Many people still wonder what actually happened to the doomed luxury liner that took roughly 1,500 travelers to their deaths. This desire and curiosity, which has fueled several movies throughout the years, including the 1997 blockbuster "Titanic," is the same desire that fuels historians' and researchers' studies of the ship and its passengers.
The RMS Titanic, star of the White Star Line, left Southampton for her maiden voyage at high noon on Wednesday, April 10, 1912. On Monday, April 15th, at approximately 2:20 am, that voyage came to an end at the bottom of the ocean, 153km south of Grand Banks, Newfoundland, Canada. Of the 2228 passengers and crew on board, only 705 would survive to make the final leg of the journey to New York City.
Under pressure of losing out in the ocean passenger liner trade, the White Star Line commissioned the building of the Olympic Class of ocean liners. The emphasis was to be placed on size and luxury, not speed. The Titanic was the second of the three to be completed, and as the launch date approached, the Titanic found itself to be the center of media attention. Such fanfare brought out the wealthiest and most prominent of American and British society, and among the prominent passengers were:
*John Jacob Astor - The wealthiest man on board. He was returning from his honeymoon with his 18 year-old bride. She was 5 months pregnant already, and they were returning to New York so her child could be born in America.
*Benjamin Guggenheim - Swiss immigrant to the US, a trip his family made to make its fortune. Benjamin invested the family money into research and development of new smelting techniques, and it payed off handsomely, as his interests soon far outstripped the value of those of the rest of the family. He was returning to New York and his wife after an extended stay in Paris, and was accompanied on board with his Parisian mistress.
*Molly Brown - Nouveau-riche American woman who would later become famous for her tenacity, and become known to history as the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Her husband struck it rich in gold-mining in Colorado. He was a social recluse, but Molly intended to become part of the social elite, and she once stated that she knew "everyone worth knowing from Moscow to the Bosphorus." She was in Egypt with her friends the Astors when news reached her that her grandchild in Denver was gravely ill, and was returning to attend to him.
*Colonel Archibald Gracie - Independantly wealthy man from a prominent family, among whose accomplishments was the construction of the Gracie Mansion which became the home of the mayor of New York City in 1942. His family was also rather prominent in the military history of the US. Brigadier General Gracie, Archibald's father, went south to fight for the Confederacy, and lost his life at Chickamauga. Archie was a military man himself, being a Colonel for 7th Regiment, and had just written a novel on the battle of Chickamauga. He was returning from a holiday in Europe immediately following the publishing of his book, and was a member of a coterie of authors that formed itself in the First Class library during the voyage.
*Major Archibald Butt - Military advisor to former president Taft.
*Isidor Strauss - Co-founder of the Macy's department store chain. He was returning to New York with his wife, Ida.
The Titanic displaced 46,000 tons, the largest luxury liner of its very brief time. It was also one of first ocean liners to come equipped with a new concept in ship design, the watertight bulkhead. The ship was divided into 16 watertight compartments from bow to stern, and no penetration, for ventilation, cabling, machinery or anything else was permitted to allow water to pass from one of those compartments into the next. The personal access doors could be closed by remote from the bridge or by emergency float switches, thus sealing the barrier that would allow no fire or flooding to pass from one part of the ship to the next. During the media frenzy, White Star Line boasted that this feature, along with its sheer size, rendered the Titanic "unsinkable."
Wednesday, April 10th, 1912, 12:00pm: Titanic cast off mooring lines from the pier at Southampton and is towed out to the river Test. As she approaches the New York, the New York's mooring lines snap, and swings stern-first toward the Titanic. Collision is averted, and Titanic steams out to sea at approximately 1:30pm.
Wednesday, 5:30pm-8:30pm: Titanic arrives at Cherbourg, France. She is forced to anchor outside the harbor, as there are no piers big enough to moor to, so tender ships ferry out passengers and cargo.
Thursday, April 11th, 1:30pm: Titanic departs from Queenstown, Ireland, as the last picture is taken.
Saturday, April 13th: Titanic's wireless telegraph set breaks down during the evening.
Sunday, April 14th: Titanic's wireless telegraph system repaired in the early morning. The wireless operators are swamped with the number of passenger messages that have accumulated during the down time, and hurry to catch up.
Sunday, April 14th, 1:00pm: Ice warning received from Caronia. Second Officer Lightoller posts the message in the chart room.
