The Sinking of the Titanic
In the whole story of distress at sea there is no more catastrophic chapter than the sinking of the Titanic with the loss of over 1,500 lives. The leviathan's doom in the Atlantic icefield off Gape Race, on that cold, beautiful, starlit night of April 15, 1912, her great steel plates ripped like tinfoil by the fangs of an iceberg, shocked and bewildered the world.
The "ship that could not sink" had gone, closed in upon by the fathoms she had been designed to ride with easy arrogance, dominant and indestructible, the biggest and safest vessel ever built by man - queen of the seas. And she was humbled and destroyed not by the spit and fury of a tempest but by a sea as placid as an inland lake; man's genius, man's wealth, man's enterprise halted by an enemy of no more substance than frozen water, steel bending in defeat to ice.
The Titanic was on her maiden voyage to America. She was the Queen Alary of her day, the pride of the White Star Line and the envy and admiration of the maritime nations of the world. In speed, in comfort, in beauty, in equipment she was a masterpiece. Everything about her was big and fascinating. Built in the Belfast yards at a cost of something like £2,500,000, her displacement was 46,328 tons, and she was 882 ft. from bow to stern. Her funnels towered 175 ft. above the keel, and her engines had the power of 56,000 horses. Ten decks rose tier on tier. Passengers could walk for four and a half miles without exploring all of her wonders. Among her amenities were a Parisian cafe, a Jacobean dining-room seating 500, a swimming-pool, squash racket courts, a gymnasium, a library, sun parlours and tea-terraces and a huge ballroom with hidden lighting.
For 1912 the Titanic was a miracle of luxury and a magnet for millionaires, several of which, both American and British, were among the passengers. It was estimated at the time that the total wealth represented by the first-class passengers was in the region of £50,000,000. Some paid as much as £870 for the trip. Altogether, the Titanic had on board some 2,200 souls, including a crew of nearly 900 and over 100 children. Only about 700 were ever to sight land again.
The fateful night of April 15 was bitterly cold. Not the slightest puff of breeze, however, ruffled a flat sea. The Titanic was doing between twenty-one and twenty-two knots without vibration. There was every indication, on her performance, that she was easily capable of setting up an Atlantic record, though no attempt was being made to do so. This was the time, not for record-breaking, but for testing and observation. Already, from captain to deck-boy, the crew of the Titanic were satisfied that their ship was supreme. So, too, was Mr. Joseph Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, who was among the passengers.
The passengers themselves, after four days at sea, were in high spirits. They had indulged in all the many joys afforded by the wonder ship, and now they were anticipating the thrill of New York's welcome. There was music and dancing, card-playing, mild flirtations and all the social whirligig of the luxury liner.
On the bridge there was the customary vigilance. It was well known to captain and officers that the Titanic was approaching the regions where ice might be expected, regions, nevertheless, which had been navigated in safety by passenger liners time and time again. Formal messages had been received by radio that there was ice about, but nothing to the effect that there were any dangerous bergs in the Titanic”s direct course.
Second Officer Lightoller had taken the special precaution of giving a special warning to the two look-out men in the ship's crow's nest. He did so, not because of any special fears, but because in such a calm sea the presence of ice would not be betrayed by a disturbance of the water. At ten o'clock, satisfied that all was well, Lightoller handed over the bridge to First Officer Murdock and went below. Murdock was accompanied in the watch by Fourth Officer Boxhall and Sixth Officer Moody, with Quartermaster Robert Kitchens at the wheel.
The ship sped through the night, her lights twinkling against those of the stars. So cold was it that few ventured on deck. The passengers gradually dwindled away to their cabins. Only a few remained in the public rooms over cards, gossip or a drink. And on the bridge there was little sound but the almost indiscernible hum of the engines, the half-hourly clang of the ship's bells in the wheelhouse, followed by the cry from the look-out men in the crow's nest, "All's well!"
At about eleven-forty came the shock that reverberated round the world. The officers on the bridge were staggered to hear three gongs sounded from the crow's nest, the signal that something lay dead ahead. Then came the dramatic cry, "Ice right ahead, sir!"
