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Published December 15, 2017

It’s a cold, moonless night with calm seas. Below decks, hundreds of passengers have settled in for the night, or are burning the midnight oil and making the most of the ship’s luxurious amenities. Above them all, the lookouts in the crow’s nest strain their eyes against the freezing air, gazing into a far-reaching darkness which makes it difficult even to make out the horizon.

Suddenly, something looms out of the gloom. The lookout rings the bridge, his voice urgent.

“Iceberg, right ahead!”

AI generated image – Midjourney

It would be hard to produce a podcast called Great Disasters and not talk about the Titanic; that’s why I’m making it the subject of a two part special. It’s one of the best known tragedies in history, boosted by countless films and documentaries on the subject. Even though it happened over a hundred years ago, and even the last survivors have now passed on, it’s a name with instant recognition. It seems like a tale crafted to be memorable; the ship everybody knew to be unsinkable, sunk in just a few hours on her maiden voyage with the loss of many on board, from the poorest to the richest.

However, not everything you’ve heard about the Titanic is necessarily true.

Firstly, let’s address that “unsinkable” thing. Was the Titanic really designed to be unsinkable? Well, yes, in as much as no ship designer ever designed a ship to sink; but just like any designer they were working with certain limitations; the technology of the day, the time, money and materials available, and all those other practical considerations. They took what they thought would be the worst case scenario – a broadside collision with another ship – and worked to those criteria.

The safety systems they gave her included a double bottom and a series of bulkheads which divided the hull into sixteen compartments, with heavy watertight doors between. By shutting the doors, any flooding could be limited, allowing the ship to remain afloat with any two, even up to four compartments flooded. They didn’t foresee an accident that would affect more than that, of course.

Was the Titanic actually advertised as unsinkable? Not quite. The advertising was mostly focused on her size and luxury. The White Star Line did boast of the safety systems, though. According to their official description, the captain could “by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout – practically making the vessel unsinkable.”

Of course, practically unsinkable is not the same as totally unsinkable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Colourised image of the Titanic leaving Southampton, April 10 1912
The Titanic leaving Southampton on the 10th of April, 1912. Colourised. Source: Wikimidia Commons.

The Titanic was one of three ships built in Belfast by Harland & Wolff for the White Star Line. Her sister ship, the Olympic, was first to be completed in 1911; as a point of interest, since the Olympic and Titanic were practically identical and the Olympic was considerably longer-lived, a lot of the photographs used to illustrate stories about the Titanic are actually of the Olympic.

They, and the third ship the Britannic, were designed at a time of intense competition between the shipping lines who worked the Atlantic crossing. Commercial air flight wouldn’t arrive for years, so ships were the only option, and everyone involved was looking for an edge.

The Cunard Line had the Mauretania, which had set speed records in both directions – eastbound in 1907 and westbound in 1909 – which it would hold for twenty years. It was also the largest ship ever built at the time – that is, until the Olympic and Titanic came along. They were almost thirty metres longer than the Mauretania, and slightly wider, making them slower vessels but giving them more room for luxuries to impress their guests.

And luxuries there were aplenty.

First class passengers boarding the ship were first awed by the entrance hall with its grand staircase – if you’ve seen James Cameron’s film of the tragedy, you know exactly which one I mean. They could gather in the elegant, spacious, reading and writing room, or in the huge reception room; they had a choice of places to eat, from the Grand Dining Saloon to the more relaxed Cafe Parisien. The gentlemen could retire to the smoking room, and those of an energetic bent could make use of the swimming pool, Turkish baths, full size squash court and gymnasium – complete with mechanical horses. And, of course, at night they could sleep soundly in large, comfortable cabins with exquisite furnishings, making it seem for all the world like a five-star hotel had taken to the waters. Mrs Mahala Douglas of Minneapolis said, “The boat was so luxurious, so steady, so immense, and such a marvel of mechanism that one could not believe he was on a boat”.

The Titanic’s gymnasium, from a White Star Line booklet. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Second class passengers were just as pleased with what they got for their money; their smoking room, library and lobby may not have been quite as expansive and expensive as the first class equivalents, but they were still spacious and elegant. Eighteen year old Percy Bailey described the ship in a letter to his parents shortly after boarding:

“The Titanic is a marvel, I can tell you. I have never seen such a sight in my life, she is like a floating palace, everything up to date.”

Even third class passengers were well taken care of. Where other ships might cram steerage passengers into shared dormitories or cabins, most of the third class accommodation was in twin berth cabins. Their public areas were simple, but spacious, and they still got their meals served by waiters and stewards. The Standard, describing the ship at its launch, said that the amenities in third class “reminded one of the first class accommodation on many liners twenty years ago.” It was pretty fancy, considering.

Contemporary postcard illustrating the third class general room of the Titanic and Olympic. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Whether you paid two pounds or eight hundred for your ticket, on board the Titanic you were promised a once in a lifetime experience. For many, it had to be; they’d saved hard to make their way to the New World. That two pounds- which was the cheapest one-way ticket sold – would be equivalent to paying between seven hundred and a thousand pounds in today’s money.