1:40pm: Additional ice warning received from Baltic. This one is delivered directly to Captain Smith, who passes it to White Star Lines managing director J. Bruce Ismay. Ismay pockets the message, and it is not delivered to the bridge until late that evening.
6:00pm: Captain Smith orders course changed slightly south and west of mormal.
7:30pm: Three ice warnings received from Californian and delivered to the bridge. Californian is only 50 miles away directly ahead of Titanic at this point. The captain is not notified, however, as he is attending a dinner party at this time.
9:20pm: Captain Smith pays a visit to the bridge, and has a discussion with his Officer of the Deck 2, Second Officer Lightoller, about the poor visibility. The captain's night orders are to proceed on course at 22.5 knots.
9:30pm: Ice warning received from Mesaba, which reads: "Ice report. In latitude 42N to 41.25N, longitude 49W to 50.3W. Saw much heavy pack ice and great number of large icebergs, also field ice. Weather good, clear." It quite clearly points out the magnitude of the hazard, and places it squarely in the path of Titanic. This message never reaches the bridge.
10:00pm: Next shift of watches take over. First Officer Murdoch has the bridge.
10:10pm: Wireless operator Jack Phillips, still trying to cope with the backlog of passenger messages to be transmitted, has the following conversation with wireless operator Cyril Evans of the Californian: Evans: Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice. Phillips: Shut up! Shut up! I am busy. I am working Cape Race3.
11:35pm: Californian's wireless operator Cyril Evans turns off his set and retires for the night.
11:40pm: Crow's nest lookout Frederick Fleet spots an iceberg dead ahead. He telephones the bridge immediately. First Officer Murdock orders all engines full astern, and helm hard to port. The idea is to avoid the berg by reversing the engines and turning to the left. Several seconds later, a grating sound is heard along the starboard bow.
11:45-12:00am: Inspections reveal the forward five watertight compartments have been compromised. Titanic's chief design engineer Thomas Andrews informs Captain Smith that the ship will founder in less than 90 minutes.
12:05am: Smith orders the lifeboats uncovered and the women and children loaded into them, an order Lightoller would follow to the letter. Wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride begin transmitting the following: "CQD MGY4 41.46N 50.14W We have struck a berg. Require assistance. Putting the women off in the boats." Closest ship to respond is the Carpathia, approximately 4 hours away at best speed.
Apart from the melodramatic love story, much of the content of the James Cameron movie Titanic accurately and artfully depicts the last moments of the ship. Among the chaos are the following events:
- The ship's orchestra stations themselves outside the First Class entrance, hoping to soothe the passengers and forestall a panic.
12:45am: Boat 7 is the first boat in the water. Out of a capacity of 65 people, only 28 are aboard.
12:55am: As boat 5 is being lowered with room for 24 more, J. Bruce Ismay points out that the boat isn't full to the officer in charge of lowering that boat, Fifth Officer Lowe. Lowe verbally chastises Ismay for interfering with his command.
1:10am: Boat 1 is lowered with 12 aboard out of a maximum capacity of 40 persons, with Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon aboard, and 7 crew. At the same time, on the port side, boat 8 is lowered with 39 out of 65 capacity. It is steered in the water by the Countess of Rothes.
- Realizing that there is very little hope of getting the men off, Benjamin Guggenheim and his manservant emerge from his cabins dressed in their finest suits, lifebelts discarded. When questioned, he responds, "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." His last thoughts are of his wife in New York, and he composes a letter to her and gives it to another man, who survives to see the letter delivered.
- Ida Straus, wife of Isidor Straus, refuses to get into a boat without her husband. Mr. Straus is offered a seat on the boat, but he declines, citing that none of the other men are boarding, and it would be improper of him to do so.
- Fourth Officer Boxhall spots a masthead light off the port bow. He immediately attempts to communicate via morse lamp. Quartermaster Rowe begins firing off distress flares.
- Captain Smith orders boat 10 to row toward the ship quite clearly visible off the port bow, drop off its passengers, and return for more.
1:55am: John Jacob Astor asks to accompany his new wife in lifeboat 4, citing her delicate condition. He is refused by Lightoller. The boat is lowered into the water with room for 25 more.
2:05am: J. Bruce Ismay steps aboard collapsible D, the next to last boat to be lowered. In an effort to fend off the panicked passengers, Lightoller waves his pistol in the air. The crew locks arms around the boat in a circle, allowing only women and children to pass through.