A berg! The hearts of the watch froze to the temperature of the sea, First Officer Murdock had seen the greenish-white mountain of destruction looming out of space almost as soon as the look-outs. Without hesitation he gave the order, "Hard a 'starboard - full speed astern," in the vain hope that he could swing the ship's bow clear, and then her stern. But it was not to be. The Titanic received a death blow.
Ice tumbled upon her decks. Below the water line the jagged bulk of the berg stove in six of the water-tight compartments. No ship of even twice the strength could have resisted that onslaught. The Titanic's keel was so ripped and her side so buckled that her fate was sealed from this moment. Sooner or later this night the "unsinkable" leviathan was going to sink.
First Officer Murdock now stopped the engines and operated another lever designed to close the water-tight doors. Captain Smith came from the chart-room on to the bridge. His eyes were anxious, his face already drawn, but his voice and hands were steady. "Close the emergency doors," he said quietly. "They are already closed, sir," said Murdock. "Then send to the carpenter and tell him to sound the ship," was the captain's next order. But instinct and the commutator (which shows in which direction the ship is listing) told him the worst.
Next came the order, "All hands on deck," and both watches came tumbling up from below, many of the men only scantily dressed, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Shipwreck is the last thing in the world expected by the crew of a modern liner; to the men of the Titanic it still seemed impossible even after they had learnt that the vessel had torn herself on the berg. Orders were orders, however, and they rushed to the boat deck.
There was a deafening roar as the engineers began blowing the boilers down, so strident a din that few could hear themselves speak. Below decks the pumps were operating in a futile battle against hopeless odds. In the wireless-room Phillips, the chief wireless operator, was feverishly tapping out the SOS. From the bridge distress rockets were being sent up. Minute by minute they streaked into the sky. The lights of a vessel could be seen a few miles away. Captain Smith and his officers were certain that assistance from this quarter would come quickly and decisively, that every soul aboard his vessel would be transferred to safety. Their hope and their faith was to be shaken. Neither rockets nor radio brought the distant ship, the California, to their aid. Its lights dwindled and died away. Only the stars shone on.
The first effect of the impact on the passengers was peculiar. In the card-room they actually continued, for a time, with their games. Many of those enjoying their "goodnight" drinks speculated jocularly as to "what the fuss was about." Those who were already asleep were awakened by a slight jar or by the sudden and unusual cessation of the engines. They left their cabins, not in fear, but out of curiosity. On deck they met in groups and showered on each other torrent of questions, shouting above the din.
Suddenly the roar of escaping steam ceased. Born of the silence came an awful apprehension. They knew now that there was danger. They saw men working at the boat falls. Sailors shouted to them to fetch their lifebelts. They saw the rockets streaking heavenwards. The word "ice" cut deep into their fears.
Even so, their confidence in this mighty vessel was still not entirely shaken. She was unsinkable. They had been told so. To add to their feeling of false security the story spread that the passengers were to be taken off in the boats purely as a precautionary measure and would in due course return. Little did they know during those moments how minute by minute the water was creeping up and the ship settling down. The band began to play - lively, lilting rag-time airs. Quietly and efficiently the crew went about their duties.
"Women and children first," has been a joker's cry for years. On the boat deck of the Titanic that night it was a grim and earnest command. Without melodrama, almost without threat, the law of the sea was enforced. Few of the men aboard attempted to evade it. One attempt had a touch more of comedy than of cowardice. A handful of foreigners were found concealed under the thwarts of a boat - which they promptly vacated at the point of an empty revolver! In most cases a few stern words, a glanced rebuke, sufficed to stem the inclination of weak men to think firstly of themselves. It is true, nevertheless, to say that a number of such men did occupy positions in the boats to their discredit and shame. All that can be said in their favour is that for several curious reasons some of the boats were being lowered only partially filled.
