by Jessica Reppert
Some people say Titanic was “doomed from the start” due to the design so many had awed over as “state-of-the-art.” The ship had a double bottom and 15 watertight bulkheads with electric watertight doors that could be operated either individually or all together by a switch on the bridge. “It was these watertight bulkheads that inspired Shipbuilder magazine, in a special issue devoted to the Olympic liners, to deem them ‘practically unsinkable,’” (History.com). In the end, it was the watertight compartment that may have played a critical role in the sinking of the Titanic. Although each individual bulkhead was watertight, water could spill from one bulkhead to another.
Another, and more obvious, flaw in the loss of so many lives the night of the sinking of the Titanic was the sparse number of lifeboats it held; only 16 lifeboats and four Engelhardt “collapsibles” that could accommodate a total of 1,178 of the more than 3,300 people on board (this includes more than 900 crew members). The sad and frightening truth is that although by today’s standards this would not pass, Titanic exceeded the British Board of Trade’s regulations with its supply of lifeboats.
Four days out to sea, around 11:30 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic met disaster. After receiving reports of ice over a Marconi wireless, a lookout saw the iceberg dead ahead, rang the warning bell, and telephoned the bridge. “The engines were quickly reversed and the ship was turned sharply, and instead of making direct impact the berg seemed to graze along the side of the ship, sprinkling ice fragments on the forward deck,” (History.com). Feeling no actual impact, the lookouts had no idea there was a 300-foot gash in the side of the ship from the iceberg’s underwater spur. As soon as they received word, both the Captain, Edward Smith, and Thomas Andrews looked at the damaged areas, but five compartments were already filling with seawater, and the bow of the ship was down. At that point, Andrews estimated that Titanic might remain afloat for an hour and a half, and Captain Smith, already having ordered the wireless operator to call for help, ordered for the lifeboats to be loaded.
After only about an hour had passed since contact with the iceberg the first lifeboat was lowered. The lifeboat was designed to hold 65 people, but with the chaos and confusion surrounding the evacuation of Titanic, it left with only 28 people on board. Almost every lifeboat leaving Titanic was under-filled, a few with only “a handful of passengers,” (History.com). “In compliance with the law of the sea, women and children boarded the boats first; only when there were no women or children nearby were men permitted to board. Yet many of the victims were in fact women and children, the result of disorderly procedures that failed to get them to the boats in the first place,” (History.com).
Proving both the “unsinkable” nickname and Andrews’s prediction wrong, Titanic remained afloat for nearly three hours before being swallowed by the icy Atlantic. Those three hours saw hundreds of stories unfold, some of cowardice, and some of the utmost bravery. Ismay, the White Star managing director, helped load some of the boats before later stepping onto a collapsible as it was being lowered. “Although no women or children were in the vicinity when he abandoned ship, he would never live down the ignominy of surviving the disaster while so many others perished,” (History.com). Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s chief designer, was last seen in the First Class smoking room, staring at a painting of a ship on the wall. John Jacob Astor IV put Madeleine on a lifeboat and, explaining that she was pregnant, asked if he could go with her. When he wasn’t allowed on board the lifeboat, he was able to kiss her goodbye just before the boat was lowered away. Isidor Straus was offered a place on a lifeboat because of his age, but he refused any special treatment. His wife, Ida, would not leave her husband behind, so the couple returned to their cabin and perished together. Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet returned to their rooms to change into formal evening dress. When the returned onto deck, he famously declared, “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen,” (History.com). Margaret “Molly” Brown helped load lifeboats until she was finally forced into one of the last to leave. She begged its crewmen to turn back to for any survivors, but they refused for fear they would be “swamped by desperate people trying to escape the freezing ocean,” (History.com).
The RMS Titanic sank beneath the surface around 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912. A rival company’s ship, Carpathia, had received Titanic’s distress call and steamed at full speed to the site of the disaster. Carpathia rounded up all of the lifeboats throughout the morning, finding only 705 survivors.
Check out The Last Log of the Titanic: What really happened on the doomed ship’s bridge? by David G. Brown (available to KU patrons via ebrary) for more information about the last hours on board the Titanic.