I’ve found there’s two kinds of people when it comes to Titanic. Those who are fascinated by the great ship, and those who aren’t.
Count me in the fascinated camp.
For me, Titanic’s story is this grand Shakespearean tragedy that actually happened. Yet, it’s more than that; the story itself is so very multi-faceted.
It took a hundred events conspiring in perfect order to bring death on the scale that Titanic left. If only one thing had gone differently, she might have stayed afloat and gone on to sail the Atlantic for many years. Had she not sank, the White Star Line for which she sailed might have become the dominant shipping line as Titanic’s creators had intended.
As far-fetched as it is to believe, some argue that had Titanic never sank, the men who died on board her would have fought the banking cartels and may even have prevented the first World War (which likely would have prevented the second world war).
Without the first World War, the third ship in the class, Britannic, wouldn’t have been torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Greece and would have instead sailed the North Atlantic route as well; it is likely that these three ships would have enjoyed a long and storied service life, much longer than the Olympic itself—the only one of the three to ever make it to New York—eventually enjoyed.
It is also likely that, had Titanic never sank, public interest in her would have wained as bigger and faster ships took to the seas. Titanic and her sisters might have finished their days as cruise ships before being scrapped; it is unlikely that anyone would have raised objection to their eventual end, certainly not on the grounds of historical significance. Titanic, had she not sunk, would have been one of many grand steamers, once built to navigate oceans, now served her time and replaced by new and bigger and better.
But Titanic did sink, and the first World War did happen, and Britannic went to its own watery grave, taking its own collection of souls with it, while Olympic soldiered on through the war as a troop transport and earned the nickname “Old Reliable”, a name it would carry to its own dismantling.
White Star faced severe financial hardship after Titanic sank; despite generous war reparations allowing it to resume the North Atlantic trade route after the war, in 1935, White Star Line was absorbed by arch-rival Cunard, and Olympic went to the breakers to be sold as scrap. By 1937, Titanic’s sister no longer existed, except in the paneled walls and chairs pulled from her and auctioned off, still adorning hotel restaurants and museums.
Why is Titanic still making headlines a hundred years later? Why do people who have witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center and the collapse of the world economy care about a boat that hit an iceberg so long ago?
Titanic’s story is a morality play, like some Wrath-of-God passage from the old testament played out in modern times. And while it’s difficult to imagine the revelry of Sodom and Gomorra, or the wickedness of a primitive world before Noah’s Ark, it’s positively easy to close our eyes and envision ourselves walking the grand staircase of that great liner. The people aboard Titanic were people like you and me; they were you and me—travelers, men and women who bought their ticket and boarded their vessel and wanted nothing more than to get to New York in comfort and style.
Had they lived today, they would have boarded a jumbo-jet. But in 1912, Titanic was a jumbo jet.
They never wanted to be embroiled in history on that voyage. Sure, there were history makers among her passengers. But that week in April was a utilitarian voyage. They were going home.
There’s this big, macro-universe story about a ship that sank in just under three hours, but there also some twenty-two hundred micro-universe stories about the individuals on-board her when she sank. Some were lucky and lived to tell about it; most were not.
Roughly twice as many died as were saved. The difference between life and death could have been something so simple as which side of the boat deck you decided to step out on as you came up from your cabin.
From an engineering perspective, those ships were built by hand (Titanic was the second of three basically identical ships; only the first one built ever successfully crossed the Atlantic). Titanic and her sister ships were the largest machines ever created. They were designed without computers, just brains and pencils and slide-rules. They were built without robots or automation of any kind, just sweat and brawn and back-breaking labor, aided by a few cranes and some horse-drawn buggies.
Every plate was shaped by hand, every rivit was hammered by hand, heated to red-hot and banged into place. Those luxurious interiors were hand-made, the wood carved by craftsmen, the carpet laid down by hand, the linoleum tile placed by hand. Thousands of people created that ship, spent years working on it, considered it so big and solid that it would last for generations.
Once Titanic met her iceberg, all that work was gone in a matter of hours.
Talk about a de-motivator to those same men, who were in the process of building Titanic’s sister ship by hand when Titanic sank. For years, Titanic was Belfast’s shame, the men’s spirits broken as they had an extreme pride in their work that few today can fathom. Their hearts were broken. They felt a sense of responsibility for those who died. They tried to lock the Titanic away in some dark corner of their psyche reserved for the most dreadful of personal failures.
Then there’s the crew, a dogged English crew that, to a man, had fought the seas in little ships tossed about like bathtub toys and survived the worst nature could throw at them, and they were so sure of the size of that ship that they didn’t bother with basic safety procedures such as lifeboat drills.
Most likely they thought they were doing their passengers a great service by forgoing the Sunday afternoon lifeboat drill; why impose such a tedious task when the ship itself was built with double-hulls and watertight chambers to be its own lifeboat?
