One hundred seven years ago, in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, the great ocean liner Titanic, pride of the White Star line, slipped beneath the frigid surface of the North Atlantic and began its slow descent to the ocean’s floor. Approximately 1500 people went down with the ship or perished in the icy waters around her, and 710 managed to survive in lifeboats and were later transported to New York by the Carpathia.
The sinking of the Titanic was a shock to the entire world. The huge ship was on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to the United States and carried an impressive list of passengers, most of whom were lost.
The Titanic and her sister ship Olympic were constructed in Belfast, Northern Ireland. These passenger liners were almost 900 feet long, and were the largest ships in existence at the time. Their first-class accommodations were designed to be the pinnacle of comfort and luxury, with an on-board gymnasium, swimming pool, libraries, high-class restaurants and opulent cabins. Even the second and third class accommodations were far superior to those offered by White Star’s competitors in the North Atlantic passenger trade.
The interior of the Titanic was divided into 16 compartments separated by bulkheads which extended well above the waterline. Vertically closing watertight doors could seal off the compartments in the event of an emergency. With such a design, the public was led to believe that the ship was virtually unsinkable.
The Titanic carried 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles. These could accommodate 1,178 people, only one-third of the ship’s total capacity. This was more generous than safety standards required at the time since no one could conceive of an emergency that would require putting all passengers and crew into the lifeboats at the same time. In worst case, it was thought the lifeboats might be required to ferry passengers to another ship or to nearby land.
The great ship weighed anchor and left Southampton harbor on April 10. Later that same day the Titanic picked up more passengers at the French port of Cherbourg, and on April 11 it made a brief stop at Queenstown, Ireland, before heading out into the North Atlantic. On board were 855 crew members and 1317 passengers. This was considerably under the ship’s 2453 passenger capacity, but that was mainly because an English coal strike that spring had disrupted shipping schedules.
The first few days of the voyage were relatively uneventful. Several telegraphic messages were received warning of drifting ice in the shipping lanes, but ice warnings were seen as advisories, and reliance was placed upon lookouts and the watch on the bridge. It was generally believed that ice posed little danger to large vessels. Normal cruising speed was maintained.
The evening of Sunday, 14 April, was clear, calm and very cold. At 11:40 p.m. ship’s time a lookout spotted an iceberg immediately ahead of the Titanic and alerted the bridge. First Office William Murdoch ordered a sharp turn to port and stopped the engines, but it was too late; the starboard side of Titanic struck the iceberg, creating a long series of holes below the waterline. The hull was not punctured by the iceberg, but rather it was dented in such a way that its seams buckled and separated, allowing water to seep in. Five of the ship’s watertight compartments were breached. It soon became clear to the ship’s officers that the Titanic was doomed, as she could not survive more than four compartments being flooded. Titanic began sinking bow-first, with water spilling from compartment to compartment as her angle in the water became steeper. If the ship had struck the berg head on, it would have survived; but an unimaginable accident had happened.
The great ship sank slowly. The ship’s pumps were fully operational, but they were not sufficient to overcome the rush of incoming seawater. The Titanic’s boilers continued to supply power until almost the very end, and the electric lights remained on until shortly before the great ship took its final plunge.
Many passengers were asleep when the iceberg was struck, and the force of the impact was not so severe as to cause alarm on the part of those still awake. The stopping of the ship’s main engines was the most noticeable immediate effect. Passengers were soon alerted and told to make preparations to abandon ship, but many refused to believe that the Titanic would really sink. The first lifeboats were launched with less than half their capacity. As the ship’s danger became more evident, the lifeboats became crowded. Even so, the boats eventually accommodated only 710 of their nearly 1200 capacity. Once the ship sank and people were in the frigid water they could survive no more than 15 to 30 minutes. The loss of life was particularly high among men (including crew) and among third class women and children.
Telegraphic distress signals were sent out almost immediately after the iceberg was struck, but the closest ship to respond, the Carpathia, would not arrive until about 4 a.m. By that time, there were no survivors except those in the lifeboats. It was later revealed that the SS Californian was only about 15 miles from the Titanic, but her wireless operator had turned off his equipment earlier in the evening and slept through the sinking. In the early morning hours the captain of the Californian was informed of rocket flares (distress signals) being sent up from a nearby ship, but he failed to respond. Hundreds of lives were probably lost because of this failure.
The sinking of the Titanic was the sort of event that captured the attention of the entire world. Books were written and songs were sung about it. The combination of circumstances that led to the great ship’s sinking were hard to comprehend, and some of the stories took on the aura of legend.
As a young boy in the 1930s I was fascinated by the tale of the disaster. My Uncle Fred Moore had a book about the Titanic, and it was filled with first hand accounts from survivors. Each time I visited the Moore home I would take that book from its shelf and reread it. I remember the vivid descriptions of how the lifeboats were filled, the cries of “women and children first”, and accounts of how the ship’s band kept playing music until the very end. Some said that the last song was “Nearer My God to Thee”. Others said it was another hymn, “Autumn”. We will never know. All the band members went down with the ship.
Another thing I remember about that book was a passenger’s description of how the ship broke apart during its last moments, with the bow and stern sections sinking separately. He even drew a sketch that depicted this. Very few people believed his account and most insisted that the ship sank intact. When the wreck was finally found in August 1985 it was found that the passenger’s sketch of the ship’s break-up was correct.
The sinking has been the subject of numerous films. The 1958 British movie A Night to Remember is widely regarded as the most historically accurate portrayal. James Cameron’s movie Titanic was released in 1997 and was immensely popular, becoming one of the most commercially successful films of all time. I truly appreciated many of the film’s technical aspects. The recreation of the ship’s interiors and the details of the actual sinking were absolutely amazing. Nevertheless, I did not like the movie. I thought the storyline completely unbelievable and unappealing.
In 2012, on the ship’s centenary, a Titanic visitor attraction was opened in Belfast on the site of the shipyard where the great ship was built. It has become Northern Ireland’s second most visited tourist attraction, with almost 700,000 visitors in 2016.