"Titanic: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Greatest Shipwreck"
An Excerpt From the Book by Michael S. Sweeney
From the Collection of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
Photograph by Joseph H. Bailey / NG Image Collection
The following is an excerpt from the ebook Titanic: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Greatest Shipwreck by Michael S. Sweeney. Available wherever ebooks are sold.
“SHE'S MAKING WATER FAST!” announced the ship’s carpenter, J. Hutchinson. Captain Smith summoned ship designer Thomas Andrews to survey the damage.
Andrews found water flooding the forward compartments from the forepeak to Boiler No. 6. He had his answer. The “watertight” bulkheads would do no good. They rose only as high as E Deck— above the surface in a sound ship, but useless if the ship’s bow began to sink and seawater lapped the bulkheads’ top edges. Andrews figured the weight of seawater entering the first five compartments would pull Titanic deep enough to let water spill into the sixth. The added weight in the sixth would pull even deeper, causing spillover into the seventh. Inevitably, each compartment would fill and flood the next. Titanic had two hours or so to live.
Smith gave orders to send a radio call for help, fire distress rockets, and fill lifeboats.
A cruel snag of bureaucracy became evident. According to out-ofdate yet still standard Board of Trade regulations, all ships exceeding 10,000 tons had to have at least 16 lifeboats plus additional rafts and floats. Those numbers worked fine for old-style passenger liners in 1896, the year of their adoption, but proved shamefully inadequate as shipbuilders produced behemoths such as Titanic, which registered more than 46,000 tons. The Board of Trade also believed that stronger ships of recent construction likely could not sink, rendering the issue of lifeboat capacity moot.
Titanic’s board-approved lifeboats, spread among 16 wooden craft and 4 canvas-sided Engelhardts, could seat only half aboard. At least 1,050 must die.
At first, few passengers reacted. Some hesitated to leave their warm rooms for the cold of the open sea, believing they likely would return and reboard. Some never found their way to the lifeboats, foiled by the twists and turns of the ship’s interior and American laws that required Third Class passengers to be physically separated from First and Second classes. And some held back for personal reasons. Isidor Straus, part owner of Macy’s department store, refused to get in a boat before others. His wife, Ida, refused to go without him. “I’ve always stayed with my husband; so why should I leave him now?” she said.
Titanic’s officers knew how many the lifeboats could seat. They did not fill them to capacity for two reasons. First, Second Officer Charles Lightoller testified the crew doubted that the lowering mechanisms could bear the weight of the full 70 passengers per boat. Second, crew members knew they could not waste time before launching; to do so would risk the ship sinking before all lifeboats and Engelhardts could be fitted into davits and lowered to the sea. Time ran out on the final two boats, both Engelhardts. One dropped into the sea before the crew could complete the launch, and waves swept another overboard, upside down.
All told, lifeboats left Titanic with more than 400 empty seats. Relatively few occupants were men. When Smith ordered lifeboats filled, he hoisted a megaphone and barked, “Women and children first!” On the port side, Lightoller filled the boats with women and children only, except for one passenger with sailing experience. In contrast, First Officer Murdoch on the starboard side interpreted the order differently. He boarded as many women and children as were available, then gave remaining seats to men.
Titanic’s stern rose out of the water as the bow plunged. Passengers in lifeboats watched in horror as those still aboard scrambled up the sloping aft deck to gain a few final seconds before sliding or jumping into the ocean.
At 2:20 a.m., Titanic disappeared. All who had failed to find a lifeboat seat went into the frigid water. A life jacket did virtually no good. Smith, Murdoch, Andrews, Phillips, and hundreds of others ranging from millionaires to dirt-poor immigrants drowned or froze.
Miles away, Cunard liner Carpathia received Titanic’s distress calls and got under way—straight into the ice field surrounding the stricken ship’s final radioed position. Normally, Carpathia topped out at 14.5 knots, but Captain Arthur Rostron rerouted every ounce of energy to the engines. At 17.5 knots, Carpathia zipped forward as extra lookouts scanned nervously for bergs. Rostron ordered rockets to be fired every 15 minutes to give hope to survivors, told his medical staff to set up three makeshift hospitals, had chefs prepare hot soup and drinks, and readied the ship for traumatized passengers. Rostron then did one last thing: He stood on the bridge, closed his eyes, and prayed.