In the wireless-cabin Phillips continued to quest over the ether for aid, tapping out the SOS time and time again, giving the ship's position. A number of vessels, including the Olympic, responded, and the nearest of all, the Carpathia, a Cunard liner, intimated that she was on her way to the rescue. But it was to take her some hours to reach the Titanic - at least, to reach the spot where she lay fathoms deep.
Both Phillips and his junior "sparks," Harold Bride, remained at the post of duty long after they had been released. Captain Smith himself looked into their cabin, with the firm words, "Men, you have done your duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin now. It is every man for himself. Look out for yourselves. I release you. That's the way it is at this kind of time - every man for himself." But the SOS continued to go out.
In that little wireless-cabin on the Titanic, incidentally, was enacted a little drama more akin to the shipwreck of fiction. Bride, the junior officer, who had fixed a lifebelt around Phillips as he sat at the keyboard, returned from a visit to the deck to find a "stoker or somebody" attempting to relieve the wireless chief of his only hope of safety. Let young Bride describe the sequel in his own words: "Suddenly I felt a passion not to let that man die a decent sailor's death. I wished he might have stretched a rope or walked the plank. I did my duty... I hope I finished him. I don't know. We left him on the floor of the wireless-room, and he wasn't moving." But not until the boat deck was awash did these two heroes quit their post. Phillips perished - killed, it is believed, by exposure - but Bride survived. Later, when rescued by the Carpathia, crippled and on crutches, he took his share of duty in the radio cabin of the ship that had saved him.
One by one the Titanic's boats were loaded, lowered and rowed away. There was apprehension of the suction it was surmised would occur when the great vessel took the final plunge. One thing was now obvious: that hundreds would be left behind when all the boats had gone. Even if each had been packed to its utmost capacity there would not have been room for many more than a thousand. Many accepted their fate with nonchalance. Others prepared to jump into the icy water, trusting to Providence and their life-belts. There were stoics and fatalists together on that slanting deck. One amazing feature of the last act was the refusal of many of the women to leave their menfolk. Even when attempts were made forcibly to induce them to enter the boats they struggled for release, pleading to be left alone. Husbands, wives and sweethearts, close in each other's arms, laughed, prayed and trembled on the edge of beyond, a little afraid perhaps, but happy to know that they would go together.
A strange and touching incident was the determination of Mr. and Mrs. Isidore Straus, the millionaire and his wife, not to be separated in death. Time and again Mrs. Straus was pleaded with to take her place in a boat; time and again she refused. "We are old people, Isidore, and we will die together." Ultimately they were seen to drown together as they had wished. In strange contrast was the fate of another millionaire pair - Colonel and Mrs. J. J. Astor. Their honeymoon in Egypt had only recently ended. Now his bride was ill, and the colonel quietly asked if he could accompany her in a boat to protect her. As quietly came the answer, "No." The boat was lowered, the colonel standing to the salute, and that was the end of their love story. Mrs. Astor was saved, but her husband perished, going down with the ship, it is believed, by the side of W. T. Stead, the world-famous editor of the Saturday Review. Yet another strong personality on that deck of doom was Major Butt, an A.D.C. to the American President. As he helped women to safety he was seen to raise his hat, even when the water was lapping around his ankles.
As the last of the boats were getting away, as the Titanic's bows were sinking deeper, her stern rising higher, the band switched from light music to hymn tunes. To many that was the irrefutable signal that the end was near. As the boats drew steadily away there stole to them across the water, under the stars, the tune the whole world knows and reverences:
"Nearer, my God, to Thee,
These bandsmen were heroes. "Nothing," said a survivor, "could have been more superb than the courage of these men, knowing that they were facing death, but playing to assure and comfort us. Their courage was equal to that of the captain, officers and crew. It was magnificent." The musicians were eight civilians drawn from London, Dewsbury, Dumfries, Liverpool, Headington, Oxon., and Lille in France. Their leader was Wallace Hartley, a young man of thirty-four. Once a bank clerk, he had toured with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and with the Moody Manners Company. This was to have been his last trip, for he had decided to leave the sea and marry.
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