- The forward smokestack breaks loose and falls, crushing several people, including, it is suspected, John Astor.5
- Beside collapsible A, an officer is seen to shoot a pair of overanxious passengers. He then says a quiet good-bye, and shoots himself. None of our most reliable survivor's accounts of this incident manage to name the officer in question, but scuttlebutt among the survivors names him as First Officer Murdoch.
- As the bridge is submerging, collapsible A, which is still being boarded, is washed off the deck and capsizes. Collapsible B, in the frenzy to get it into the water, is pushed off the roof of the officer's quarters and falls overturned onto the boat deck, then washes away empty.
- The ship, pulled down at the bow by the weight of the water now inhabiting it, begins to submerge at the bow, lifting the stern up out of the water. The ship is not designed to support its weight in that fashion, and so the ship breaks apart amidships. The bow drifts slowly down and away from the stern. The stern does not slam down onto the water6, but remains standing on end for several seconds, before taking on water and falling fast and hard to the ocean floor.
2:20am: Titanic submerges.
- Approximately 30 people scramble onto the overturned collapsible B, including Second Officer Lightoller, wireless operator Harold Bride, and Colonel Archibald Gracie.
- Boat 4 returns to the site where Titanic went down, and manages to recover only 5 living bodies, of which only 2 survive.
4:00am-5:00am: Carpathia arrives to pick up survivors just as the New York Times hits the newsstands. The headline reads:
- Quartermaster Robert Hinchens tells the survivors in boat 6 to ignore Carpathia, as "she is to pick up bodies." Molly Brown insists they cast off from boat 16 and row toward the steamer. When Hinchens protests, Molly threatens to cast him overboard.
5:30am: Californian's radio set is turned on, and the Frankfort informs them of Titanic's fate. Despite their proximity, it would take them three hours to reach the scene.
The causes of the tragedy are varied and complex. No single detail caused the incident, it was rather a complicated set of circumstances and decisions, and the changing of any one of them may have been enough to save lives.
The watertight bulkhead design wasn't exactly watertight. The boundaries extended vertically from the keel of the ship to D Deck, four decks below the main deck. This design was sufficient to keep the Titanic afloat if as many as four of her watertight compartments were breached. With the fifth breached, the water level would rise until it reached D Deck, at which point it would begin to spill over into the other watertight compartments.
The Marconi wireless telegraph was still a fairly new technology, and ships did not rely on it as they would come to later as an integral part of operations. The radio operators were under the command of the captain, but they were employed by the Marconi Wireless Company, and their purpose was to handle messages for passengers. Weather reports and other ship-to-ship transmissions were handled as a courtesy, but were a lower priority than traffic for the paying customers. The equipment failure Saturday evening and extended downtime created a backlog of outgoing messages that the operators felt they had an obligation to catch up. This overload caused numerous warning messages to be misplaced or misdirected, or, in the case of the last one from Californian, ignored.
Captain Smith ordered the ship to travel at high speed through the night, in spite of the one ice warning he had been confirmed to receive, and the other posted by Lightoller in the chart room. In fact, ice warnings were being received during the whole trip, for a total of 21 in all, only 7 of which were received after the radio went down.
The unusual calmness of the North Atlantic made bergs much more difficult to spot for the lookouts. When the swells are active, they will reflect off the berg, causing counter-ripples at the surface that would indicate a large object well before it came into view. The clear, moonless sky gave them nothing to show up against in contrast.
The Californian was close at hand at the time of the sinking, so close that Fourth Officer Boxhall spotted its masthead lights, and Captain Smith ordered a boat to row the distance between them. The wireless operator had quit his post, and the captain and crew completely ignored the distress flares, and never even thought to rouse their radioman. Had the Californian responded to any of the distress calls or signals, Titanic's passengers and crew could have been evacuated before they froze to death in the 28oF water.
Hearings on the matter were conducted first by the US Senate, and then later by the British Board of Trade (BOT). Along with survivor accounts, the vital testimony was provided by Lightoller, Ismay, Californian's Captain Stanley Lord, and Carpathian's Captain Arthur Rostron. During the Senate hearings, Ismay testified that he had told Captain Smith to travel at dangerously high speeds. When the hearings were concluded, the Senate placed full responsibility for the matter on Captain Smith, for maintaining such speeds in such poor conditions. They also chastised Captain Lord, whose indolence cost so many lives that could have been saved, and presented Captain Rostron with a medal. Revisions of maritime laws quickly followed.
