White Star Descending
What lurks beneath
A Titanic tale
The air temperature had been dropping continually since early afternoon; it was now just above freezing point. It was so cold, in fact, that Captain Smith was worrying about the fresh water tanks freezing over.
By late afternoon most of the first class passengers had deserted the promenade decks and retired to the warmth and comfort that the various public rooms had to offer, unless, of course they preferred the privacy and solitude of their own State-rooms. Then there was the library and the smoking room or perhaps one could take tea in the lounge while listening to the ship's orchestra. And for the more physically active there was a swimming pool, a squash court and even a fully equipped gymnasium, complete with rowing machine.
The second class passengers also enjoyed many varied activities whilst aboard the RMS Titanic; for them too, the ship was a floating hotel, but passengers travelling third class, or steerage as it was more commonly known, had to create their own entertainment.
Since leaving Queenstown on April 11th, everyone on board had enjoyed a smooth crossing and a pleasant voyage. So far, the sea had been flat calm and the weather clear. It was now April 14th - a Sunday - so there would be no dancing this evening, as was the case on all White Star liners.
Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Henry were travelling Second class. He, a schoolteacher, and his wife, Emily were making their voyage to America in the hope of starting a new life in Boston. Mr. Henry had been offered a teaching post with live-in accommodation provided at a new boarding school.
"Well Emily, I'm tired and I think I shall have an early night," He announced shortly after 9.30 as they left the second class dining room. "It's freezing out on deck - let's get back to our cabin straight away."
"Yes, dear," Emily agreed, shivering, as the bracing night air permeated her lungs. "I think that's a wise decision. Perhaps tomorrow we shall be in warmer waters."
The couple chatted excitedly about the new life awaiting them in Massachusetts as they made their way back to their accommodation.
Once settled, Emily began to write in her journal and Arthur retired to bed as he had said. He had been unusually tired during the evenings throughout the duration of the voyage and Emily wondered why. He'd been acting strange too, always disappearing for an hour or so each day after lunch and not saying where he was going. It must be the accumulated stress of preparing for the journey, she thought, pen poised above her daily entry for April 14th 1912. He'll be back to his usual self once we get ashore.
Titanic amidst the ice floes
After recording the events of the day, Emily retired for the night at 11 o'clock. Shortly before drifting off to sleep she heard a faint scraping noise and a slight shudder, followed by complete silence. Perhaps I worry too much, she told herself, most likely the engines have slowed down, or even stopped for the night. Emily assured herself everything was in order.
The barely noticeable noise she had heard at around 11:40 was the Titanic's hull being sliced open. An iceberg had torn at the steel plates below the water line with all the ferocity of a giant tin opener and from that moment the ship's destiny was sealed.
The Henrys continued to sleep soundly, but many passengers still awake, left their warm cabins to brave the chilling midnight air, curious to discover what was happening. Some, oblivious to the great calamity which had befallen their ship, played with rounded chunks of ice that crashed onto the decks from the colossal, white monster towering above them.
Many decks below in the bowels of the ship, it was a different story; the collision was beginning to take its toll. Watertight compartments had been shut fast, but already the starboard side of the Titanic was filling rapidly with the icy waters of the Atlantic.
Icebergs are bigger beneath the waters
Shortly after midnight Captain Smith realised that his great, unsinkable ship had only hours left. With five water-tight compartments flooded there was no way his vessel could remain afloat. He gave the order to lover the lifeboats and send out continuous distress signals for as long as possible.
At the same moment the Henrys were awoken by an urgent rap on their cabin door. It was their steward. "Assemble on deck and wear warm clothing," he instructed them, showing them the correct way to tie their life-jackets.
Arthur was not alarmed at first and felt convinced it was just an exercise. Hadn't they mentioned a drill or something the day before? He asked himself.
Emily however, was less optimistic, remembering the strange shudder she had heard earlier. "Arthur!" she exclaimed in a distressed tone, "There was a noise when you were asleep. Do you suppose we might have struck something?"
