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The Sinking of the Titanic
The Titanic sank on her maiden voyage
The Titanic sank in 1912
It has now been more than 100 years since the Titanic sank, and yet a century later, the disaster remains legendary. Even for those of us born many decades after the tragedy, the sinking of the Titanic defines man-made disasters, human error and hubris, and has spawned terms and phrases still used in today’s society. It has become a benchmark of sorts to remind us we are, after all, small humans on a planet that has powers we don’t yet understand, and that nothing, no matter how advanced and how publicly touted by experts, is perfect.
Many who grew up in the 1960s first learned about the disaster by watching the 1958 film, A Night to Remember, as kids, huddled around the television set and asking their parents what the movie was about. Was it true? The answer was often a grim acknowledgement that the horrific event was indeed a true story, even if dramatized. The 1958 film remains a classic, despite portraying the event more somberly and with less romance than the 1997 Titanic movie (called, quite simply, Titanic), which was the first film to gross more than $1 billion, and remained the highest grossing film for more than a decade.
The 2,224 people who were on the Titanic when it pushed off the pier in Southampton, England on April 10, 1912 were likely giddy with excitement and pride to be on the newest and most celebrated ship of the White Star Line. For more than two years, the public had heard of its sumptuous fittings and magnificent, state-of-the-art engineering. The trend at White Star at the time was to christen its fleet with impressive names, so the mammoth vessel was named the RMS Titanic, joining its sister ship, RMS Olympic, which had been launched nearly two years early.
Hundreds, if not thousands of stories have been written about the size of the ship (it was indeed titanic in size), its gigantic engines and screws, and its alleged ability to withstand a head-on collision and the flooding of up to four front compartments without sinking (there is no record, however, that the ship's owners or builders ever used the word ‘unsinkable’). The links at the bottom of this hub will lead you to stories with details of its design and information on what appears to be substandard, brittle metal used in its construction.
The Titanic at dock before sailing
Why did the Titanic sink?
It is now part of our collective knowledge that the ship came upon an iceberg four days after its launch, and didn’t properly avoid it. Apparently, wireless warnings were set aside or ignored while personal messages to wealthy passengers were expedited in the communications office. That ill-planned shift of priorities was one of several things that historians have pondered with sad questions that begin, "What if . . .?" Just about everything else that could go wrong went wrong on the night of April 14th and 15th, when the ship sank.
At 11:40 p.m. the night of the 14th, the deadly mass of iceberg was sighted. An immediate alarm was sounded and the crew jumped into action. What happened next was part of the series of mistakes, but given the rapidly approaching collision, disaster may have been unavoidable at that point. Rather than attempting to hit the iceberg head-on (which may have flooded only four compartments and perhaps avoided or delayed sinking), the bridge ordered a quick turn to the left (starboard). About 37 seconds after the alarm was sounded, the weight and momentum of the giant vessel pushed its side along a jutting edge of the iceberg, ripping a long tear in the starboard side, crushing several spots in its hull and bursting underwater rivets from their seams. With six front compartments flooded, rather than only four, the ship’s officers soon realized the ship would not survive. Only four days into its wildly heralded maiden voyage, the Titanic was going down.
Inside the luxury liner Titanic
Did the Titanic passengers know they would die?
Examine for moment a the disbelief every individual on board would have felt in the immediate aftermath of hitting the iceberg. Surely, all 2,224 of those who sailed felt they were on the safest, most modern and exciting ship ever built.
Aside from the thrill of being on one of the most celebrated maiden voyages ever seen in commercial maritime history, the passengers and crew would have felt a sense of peace and security knowing their ship was nearly invincible.
The size of the vessel alone was comforting; if you’ve ever seen a cruise ship in a port, you know how monumentally enormous they are. It would have been nearly incomprehensible that anything could destroy something of that size. Or that something so large and fortress-like could be tragically vulnerable to Mother Nature.