Titanic only had enough boats for half its passengers, and four of the boats were stored above the boat deck on the roof of the cabin structure. Titanic only carried as many boats loaded onto davits as it did because the law required it, plus the four extras on the roof for good measure.
Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats a) because it was assumed that Titanic would need to use them, unless giving aid to a smaller and less fortunate vessel, and b) because ships in great distress generally didn’t get the chance to lower lifeboats to begin with, they capsized and floundered too quickly for anymore lifeboats to really matter.
Both assumptions proved fatal a century ago.
We tend to look at the decision to carry less than a full compliment of lifeboats as horrible, negligent, and even murderous. Yet, when looked at through the eyes of the men making these decisions, it’s easy to understand why they chose so low a number. Extra lifeboats would have only been added cost on an already expensive vessel, and a utilitarian redundancy that could easily be eliminated on a ship where more frivolous redundancies were preferred.
Besides, it was well known by everyone involved that the Titanic was practically unsinkable.
If doubts to this claim were ever raised, those doubts were likely quelled when Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, was rammed by a British navy ship equipped with a battering ram and designed to sink other vessels.
Not only did Olympic survive, albeit damaged, but Olympic proved so strong that it simply destroyed the bow of the naval ship, a bow designed to destroy as brutally as a war savage.
Nobody dreamed that Titanic—or any ship sailing the Atlantic trade—would ever meet a fate worse than that.
Quite simply, none ever had.
Mass deaths at sea were not fathomable. As Captain Smith commented to a reporter before Titanic’s fatal voyage, “Modern shipbuilding has simply gone beyond that.”
By the time April 14th, 1912, rolled around, Titanic plowed through icy waters and icy winds, sailing upon a sea so unusually calm both passengers and crew took note. It was said the sea that night looked as calm as a mill pond, the surface of the water like plate glass. No waves, no breakers, no moon overhead. Just stars, and the reassurance of those three big propellers swirling beneath the water, pushing the ridiculously massive ship forward, coupled to engines undulating softly somewhere in the belly of leviathan.
As Titanic raced forward, no doubt the freezing air stung the eyes of her lookouts. In A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, Walter Lord recounts witness testimony that the air was so cold that fairy-like slivers of ice floated through the air, glistening around the exposed lighting on the ship’s decks. The cold drove Titanic’s passengers inside, where they shuttered portholes and went to bed dreaming of the New World, so close they could almost reach out and touch it.
A nearby ship, the Californian, signals via wireless radio to Titanic to inform her of pack ice. Titanic’s wireless operators, backlogged with messages, aggravated from the hours they spent repairing their wireless system earlier in the day, responded back rudely. Californian’s wireless radio operator listens to some of Titanic’s outbound radio traffic, then powers down the Californian’s wireless system.
This is where the game of “What-Ifs” and outright conjecture begins.
There were no binoculars for the lookouts. The crow’s nest itself wasn’t much higher than the bridge.
Would the lookouts have even used binoculars? Would binoculars have frozen on them? Or would they have spotted iceberg sooner, giving the bridge crew vital extra time to react?
Then again, did those on the bridge who had binoculars stand a better chance of spotting trouble than the lookouts?
With no waves to break at the base and no moon to light the ocean, the iceberg appeared out of the darkness, described as darker than black, a vague form appearing on the horizon and growing like an apparition.
The warning bell rang. The bridge crew was alerted. First Officer Murdoch squinted through the wheelhouse windows and called a quick, decisive order. “Hard-a-starboard.”
No doubt, many thoughts were colliding in Murdoch’s brain. From her sea trials, it was known that Titanic needed roughly a half-mile to stop. With no breakers to judge distance and no moon to help see, Murdoch had to guess how far they were from the black void rushing toward them. Was it so massive it only appeared near? If that was the case, it would allow Murdoch—the wheel man—the ship—a chance to maneuver.
But what if Titanic couldn’t move out of the way? The best course of action would be to ram the berg head-on. That would minimize the damage and keep her afloat. Still, with the owner of the White Star Line aboard the ship, how would one explain that? Would J. Bruce Ismay simply accept his account that a berg appeared in the horizon and couldn’t be avoided, so they rammed it?
He no doubt knew the force of Titanic ramming the berg would be a tremendous impact. He no doubt remembered standing on the docking bridge of Olympic not one year earlier, when it was rammed by the warship Hawke. In the lawsuit that followed, a British court had ruled the Olympic at fault for the accident.
Murdoch may have felt that he stood on shaky standing with the company. But Murdoch also knew how unwieldy Olympic had proved to be. Not only had there been the incident with the Hawke, but he’d been first office aboard Olympic when she banged into a floundered ship and knocked one of her propellers off, and too when Olympic nearly ran aground in Belfast because she simply got away from the command crew.
