The departure of the Titanic on April 10, 1912, on her maiden voyage made minor ripples compared with the Olympic's inaugural trip less than a year earlier. In Southampton a big crowd saw her off, but there were no ceremonies and no long-winded speeches from local dignitaries and invited bigwigs.
Her first-class passenger list, however, which included John Jacob Astor, one of America's wealthiest men, was remarkable and may well be unsurpassed in the annals of ocean travel. This was the era when wealth equaled celebrity, and the Titanic's maiden voyage had clearly attracted an unusual number of the transatlantic elite. In fact, however, her greatest claim to fame seemed likely to be a brief reign as the largest ship in the world. At 882.5 feet, she was identical in length to the Olympic, the previous record holder, but the prize for size would soon pass to Hamburg-Amerika's 909-foot-long Imperator, due to enter service the following year.
Five days later, without ever having encountered a storm at sea, the Titanic had become the most famous passenger ship in history, a place she retains to this day. And although the story of her wreck has been told countless times, it seems to have lost none of its fascination. This enduring allure stems only partly from the scale of the tragedy -- more than 1,500 lives lost, still, with the exception of a 1987 Philippines ferry disaster, the worst death toll from a wreck at sea during peacetime. For the Titanic seems to have it all, an irresistible combination of human drama and symbolic gravitas.
To many observers, especially proud Britons, she and her sister seemed to represent the final triumph of technology over nature. Although her builders never claimed that the
Titanic was unsinkable, she was widely believed to be so. Even Captain Smith, who had spent a lifetime on the sea and should have known better, had a few years before remarked of an earlier White Star ship, the Adriatic, "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that." Smith was only articulating a widely held sentiment. And the Titanic boasted the latest in safety features, most notably watertight compartments whose doors could be closed electrically. So safe were these huge ships considered to be that the British Board of Trade hadn't bothered to revise its lifeboat requirements to reflect the increased numbers carried. There were lifeboats on board for barely one-third the number of passengers and crew when the ship was fully booked. Not that this posed any problem. As the Republic had shown, a ship with the Titanic's safety features would surely sink so slowly that help would arrive with time to spare. The lifeboats would be needed only to ferry passengers back and forth.
To technological arrogance, to Edwardian pride that went before a tragic fall, must then be added the element of chance. Somehow the binoculars for the crow's nest had disappeared, possibly stolen or misplaced, so the lookout
who peered into Atlantic darkness did so without their aid. What's more, he did so on a most unusual night, with no moonlight to reflect off a floating mountain of ice and a sea so calm no surf would etch a berg's perimeter, the bioluminescence making it visible in time for evasive action. Never in Captain Smith's experience had the ice been so far south this late in the season. And there was one final mischance: When the iceberg was sighted-too late to avoid a collision-the ship might have been saved had the officers on the bridge steered her straight into it rather than turning the wheel. The glancing blow that ruptured the Titanic's hull over a distance of roughly 250 feet and admitted water into six of her compartments sealed her fate.
The Titanic sinks after striking an iceberg. Credit
In retrospect, it is easy to fault the Titanic's skipper for not exercising more caution. Having received repeated ice warnings, he did not slow his ship down. But Smith was only doing what he and captains like him had been doing for years, taking calculated risks to make their companies look good. It was a risk no different in kind from the one that had led to the wreck of the Republic three years earlier. But Captain Smith's casual, almost cavalier, air that evening, when he lingered late over a second cigar following an elegant dinner with some of the ship's more distinguished passengers, casts him in an inevitably unfavorable light.
Abetting these dramatic elements is the time the ship took to sink, long enough for hundreds of minor dramas to be played out on her ever-more-sloping decks, but not long enough for help to arrive. Once the iceberg disappeared back into the cold, clear night, the ship remained afloat for two and a half hours. At first the great liner appeared so slightly damaged that most of the passengers and many in the crew refused to believe she was doomed. In the first-class lounge, the band played upbeat tunes, and for a time there was almost a festive air. The first lifeboats left the ship far less than full. The one occupied by Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon, among the Titanic's few titled passengers, rowed off with only 12 on board. Its capacity was 40. Although there were exceptions, the prevailing rule was women and children first. When husbands helped their wives into a boat and waved goodbye, most assumed a speedy reunion.
