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The Sinking of the Titanic page 2


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"Though, like the wanderer,
The sun goes down,
Darkness comes over me,
My rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I'd be
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee."

Those on the deck of the foundering Titanic were now coming very near to death. The stars above. The sea below. Eternity beyond. Here and there a few huddled groups joined chorus in singing the lovely words of the hymn that will now for ever be associated with the greatest sea disaster of all. Those in the boats, as they heard the rise and fail of each cadence, wondered that those in such peril should exhibit such faith and such fortitude.

Now the music fades, the singing dies away. All the boats are gone. For hundreds all hope is gone, too. The Titanic tips farther forward, and a surge of water rushes as high as the bridge. Many are swept into the sea. A few escape to temporary safety farther aft. Possibly it was at this stage that Captain Smith died. According to a reliable witness he was thrown violently from the bridge into the sea. He picked up a baby in the water and swam with it to a boat. When he handed the infant aboard he was urged to climb into the craft himself. He refused, saying that he would swim to a piece of wreckage nearby. He was not seen again. The last words he had been heard to speak on the Titanic were a terse cry through his megaphone to those on the deck below him - "Be British!" He was, to the core.

Bravely British, too, were those engineers who perished to a man a hundred feet or more below the boat deck. They kept the dynamos going to the last. Their plight, when the water gushed through into the bowels of the ship, or the boilers burst, sending out clouds of scalding steam, is terrible to contemplate. Among those who were comrades in death with William Bell, Chief Engineer of the Titanic, were Thomas Andrews, her designer, and Archie Frost, Chief Engineer of her builders.

Soon the Titanic was at an angle of forty-five degrees. Those who were clinging and huddled aft began to realise the inevitability of their end unless they acted quickly. Without hesitation a number of them dived into a sea the temperature of which was well below freezing point, hoping to be picked up by a lifeboat or raft, or at least to find the opportunity of clinging on to wreckage. For a strong or lucky swimmer such a dive meant a reasonable chance of being saved; for the weakling, death. It was a fair gamble. Why more did not take it is one of the riddles of human nature in adversity. It is probably a fact that right until the final dive some believed that the aft water-tight compartments of the Titanic would keep the ship afloat.

As the vessel tilted higher still the giant forward funnel crashed among the swimmers in the water. Almost at the same time, with an awe-inspiring roar, boilers and machinery left their foundations and smashed madly through the bulwarks. Grand staircase, Parisian cafe, Jacobean dining-room, luxury cabins and all became the playground of the sea. No one lives to describe the scenes below deck then: the fate of trimmers and greasers and firemen. Perhaps it is as well.

In her last minutes the Titanic stood almost perpendicular out of the water, an uncanny colossus of the night, silhouetted against the star-spangled sky, her rows of lights burning steadily, brilliantly. Even desperate swimmers and boats, racing to escape the suction paused at the awesome spectacles so frightening, so fascinating, so noble, so bitter. Suddenly all her lights went out. The black shadow that was the Titanic stood just a little while as though reluctant to go, then slipped slowly away beneath the claiming waters. The "unsinkable ship" was gone.

A tense, split second of silence, after there rose a noise more disturbing than the scream of wild Atlantic sea vultures. It was the wail of tortured souls, cries that to this day are seared indelibly on the minds of survivors. The sea was thick with heads and bodies. Those who, right until the end, had stuck to the after-deck and stern of the sinking ship were now floundering, drowning, calling frantically for help that would never reach them.

Those in the lifeboats and on the rafts did not turn back. In the first place they had feared the suction. Now, if they returned to the rescue, the peril would be overcrowding and panic. As it was they were being pestered and burdened and their safety was being threatened by swimmers who had jumped off the deck earlier on.

Colonel Gracie, of the United States Army, was just one of these, but his experiences are typical of many. "Dying men and women all around me were crying and moaning piteously," he said on his return to the States. "One of the Titanic's funnels separated and fell part near me, scattering the bodies in the water. I saw bodies everywhere, and all that came within reach I clung to." Eventually, after a desperate struggle, he succeeded in boarding a raft. "Soon the raft became so full that it seemed as if she would sink if any more came on board her. The crew, for their self-preservation, therefore, had to refuse to permit any more to clamber on. This was the most pathetic and horrible side of all. The piteous cries of those around us rose in my ears and I shall remember them until my dying day. "Hold on to what you have, old boy," we shouted. Many of those whom we refused answered, as they went to their deaths,' Good luck! God bless you!' We passed the night with the water washing over and burying the raft deep in water. Never was there a moment when our prayers did not rise up. Men who seemed long ago to have forgotten how to address their Maker recalled the prayers of their childhood and murmured them over and over again."