Everything in the ship was brand new and pristine for its first voyage. The wood still glistened with its first oil and polish; the brass was blindingly bright and unsullied by fingerprints. Although steerage passengers certainly traveled in minimal comfort compared to the luxuries seen in first-class cabins, even those who paid the least amount for passage found they were on the most amazing ship ever imagined, and they felt secure in its size and power.
It's fair to assume that after four days at sea, the sense of security would have lulled passengers and crew into complacency, their minds far from the idea of a danger. It was unthinkable that anything could happen to mar this idyllic journey, and even more unimaginable that the journey would end in a disaster to be talked about for a century.
Archival footage of the Titanic disaster and aftermath
Titanic lifeboat and survivors
The last moments before the Titanic sank
With alarm bells sounding in the dark midnight air, imagine the frantic scurrying of crew members as they tried to deploy lifeboats, with little in the way of pre-training for such emergencies. It would have been challenging to man lifeboat stations amid the throngs of passengers just awakened from sleep - all of them confused and scared, their minds filled with terror as they tried to decide where to turn for help or where to take their families for safety.
Anyone who has been on a huge cruise ship knows how disorienting the hallways and decks are; every passageway looks the same, and even after four days at sea, it must have been difficult to understand what to do, especially while still processing the stunning knowledge of what was happening to the ship. The secure cocoon these 2,224 men, women and children had traveled in for four days had betrayed their trust; it had become a deadly metal coffin, soon to be filled with ice-cold water.
Of the 2,224 onboard when the ship embarked on the voyage, 1,316 were passengers and 908 were crew (only 23 crew members were female). Fewer than a third of those on board (710; just 32%) survived. Many of those in the lifeboats dropped into the frigid water watched the ship sink less than three hours after the iceberg was struck, their hearts breaking with the horrific knowledge that spouses, parents, children or other loved ones were among the 1,514 who were lost.
As the SOS calls went out, the Carpathia, the closest ship to respond to the radioed calls for help, heroically raced to the site. We can picture the tense nerves of her captain and crew as they feverishly coaxed their vessel to the maximum safe speed in an effort to arrive on time. Seafarers are a fraternity – every ship captain and every crew member knows that despite years of experience and skill, nature and her oceans are vast and mighty; disaster can happen in an instant, and the grace of God and good fortune are important passengers on each voyage.
How terrified Captain Arthur Rostron, of the Carpathia, must have felt for the passengers and crew of a ship he had likely never seen, but surely knew of through news stories. How urgently he wanted to arrive in time to offer safety to a few thousand people now at the mercy of the ocean he sailed. Rostron’s ship was part of White Star’s rival fleet, the Cunard Line, but industrial competition isn’t a factor when human lives are in danger on the ocean.
Although it was only 58 miles away, it would take about four hours for the Carpathia to arrive – too late to save all but those who had successfully evacuated into lifeboats. How many ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ thoughts must have tortured Rostron and his crew as they loaded the shivering survivors onto the safety of their decks and began the unbearably sad voyage to New York. If only he had been steering closer to the Titanic’s path before the emergency was sounded, if only he had seen danger and warned his colleagues on the Titanic. If only. What if?
Compilation of historical facts and answered questions about the Titanic
Maritime lessons from the Titanic
The loss of the Titanic has come to symbolize tragedy on a massive level and its lessons even live on in management lore. Who among us hasn’t heard the phrase that some corporate exercises are so futile, they're like ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
Despite the somewhat accurate analogy of trying to stop an unavoidable disaster when it’s too late, those words sound a bit cavalier when we consider the human lives and the terror that surged through victims' souls during those few predawn hours on April 15th, 1912.
No movie, documentary or news story could ever capture the shock, emotional trauma and fear of those who experienced a maritime accident so phenomenally unexpected (and one so unprepared for) that its memory lives in our culture almost as though it were only last year.
As the we continue to research and study the Titanic disaster, let us never forget these were real humans who experienced this historic disaster.