In total, the ship could carry 2,346 passengers. However, Titanic departed Southampton on the 10th of April 1912 with only 922 paying guests on board. This was due to a long-running coal strike which had disrupted travelling schedules for six weeks. Although the strike was resolved just before the Titanic sailed, many people had put off making plans until they were sure they could sail – and thus escaped tragedy.

She then made her way first to Cherbourg in France, and then to Queenstown in Ireland (now called Cobh), picking up and dropping off passengers at each port, before setting out across the North Atlantic for New York with 1,316 passengers and over 900 crew aboard.

The route of the Titanic. Source: Wikimedia Commons

All seemed to be going well; the ship gradually increased speed under the command of Captain Edward Smith, and the wireless operators exchanged polite greetings with other passing ships, who offered their congratulations and good wishes for the maiden voyage.

By Sunday, the 14th April, all of the ship’s 24 main boilers were running, and preparations were underway to light her auxiliary boilers. This gave rise to speculation that she was going to attempt a speed crossing, challenging the Mauretania’s record, but this is very unlikely. The Titanic wasn’t designed for speed, and everybody in charge knew that she couldn’t match the power of her smaller Cunard rival. However, they may well have wanted to see if she could beat the Olympic’s best speed, and at the very least run the Titanic through her paces.

Those wireless messages they were getting weren’t all congratulations, though. They included warnings of ice.

Now, ice in the Atlantic is not unusual; mariners were used to it, and the Titanic was following a standard summertime course, which was generally far enough south to avoid danger. Not in 1912, however. It had been a mild winter, and this had caused huge amounts of ice to break off the Arctic icecap and drift south. In addition, the Gulf Stream, which sends warm water up across the Atlantic to Northern Europe, wasn’t flowing as far north as usual. That meant colder waters, and allowed the ice to drift even further south.

The Titanic didn’t slow down. She carried on steaming ahead at a steady 22.5 knots as night fell. It was a moonless but starlit night, with calm seas, and conversation on the bridge is said to have touched on the difficulties of spotting ice in such conditions. The giveaway, you see, is usually the white crest of waves breaking against the ice; in calm seas, that’s not available. And without moonlight, even with the glow of a million stars above, they faced a dark sea, a dark sky, and somewhere out there, dark ice. The Captain seemed unflustered; after dining with a party in the Cafe Parisien and checking in with the bridge for an update on conditions, he retired to his cabin at around 9.20pm, leaving orders that he should be roused if anything became “at all doubtful”.

The Titanic’s Cafe Parisien, originally published in the Illustrated London News. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The First Officer, William Murdoch, set two lookouts to watch for ice from the crow’s nest, while Second Officer, Charles Lightoller, noted the dropping temperatures and advised the chief engineer to keep an eye on the water tanks aboard lest they freeze.

Up in the crow’s nest, the lookouts would be fighting to see in bitingly cold air. They didn’t have any binoculars; however, they were trained to scan the entire horizon, which isn’t possible through the narrow focus of binoculars, so they probably wouldn’t have been using them anyway.

And suddenly, it happened. An iceberg loomed out of the darkness. Lookout Frederick Fleet rang the warning bell, grabbed the telephone and gave the message to Sixth Officer James Moody down on the bridge.

“Iceberg, right ahead!”

Moody thanked the lookout – manners are important, after all – and called the warning across to First Officer Murdoch. In turn, he leapt forward to order the engines first to stop, then to full astern, and ordered the helmsman to turn the wheel hard a-starboard. A warning bell gave the crew in the lower compartments a ten second warning that the huge watertight doors were about to close.

The great ship began to swing to port (in those days orders were still given as if the ship was steered by a tiller, so you ordered starboard to turn to port). But it was too late. There was only about thirty seconds between the warning and the impact. The iceberg scraped along the starboard side of the ship.

Roused by the alarms, the Captain was on the bridge in mere moments, sending Fourth Officer Boxhall down to check the hull and report on the damage.

In the forward boiler room, there was no doubt about the seriousness of the situation. Only two stokers and an engineer got out. Elsewhere, though, the collision didn’t feel like much to worry about. In second class, passenger Lawrence Beesley called it “a slight jar.” In first class, Catherine Crosby was “awakened by the bumping of the boat” while Major Arthur Peuchen “heard a dull thud” and others weren’t even woken by it.

Still, Boxhall’s quick inspection revealed the bad news; the  lowest deck was flooded past the No. 4 bulkhead and water was rising fast.

Captain Smith ordered the lifeboats to be uncovered. Knowing that there was not enough capacity for all on board, he ordered they be filled with the women and children first. He then personally went to the radio room to ensure that the distress call was sent out immediately. The passengers were roused and directed to assemble on the Boat Deck.