But soon the slope of the decks became disturbing, and the frisson of a harmless adventure gave way to alarm. Crewmen
had to physically prevent passengers from storming the lifeboats. Various survivors reported at least one shot being fired to quell an incipient riot. In a grim echo of the Republic, the prerogatives of class superseded common humanity. Until near the end, some of the third-class passengers remained trapped below decks, prevented by locked gates and stern stewards from reaching the boats. And through it all another ship was visible on the horizon, seemingly oblivious to the distress rockets being fired from the stricken liner.
The Titanic's final moments. Credit
Finally, after the lifeboats had departed and the bow had slipped underwater, the hundreds of people cling to the upjutting stern faced their mortality. Some jumped, some waited for the ship to rear up and suddenly sink. Few survived more than several minutes in the near-freezing waters. But there were some miraculous escapes. A baker who had spent the evening aiding others while fortifying himself with whisky stepped off the stern as it dropped beneath him and paddled amiably for several hours, apparently insulated against the ice-cold water by all the alcohol he had consumed. Seventeen-year-old Jack Thayer, about to inherit a Philadelphia fortune, leaped from the rail when the water was still 12 to 15 feet below, than swam as hard as he could. One of the ship's funnels narrowly missed him as it fell, and he was almost drowned by its suction. But when he gasped to the surface, he bumped up against an overturned collapsible lifeboat and was hauled to safety. Of those who watched in wonder and horror as the ship disappeared, he was one of the many who felt sure she had broken in two at the surface.
The final moments of the rich and famous became legends. John Jacob Astor asked if he could join his much younger and very pregnant wife in the lifeboat. But when Second Officer Lightoller refused his request, Astor walked politely away, a gentleman to the last. (When his body was recovered, there was more than two thousand dollars in his pocket.) Ida Straus refused to leave her husband, Isidor, one of the owners of Macy's department store, "We have lived together many years," she told him. "Where you go, I go." William T. Stead, the crusading English journalist on his way to speak to a peace conference in New York, was last seen quietly reading in the first-class smoking room.
The last act of the drama came with the daring rescue by the Cunarder Carpathia. Ignoring caution, Captain Arthur Rostron raced through a sea studded with icebergs and arrived on the scene just as dawn was breaking. Meticulous to a fault, he had transformed his passenger ship en route to the Mediterranean into an emergency field hospital by the time the first lifeboats were alongside and the half-dead survivors were being helped on board. "One thing stands out in my mind about it all," he later wrote, "the quietness. There was no noise or hurry. When our passengers at length came on deck they were some time before they seemed to realize the stupendous nature of the tragedy; it was too big to assimilate at once."
Recalling the Titanic
by Robert Ballard
A good deal has changed since we explored the wreck of the Titanic in the summer of 1986. For example, the crow's nest that we saw
still attached to the fallen foremast is now gone. And the foremast itself has now buckled and collapsed farther. As well, more than 3,000 artifacts have been lifted from the debris field. But the wreck site retains its essential character. The bow section still sits upright and remarkably intact, its knife edge seeming to plow a furrow in the bottom mud. The stern section still rises above the ocean floor, looking for all the world like a building after a massive internal explosion. These two starkly different faces of death could almost stand for the starkly different fates of those who were saved and those who were drowned.
The Titanic's bow as it appears today. Credit
For all the subsequent attention, little has been added in these past 12 years to our knowledge of the ship or how it sank. The 1987 salvage expedition found the starboard propeller we had missed. The 1991 IMAX filmmaking expedition, brought back images of unprecedented clarity of the wreck. And in 1995 moviemaker James Cameron took the most dramatic video yet of the bow and fo'c'sle, images he planned to use in his Titanic feature movie. Of more interest to me, however, he explored deeper into the ship than anyone before. On its descent down the grand staircase, Cameron sent his tethered robot into the sitting room of the starboard parlor suite, one of the more deluxe first-class accommodations. The robot's eye spotted the ruins of a chair and got a close look at the beautiful brass firebox in the remains of the fireplace. Even more exciting, however, the robot ventured down to the D-deck reception room outside the first-class dining room. Here it found remains of wood paneling, pillars with pieces of intact woodwork, and octagonal ceiling fixture dangling down and one of the main entry doors through which the first-class passengers boarded the ship. One of the double doors still hangs on its hinges, its ornate iron grillwork clearly visible.
Considerable hullabaloo attended the attempt in the summer of 1996 to raise a piece of the hull from the debris field, but far more interesting was the ultrasound investigation of the area of the bow damaged by the iceberg. These images revealed six small tears or openings affecting the first six compartments. Just as we had surmised in 1986, the great gash was a myth and the actual openings into the ship seem to have been the result of rivets popping and hull plates separating.