Those big ships could be unpredictable at the most inconvenient of moments.
That he gave the order to turn the wheel hard-a-starboard indicates two things—one, that he knew Titanic was in peril, and two, he wasn’t about to plow her into the berg.
In the moments before he gave the order, Murdoch may have seen Titanic in his mind, bow crushed, limping into New York.
The press would have a field day with that and he would never work the Atlantic trade again.
Murdoch know, no doubt, that reports of pack ice had been flooding the wireless rooms. Captain Smith had received how many warnings? And had chosen to push forward, to beat Olympic’s maiden voyage time. Yes, each ship simply had to be faster than the last.
But Murdoch, as any experienced sea man, also knew that a flanking would would be the worst damage Titanic could suffer. Titanic may have been in peril, but Murdoch’s eleven months of service on the Olympic gave him some assurance that the beast would turn out of harm’s way.
What if Murdoch had rammed the berg instead? Titanic—and most of her passengers—would have survived. Nevertheless, Murdoch took a calculated risk to save his career and save the ship from what would have been certain calamity.
The wheel hard over, Murdoch ordered engines to full reverse. Those massive propellers stopped spinning, stopped driving water over the ship’s rudder.
What if Murdoch had let the engines run ahead? Many naval engineers believe the reversing of the engines created a movement of water that made the rudder less effective. Titanic might have steered clear of that ice berg had the propellers kept providing thrust.
But that’s not what happened. Those massive propellers went still for a moment, then the two outermost propellers began turning in reverse.
Up in the crow’s nest, the lookouts watched that ice berg get bigger and bigger and it didn’t look like the ship was turning at all.
Perhaps they envisioned the ship ramming the berg. Perhaps they even thought the bridge crew had decided to ram the berg. No doubt, they braced themselves for impact, afraid for their lives—maybe even picturing themselves being flung from the crow’s nest onto the deck below.
But they began to breathe easier as the berg moved away from the bow, though growing closer.
That’s when there’s this moment of the ship sliding sideways into the iceburg.
Titanic was steered by a rudder in back, so instead of the front of the ship moving aside when the wheel was turned, it was the rear of the ship that moved. Turning the big ship at sea meant throwing her sideways, so that instead of a straight line moving forward in the water, she was moving forward diagonally, with her broad side exposed to whatever stood in their bath.
Now the rear of Titanic was on a collision with the iceberg.
Murdoch ordered the wheel turned hard-a-port, to pull the back half of the ship away from the iceberg, in a procedure known as port-rounding. With the bow out of the way, or so Murdoch assumed, the reversal of the rudder would push the stern over and the whole ship would miss—albeit narrowly—collision.
As the wheel came over, ice and steel collided. As the iceberg scraped down the side of the ship, chunks of it broke onto the decks, filling the deck wells.
The ship is so big more than half the people on board don’t even feel the impact. Those that do would describe it as though Titanic slid across a floor covered in marbles, not so much a damning impact but a general uneasiness.
From the bridge, Murdoch watches the iceberg slip past. It vanishes into the night, somewhere behind them.
A lever on the bridge is pulled to seal the watertight bulkheads. Deep inside the ship, in her bowels, ungodly heavy steel doors began crawling downward. They’re so heavy that can only fall free for eighteen inches without damaging the ship, so hydraulic dampers prevent them from falling until that critical threshold is crossed. Then, one by one, those doors slammed in place, sealing the watertight bulkheads like cannons signaling the end of war.
Captain Smith is called to the bridge and informed of what has happened.
Does Murdoch realize that he made a fatal mistake? Or did that glancing blow feel so light that he breathed a sigh of relief and reported to the captain that they’d averted a crash.
Captain Smith called for the engineer who built Titanic, Thomas Andrews.
While Andrews is below decks, watching water pour into his creation, Smith orders to bridge crew to exercise the ship. The propellers spin forward and backward. The rudder is tested. Titanic moves lazily through the dark Atlantic waters.
No doubt Smith, too, remembers the moment the Hawke crashed into Olympic. The impact had damaged a driveshaft, rendering one of Olympic’s propellers unusable, and had laid Olympic up for lengthy repairs. It was those repairs that caused the postponing of Titanic’s maiden voyage by nearly a month.
One has to wonder if Smith thought to himself, had they sailed in March, as planned, there would have no damned iceberg.
At this point, J. Bruce Ismay is not pleased. He storms onto the bridge of Titanic, likely thinking only of the bad press White Star will receive if Titanic is delayed. White Star had bet everything on these big ships, and so far, Olympic had done nothing but bleed cash.
Titanic simply had to perform better.
Sitting in the Atlantic with her engines stopped no doubt infuriated the businessman.