"Surely not, my dear, now calm down and I'm sure we will be informed presently if anything is amiss, in the meantime we had better do as we are told."
Comforted by his words Emily followed instructions and the couple made their way to the boat deck where the first lifeboat had already been lowered. It was 12.45 am.
"All men away from the boat decks please!" Came the order, "All ladies and children retire to the deck below!"
Emily obeyed unquestioningly as she hurriedly said her goodbyes to her husband, not thinking at that moment, that she might be separated from him forever. But she knew in her heart that Arthur was a proper gentleman who would never occupy a space in a lifeboat if there were still women and children to be saved.
It soon became apparent that there were certain unscrupulous men on board who had no principles whatsoever. Two had already jumped into lifeboat number five and another had been spotted trying to board a lifeboat disguised as a woman. Although dire situations can bring out the best in people, sometimes they can bring out the very worst too, Emily thought, as she observed the tragedy unfolding around her.
The whole procedure of lowering the lifeboats proved a haphazard affair. Emily wondered why none of the crew appeared to know what they were doing. All the equipment seemed new and unfamiliar to them. Perhaps it had been a mistake to have booked a passage on ship that was making her maiden voyage.
As Emily was being lowered away in lifeboat number five, she wondered how long it would be before they were rescued or even if they would be rescued at all. And poor Arthur - what would become of him? No other vessel seemed to be responding to any of the white distress rockets being fired into the star-spangled night. And it was so cold; Emily had never experienced such extreme temperature before.
The great black hulk of the ship towered above her and was tilting noticeably downwards as water continued to flood in, dragging the bow progressively lower beneath the ocean. It was clear to Emily now, that no-one would be returning to the unfortunate vessel and the passengers in the life boats were the lucky ones.
The remaining boats were full now as people became aware that time was fast running out; Emily gazed up at the clear moonless sky and prayed that her husband had somehow managed to find a place in one. She prayed also for the souls of those who would surely perish that fateful night. The calmness of the air and the stillness of the sea seemed totally out of character with the terrible scene before her eyes; until now she had assumed ships were only lost in stormy weather.
The stars glowed white that fateful night over the icy waters of the Atlantic as the lights of the White Star liner blazed in a few seconds of final glory before beginning its ghostly descent.
A small child was crying for his mother. Emily tried to console him and the warmth from his body made her feel less numb. Where were his parents? Emily wondered. She had seen him thrown into the lifeboat by one of the galley staff.
A history of the Titanic
Her eyes remained fixated upon the lights of the great liner until they failed shortly before it plunged into the depths of the sea at 2:20 am, with more than fifteen hundred people still on board. She hoped Arthur wasn't among them.
The forty-one people in boat no five were now enveloped in darkness with only the light from a single lantern and the stars above to provide them with the faintest illumination. More horrors unfolded as people floated around them, some still crying out for salvation, and others, near to death, were bobbing up and down in the icy water, cold and lifeless like tailor's dummies.
It was 5am before Emily's boat was finally picked up by The Carpathia. She soon came to realise that few men had survived the ordeal when she saw that most of the occupants of the other boats were also women and children. She began to fear the worst and then she spotted him. "Arthur it's you! Emily called in amazement running into his arms. "However did you manage to get in a lifeboat when so many men were lost?"
"A ship's officer asked for someone who was competent at rowing and I offered," Arthur explained.
"But, I don't understand, you've never rowed a boat in your life," Emily replied with a baffled look on her face.
"Ah...perhaps not a real boat my dear but ever since we set sail from Southampton, I've been sneaking into the first class gymnasium after lunch every day to use the rowing machine."
"So that's where you'd disappeared to each afternoon and I did wonder why you were so very tired in the evenings," Emily declared. "Well it looks like your little secret has saved your life!"
© 2014 Stella Kaye