The Titanic had sunk about 2.10 a.m., about two and a half hours after her impact with the iceberg. For an hour or longer afterwards the night was split by the shrieks of those for whom there was no help. Not until dawn (on April 16, 1912) did the Carpathia, commanded by Captain A. H. Rostron, arrive to bring succour, service and safety. Within a few hours every living soul surviving from the Titanic was aboard his ship and destined for New York.

The disaster to the Titanic linked the old world and the new in apprehension, shock and grief. British and American citizens perished side by side. It was a British ship, under a British flag, but the Atlantic is a common grave. King George V. sent the following message to President Taft: "The Queen and I are anxious to assure you and the American nation of the great sorrow which we experience at the terrible loss of life which has occurred among the American citizens and my own subjects by the foundering of the Titanic. Our two countries are so intimately allied by ties of friendship and brotherhood that any misfortune that affects the one must necessarily affect the other, and on the present heart-rending occasion they are both equal sufferers." President Taft, in his reply, said: "In the presence o the appalling disaster to the Titanic the peoples of the two countries have been brought into community of grief through their common bereavement. The American people share in the sorrow of their kinsmen beyond the sea. On behalf of my countrymen I thank you for your sympathetic message."

The initial reports of the disaster received in this country were ludicrous. One stated, for instance, under the heading, "Accident to Titanic": "Though she smashed into an iceberg, a collision that would have meant the foundering of any large liner a few years ago, the Titanic still floats. She is, indeed, practically unsinkable." Then, almost before the chests that had heaved with relief and puffed with pride had subsided, there came the true facts of the catastrophe. The nation was stunned. It seemed incredible that the superb vessel which had left Southampton only a few days before now lay at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Heart-rending scenes were witnessed over a period of several days at the offices of the White Star Line in Cockspur Street. Weeping women and tight-lipped men surrounded the notice boards day and night, and each succeeding telegram that was posted up was the signal for either sobs or cries of joy. It was the same at the company's offices in Southampton, where the disaster had bereaved nearly 1,000 families. In one case five sisters had lost their husbands; in another three brothers had left twenty-two orphaned children. To the brave wives and mothers of Southampton came this message of condolence from the widow of Captain Smith:

"My heart overflows with grief for you all and is laden with sorrow that you are weighed down by this terrible burden that has been thrust upon us. May God be with us and comfort us all. Eleanor Smith"

When the total reckoning was made it was found that out of 2,206 passengers and crew only 703 had been saved. The percentage of men saved was as low as 19, of women as high as 77, of children as moderate as 49. The country gave tangible expression to its grief - together with memorial services at St. Paul's and elsewhere - by launching numerous relief funds, to which some 300,000 was subscribed.

Inquiries were held both here and in America. In the States Mr. Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, who was among the survivors, was accused of having given orders for the Titanic to break the Atlantic record at all costs, and for having left the sinking vessel in an ungallant manner. Actually he gave no such order, and he left the Titanic in a boat for which no more women and children were available.

At the British inquiry Captain Smith was judged to have been proceeding at an excessive speed. Wise after the event most reasonable people will agree that he was, but there was also evidence to show that a message warning him of big icebergs in his direct course did not reach him on the bridge. It was revealed that the Titanic carried boats with accommodation for only 1,200, a scandal that led to drastic revision of the Board of Trade regulations. Another lamentable feature of the disaster was that the California, only a few miles away, did not answer the Titanic's SOS. Nor, apparently, did this vessel see the sinking liner's rockets. Some light on this strange state of affairs is shed by the declaration of the California's radio operator that he had warned the Titanic of ice, but had been told to "shut up" as he was interfering with messages to Cape Race.

From the wreck of the Titanic emerged one universal blessing - the formation of the International Ice Patrol. Founded in January, 1914, it has successfully minimised, if not entirely destroyed, the menace of icebergs to Atlantic shipping. The patrol, usually consisting of three vessels, is controlled by the American Government, but its cost is met by graduated payments from the maritime nations of the world. During the ice season it receives and transits as many as 6,000 wireless messages. It stalks the bergs with the cunning of a hunter. The position and probable course of the white enemies are so accurately plotted, such vigilance is maintained and such warning given, that the bogey of the Atlantic has been broken.

And so long as the sea keeps up its "eternal whispering" the story of the Titanic will be told, and its lesson remembered.

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