Hearings with the British Board of Trade had an entirely different outcome. Anxious to maintain national and international confidence in British vessels and seamanship, all assosciated parties were exhonerated, including White Star Lines, Captain Smith, and Mr. Ismay, and chastised only Captain Lord. However, after the accident, maritime laws and regulations were revised, which had been previously lagging behind industry developments. The revised laws called for lifeboat capacity for everyone on board, and compelled ships to maintain a continuous watch at the wireless, among others.
Long before the hearings were completed, however, small boat manufacturers were already being overwhelmed by the demand for lifeboats. On April 24th, ten days after the sinking, Titanic's sister ship Olympic was scheduled to depart Southampton, but her coal stokers went on strike, refusing to serve aboard a ship without enough lifeboat capacity for all aboard. 285 crew members deserted, and the voyage was cancelled.
Just how good were the lessons learned from the Titanic disaster? On September 21st, 1916, just two years after the Titanic disaster, her other sister ship, Britannic, struck a mine in the Aegean Sea. It sank in approximately 55 minutes, but only 30 people were lost.
Along from the investigations conducted by the Senate and the BOT, further historical inquiry has revealed much about the roles of the following people:
J. Bruce Ismay: His survival has always been the most controversial, having stepped aboard a collapsible at a time when the men were not being boarded. Furthermore, his part in the excessive speed of the ship has brought a clear amount of blame upon his shoulders for the entire accident. He was employed by the same people who operated the Californian, and so he tried desperately to exhonerate Captain Lord and his crew at the BOT hearings.
Thomas Andrews: The presence of the chief design engineer on board the ship at the time of the accident turned out to be one of the few positives in a blizzard of negatives. The way the ship began sinking may have failed to alert the crew as to the severity of the situation, since it slipped forward just a few degrees in the beginning, then appeared to settle, then slipped forward again by a few degrees many minutes later, and so on. Andrews' intimate knowledge of the ship and its capabilites gave the crew an estimated 45 extra minutes to evacuate the ship. Had he not been on board, hundreds more would likely have died.
Furthermore, Andrews had always had safety firmly in mind. BOT regulations for lifeboat capacity at the time Titanic was being built set minimum capacities by the size of the ship, not by passenger capacity. Furthermore, ships could get a credit for life saving equipment as an incentive to incorporate watertight bulkheading, the rationale being that ships that are harder to sink were desirable. Titanic incorporated outstanding watertight integrity, and was eligible for a credit that would have cut the requirement for lifeboat capacity to 756. White Star Lines did not exercise this option, and, as a further commitment to safety, the ship was built with the new Wellin boat davit system, which would have accomodated four boats for each lifeboat station. Notes were discovered at Andrews' home where he calculated lifeboat additions that would have exceeded the maximum capacity of Titanic by 65 people, and would have fit with the davit system. He did this in anticipation of the passage of new BOT regulations calling for lifeboat space for everyone on board, but these were not passed. When the Titanic set sail with lifeboat capacity for 1178 passengers and crew, it was still 10% more than regulations required.
Captain Stanley Lord: He contended during BOT hearings that the ship he and his crew saw firing flares could not have been the Titanic, as it appeared to be too small. However, he could not explain why another ship would have been firing distress rockets at the same time Titanic had, according to testimony received from Second Officer Lightoller. Furthermore, when word was finally received of the Titanic's fate, the Californian pursued an odd, roundabout route to arrive there. North and slightly west of Titanic's last position when word was received, Californian proceeded west through the ice field, then south, and then east through the debris field a second time. No adequate explanation has ever been received for this odd behavior.
First Officer Murdoch: It was determined that Murdoch, who was the officer in charge at the time of the incident, had reacted in a timely and appropriate manner. It has been speculated that, had the engine room personnel been directly on hand to back the engines immediately, the situation may have been alleviated, but the engines would have taken a full 20 seconds to reverse, and only about 40 seconds passed from sighting until collision, and the engines weren't reversed, according to a few survivors from the boiler room, until the collision, and possibly not until after. Furthermore, it has been speculated that Murdoch would have received better results had he ordered the port side propeller reversed, and the starboard propeller to continue forward. However, this was not something that was practiced during sea trials. When confronted with an immediate emergency, he quite naturally fell back on his training, and during sea trials they executed sharp turns by backing up all the engines. Some have even suggested that the ship may have survived had it just rammed the iceberg head-on, compromising only the first compartment. This is ludicrous, as it would have crushed hundreds of passengers and crew in the forward part of the ship, and caused stresses on the hull all along the keel, which could have caused any number of breaches in hull integrity. Regardless of the if's and why's, Murdoch's instinct to try to avoid collision altogether was the correct one.