Andrews returns from his scouting expedition. He knows how much water Titanic can hold, how many compartments can be exposed to the water. He does some quick calculations to be certain, but he knows—and he informs Smith. Ismay scoffs, refuses to believe it. But Andrews asserts the certainty. Titanic is mortally wounded. She won’t make it to New York.
She won’t make it ’til sunrise.
Captain Smith orders an evacuation of the ship. On the horizon, he sees another vessel, it’s lights glowing. He orders distress rockets fired and commands the wireless operators to send out the Titanic’s coordinates with the call, Come Quickly, Distress.
Soon, steam pressure bleeds from the boilers through the ship’s whistles like a monstrous tea kettle. Ship stewards move room by room in the first two classes, informing passengers that they need to put on their life vests and go up on deck. But still, Titanic feels safe and warm, and the crew can’t convince people to leave that big, warm ship and get into tiny, cold lifeboats.
It wouldn’t be until later, with water pouring in faster and faster and the bow tipping downward, that the people would be ready to listen.
At that time, Titanic seemed fairly flat, with a barely noticeable list. Certainly nothing that should cause panic. Smith waits for sign that the ship he sees in the distance—its lights so clear he should be able to reach out and touch them—is coming to their aid.
He would receive no such comfort.
There’s the British way of women and children first, and Second Officer Lightoller sees to it that only women and children get on board the lifeboats. On the other side of the ship, Murdoch is much more willing to load anyone and everyone who will take a seat onto a boat.
There was a passenger on board named John Harper. A devout Christian, he was a widower, traveling with his six-year-old daughter. As it became apparent the ship was doomed, he put his daughter into a boat, kissed her forehead, and assured her that they would see each other again someday. John Harper then went up and down the decks, screaming, “Women, children, and all unsaved men into the lifeboats!”
The sinking of the Titanic took two hours, forty minutes. By the time it became apparent that the ship was doomed, many of her lifeboats had been sent away half-empty.
Many men stood on deck while their wives and children climbed into life boats, assuring them that all was well even as it became apparent the situation was anything but.
Three of the world’s richest men were on that ship. They died with dignity. Meanwhile, others took a coward’s way and tried to bluff, bully, and lie their way onto boats. Some of the crew lied and claimed to be seamen when they weren’t, in fact, while passengers who really were seamen were denied entry into the boats.
What could Thomas Andrews have thought in those moments? He designed Titanic, then watched his creation become a tomb.
There were workers from Belfast who were chosen for the great honor of sailing aboard the finest vessel they’d ever produced, now trapped inside her, fighting to pump out water. Below decks, too, were electricians who stayed below deck to keep the lights on until the very end, the wireless operators frantically pounding out distress calls until their fingers bled, the Captain who, at the end, came to relieve the wireless operators of their duty once all the lifeboats were gone, solemnly informing them that “It’s every man for himself now, that’s the way of it in times like these.”
Was he thinking, at that moment, of the ship so close he could see its lights, yet sitting there stubbornly refusing to come assist? Or of the Carpathia, the closest ship that had responded to radio calls, steaming toward Titanic but still hours away.
As the ship sank, it broke in half. John Harper dove into the water and swam away as Titanic’s back twisted in two. Many others jumped, too. The back half of the ship twisted like a cork and floundered, pulling men and women down into its wash.
All those lifeboats stayed safely away. Their passengers reasoned that they were safe enough, that if they drew closer they’d be swamped and they didn’t want to risk their lives.
John Harper swam the waters, preaching like an evangelist, trying to convince as many men to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior as possible. Did he evangelize to the rich and famous who perished that night? No one knows. But there was a boy adrift on a piece of wood who John Harper asked to receive Christ.
The boy refused.
Harper unfastened his life vest and gave it to the boy. “Here,” he said. “You need this more than me.”
Harper swam away, and the boy put on his vest. Moments later, Harper swam back and asked him to reconsider. The boy did. Harper led him through a prayer of salvation, and Harper’s last words before he slipped into the ocean were, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved!”
And that boy he gave his lifeboat to was one of only six who were pulled out of the water by a rescue team who’d taken one of the lifeboats to look for survivors.
Six pulled from the water of more than fifteen hundred who went in.
While John Harper was drowning, captain Arthur Henry Rostron was standing on the deck of his ship, Carpathia, running full steam ahead into the same ice field where Titanic sank. Rostron had all steam diverted to the engines, turning off the heat and hot water for all passengers aboard his ship to squeeze every extra bit of unintended speed from his vessel.
Time after time, Carpathia’s crew would spot ice and swerve to avoid it.
It was said that Rostron spent most of his time standing, head bowed, lips moving but no words coming from his mouth. He would later explain that he was praying for safety as for his ship and for those aboard Titanic.
As the sun rose over the ocean on April 15th, 1912, the ocean was littered with frozen bodies and broken reminders of what once had been the biggest, most luxurious machine the world had ever seen. And a hundred years later, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what went wrong.