class passenger Mary Marvin, who was on her honeymoon:

As I was put into the boat, [my husband] cried to me, “It’s all right, little girl.  You go.  I will stay.”  As our boat shoved off he threw me a kiss, and that was the last I saw of him.

First class passenger Robert W. Daniel, a banker from Philadelphia:

Not until the last five minutes did the awful realization come that the end was at hand.  The lights became dim and went out, but we could see.  Slowly, ever so slowly, the surface of the water seemed to come up towards us.  So gradual was it that even after I had adjusted the life jacket about my body it seemed a dream.  Deck after deck was submerged.  There was no lurching or grinding or crunching.  The Titanic simply settled.  I was far up  on one of the top decks when I jumped.  About me were many others in the water.  My bathrobe floated away, and it was icily cold.  I struck out at once.  I turned my head, and my first glance took in the people swarming on the Titanic’s deck.  Hundreds were stranded there helpless to ward off approaching death.  I saw Captain Smith on the bridge.  My eyes seemingly clung to him.  The deck from which I had leapt was immersed.  The water had risen slowly, and now tho the floor of the bridge.  Then it was to Captain Smith’s waist.  I saw him no more.

Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley, from his viewpoint on board Boat 13:

And then, as we gazed awe-struck, she tilted slowly up, revolving apparently about a center of gravity just astern of amidships, until she attained a vertically upright position; and there she remained–motionless!  As she swung up, her lights, which had shone without a flicker all night, went out suddenly, came on again for a single flash, then went out altogether.  And as they did so, there came a noise…it was as if all the heavy things one could think of had been thrown downstairs from the top of a house, smashing each other and the stairs and everything in the way…When the noise was over the Titanic was still upright like a column: we could see her now only as the stern and some 150 feet of her stood outlined against the star-specked sky, looming black in the darkness, and in this position she continued for some minutes [before she sank]…the sea closed over her and we had seen the last of the beautiful ship on which we had embarked four days before at Southampton.  And in place of the ship on which all our interest had been concentrated for so long and towards which we looked most of the time because it was still the only object on the sea which was a fixed point to us–in place of the Titanic, we had the level sea now stretching in an unbroken expanse to the horizon: heaving gently just as before, with no indication on the surface that the waves had just closed over the most wonderful vessel ever built by man’s hand; the stars looked down just the same and the air was just as bitterly cold.

The cries of the drowning floating across the quiet sea filled us with stupefaction: we longed to return and rescue at least some of the drowning, but we knew it was impossible.  The boat was filled to standing-room, and to return would mean the swamping of us all, and so the captain-stoker told his crew to row away from the cries.  We tried to sing to keep all from thinking of them; but there was no heart for singing in the boat at that time.  The cries, which were loud and numerous at first, died away gradually one by one, but the night was clear, frosty and still, the water smooth, and the sounds must have carried on its level surface free from any obstruction for miles, certainly much farther from the ship than we were situated.  I think the last of them must have been heard nearly forty minutes after the Titanic sank.  Lifebelts would keep the survivors afloat for hours; but the cold water was what stopped the cries.

Sources: The Loss of the S.S. Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons by Lawrence Beesley, Thrilling Tale by Titanic’s Surviving Wireless Man as told in New York Times, April 28, 1912 by Harold Bride, The Titanic: The Extraordinary Story of the “Unsinkable” Ship by Geoff Tibballs,  Titanic: Fortune & Fate by Beverly McMillan and Stanley Lehrer

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Iceberg, right ahead!

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.

 The Titanic Collection Guide by Eric Sauder and Hugh Brewster, Encyclopedia TitanicaThe Titanic: The Extraordinary Story of the “Unsinkable” Ship by Geoff Tibballs


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Titanic: Are you ready to go back?

Titanic leaving Southampton, April 10, 1912

As family and close friends will attest, I went through what one might call a “Titanic phase.”  It struck just before James Cameron’s film came out, which was rather conveniently timed, given that the popularity of the movie sparked all sorts of documentaries and books about the ill-fated maiden voyage of the ship.  I could spout off all sorts of random facts about the Titanic, from its construction to its sinking.  And I could tell you just about anything you wanted to know about the passengers and crew who were on board.

Eventually the phase passed, and many of the random facts were emptied from my brain to make room for stuff I had to learn in college so I could earn my degree (though I will point out that I managed to make the Titanic the subject of three term papers).

But now that the 100th anniversary of the sinking is fast approaching, I have a reason to dust off the books and put some of those random facts back in my brain.  So get ready people, because we’re going back to Titanic!

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