Second Officer Lightoller: No blame ever came to Lightoller, the senior-most survivor of Titanic's crew. The only fault he committed was in sending lifeboats off partially filled, which would have saved hundreds more lives. He went on to have a fruitful career, and made a great contribution as a citizen in March of 1940, when he sailed his personal yacht to Dunkirk, rescuing an estimated 130 men.
The story of the fate of Titanic has continued to captivate people since that fateful day. Curiosity about the wreckage, with lessons to be learned, and valuables to secure, gnawed at the human psyche for many years. It was speculated that an undersea earthquake in Titanic's vicinity might have buried the wreckage in silt, but man was undeterred. When technology finally caught up with curiosity, the search was on.
The first search for the lost ship was undertaken by Texas oil tycoon and would-be looter Jack Grimm. He commisioned the first search in July of 1980, but was plagued by technical problems and poor weather. He returned again in '81 and '83, but all his efforts were fruitless.
The next expedition was a joint US-French venture. The US vessel Knorr, on loan from the Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute, was lead by Dr. Robert Ballard. It conducted search patterns in a geographic grid in conjunction with the French vessel Le Suroit, beginning July 5th, 1985. By the mid-August, the search had proven fruitless, and the French could afford to spend no more time in the search, and had to return home.
Dr. Ballard's team stuck with it, and they were soon rewarded. In the evening of the 31st of August, the underwater camera sled Argo first recorded pictures of the debris field from the Titanic. Excited by the prospect, the search continued on into the night. At 1:05am on the first of September, Argo photographed a boiler which could be clearly identified as a part of Titanic. The search was over. The wreckage was found 13 miles south-by-southeast of Titanic's last reported position.
Fearful of looters, Dr. Ballard's team kept the location in strictest confidence. They returned the following year with the submersible Alvin, which they piloted deep into the interior for photographs, and captured the entire debris field and the hull and stern sections.
After accomplishing this, Dr. Ballard's team did finally release the coordinates of Titanic's final resting place. Dr. Ballard's initial fears were soon realized. In a highly controversial move, the French vessel IFREMER visited the Titanic and collected many artifacts from the site. The controversy dealt with the fact that the French had had nothing remotely to do with the discovery of the Titanic, and had absolutely nothing to do with it before it sank.7 To add further fuel to the controversy, their submersible Nautile collided with the crow's nest, which was still intact at that time. The impact caused it to crumble to dust.
In spite of the controversy, the artifacts were well received. In August of '87, the artifacts were displayed to the American public on "Return to the Titanic... LIVE," hosted by the late Telly Savalas. The highlight of this show was to be the first opening of a safe recovered from the pursor's office. This safe had already been inspected and photographed prior to the show, and they reveal that the entire back had rusted out, and was completely empty. Just before the show, a false back was welded on, and the safe was stuffed with artifacts recovered from the site.
Then, to add even more controversy, in 1988 the backers of the French expedition advanced the silliest theory about the Titanic ever considered. They claimed that the "real" reason Titanic had sunk was due to an explosion of coal dust in a coal bunker. They based this theory on a hole discovered in the stern section of the ship. This theory was advanced despite:
*The hundreds of survivor accounts who say they saw the iceberg and/or felt the impact.
*The hole in the ship was too far aft to have been caused by an explosion in said bunker.
*The hole was too high above the waterline to have sunk the ship.
Since that time, many other expeditions have been mounted. We know quite a bit about the nature of the sinking that was hidden before. Some of the more important points:
*The sinking was attributed to a long, horrible gash along the starboard side. Sonar readings from the buried starboard bow have given the lie to this. The ship was afflicted with many small holes, as the ship bounced off the iceberg. The total area of the holes is only 12 square feet.
*The steel used to construct Titanic was rather brittle. Today's steel would have bent more easily, thus resisting complete failure better than Titanic did. Even for its day, Titanic's hull contained more sulphur than usual, which contributed to its brittleness.
*The point of failure on the hull was at the steel rivets, which, when a 90 degree sheer was applied to them, caused them to pop out like popcorn. The method of creating rivet holes at that time was known as "cold stamping," which involves a cutting machine ramming the steel when it is cold. This process creates microscopic cracks at the hole, which made it that much easier for the rivets to pop loose. Modern rivet holes are made while the steel is still hot, when riveting is used at all.
Now please check out Cheddar Bay's tribute pages to Titanic ...