The Titanic’s second class promenade and boat deck. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For many it seemed impossible that a ship like the Titanic could be in danger when they’d hardly felt anything. The lights were all still shining, the sea was calm, and the band was still playing; they’d assembled in the first class lounge and were breaking out some cheerful ragtime tunes. A number of first class passengers formed an orderly queue at the purser’s office, waiting to withdraw their jewellery and valuables before embarking on the lifeboats.

Saloon steward William Ward described the calm atmosphere on deck.

“There did not seem to be any excitement. In fact, a lot of ladies and gentlemen there were just treating it as a kind of joke.”

It was 12:45 am, almost a full hour after the impact, when the first lifeboat was lowered into the waters. Certified to hold 65 people, it carried less than half that number. Further lifeboats left the Titanic’s decks just as lightly laden. At this point, passengers were probably loathe to abandon the seemingly sturdy liner for a small rowboat; they likely also balked at the height from which the boats had to be lowered. From A deck, right at the top, it was 70 feet down to the water.

Adding to the perils, the crew had not been drilled on lifeboat procedures; some became unbalanced as they went down, nearly tipping their passengers out. Second class passenger Marshall Drew, just eight years old at the time, later said,

“The lowering of the lifeboat 70ft to the sea was perilous. Davits, ropes, nothing worked properly, so that first one end of the lifeboat was tilted up and then far down. I think it was the only time I was scared.”

Passengers in boat 13 were more frightened; their boat was still attached to the ropes when boat 15 above them began to be lowered. Their screams went unheard by the boat above, and it was only quick action by the crew in cutting the lines and moving away which avoided further loss of life.

But it seemed that help was not far away. The lights of another ship could be seen; the captain ordered the lifeboats to make for them.

In the wireless room, the operator had already passed a message on to the Carpathia; “Come at once. We have struck an iceberg. It’s C Q D old man.”

The Carpathia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was sheer chance the the operator of the Carpathia heard this message. Harold Cottam had been on duty since 7am, and was already retiring for the night. He left his radio on whilst undressing, and decided to try the Titanic to pass on some messages. When he got the distress call, he ran – still half-dressed – to the bridge of his own ship. The Carpathia made immediate preparations for rescue; they stoked their engines to the max, pushing past their designed speed of 14 knots to 17.5 knots, readying their lifeboats on the way.

But they were nearly sixty miles away. They weren’t the lights that the lifeboats could see, just a few miles distant. Those lights, despite desperate radio calls, morse signals by lamp and pyrotechnic rockets, slowly turned away and disappeared.

The Countess of Rothes said,

“It was pitiful, our rowing towards the lights of a ship that disappeared. We in boat number eight saw some tramp steamer’s mast headlights and then saw a glow of red as it swung toward us for a few minutes, then darkness and despair.”

Contemporary illustration. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gradually, the Titanic sank lower in the water, her bows heavy and taking on a list that made it difficult to launch some of the later lifeboats. The “women and children first” rule was applied unevenly; there would be some controversy over certain male survivors, particularly the White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay and Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, who paid the crew in his lifeboat five pounds apiece. As the passengers began to realise the gravity of the situation, panic grew; at one point one of the officers fired his gun into the air to stop a group of men rushing aboard one of the lifeboats. Some of the gentlemen were more dignified. The multimillionaire Colonel Astor asked politely if he could join his wife in the lifeboat, seeing as there were places left and she was in a delicate condition. Officer Lightoller refused, and the Colonel simply stepped back, bidding farewell to his young bride. He would not survive. One of the wealthiest men on board, Benjamin Guggenheim, retired with his valet to change into evening dress. If he was going down, he was prepared to do so as a gentleman. And in the first class lounge, four gentlemen were playing cards until well after two o’clock. Thomas Andrews, of the ship’s builders Harland & Wolff, was last seen in the smoking room, staring at a painting on the wall. The captain was, of course, on the bridge.

He had relieved the wireless operators of their duty, but they stayed at the radio transmitting their distress calls, at first using the traditional call CQD. After a while assistant wireless operator Harold Bride told Jack Phillips, the senior operator,

 “Send SOS; it’s the new call, and it may be your last chance to send it.”

Phillips did, with a laugh. But his friend was right- the brave wireless operator would stay at his post until water was coming into their cabin, and wouldn’t make it out alive.

Deep in the ship, dedicated engineers kept enough steam going to keep the lights on right up to the last moments.

And, as the bow began to slip under the waves, the band played on, switching from their cheerful ragtime numbers to a more solemn tune. Although some survivors said it was “Autumn”, others said it was “Nearer, My God To Thee.” The latter is more likely; not only was it a favourite of bandleader Wallace Hartley, but he had once told a friend that it was the tune he would choose to play on a sinking ship.

By 2:20 am, the massive liner was gone. All that remained was the calm, freezing seas, and the screams of the survivors.

Contemporary illustration, Source: Wikimedia Commons

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