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Mysteries & Secrets - Titanic

The Unsinkable Ship?
" God himself could not sink this ship," boasted a crew member aboard the White Star Line's 46,000-ton Titanic, an opulently appointed ocean liner larger than any ship ever built before. On April 10, 1912, to the fascination of newspaper readers around the world, the gigantic luxury craft sailed toward New York from Southampton, England, carrying 891 crew and 1, 316 passengers. Some were enormously wealthy; about 700 were immigrants in steerage class; all were confident that their passage across the treacherous North Atlantic would be worry-free. With its 16 watertight compartments, the remarkable ship reflected the day's most advanced engineering techniques. Boasting such sybaritic features as Turkish baths and wide verandas flanked with potted palms, fine dining, and the best orchestra afloat, the Titanic was virtually a world unto itself, insensible to the buffeting of wind and wave.

The grand staircase On April 15, two collapsible rafts and 15 lifeboats were scattered among fields of icebergs in the choppy, frigid waters of the Atlantic. Half frozen, exhausted from shock, the survivors were fragile proof that the great Titanic had once existed but had sunk forever during the night. In the debris that drifted over a large area, hundreds of battered and bruised corpses floated face up, most already rendered unrecognizable. To one observer, they looked like a flock of seagulls bobbing in the waves. Many were women, rigidly clutching their babies in death. The world's first "unsinkable" ship had foundered and vanished within hours of its brush with an ancient foe of unwary sailors, a silent, implacable iceberg.

Unheeded Warnings

Contrary to standard practice today in regions where ice can be expected, the Titanic sped at 22 knots through the still, moonless night of April 14. Yet, since 9 A.M. on that chilly Sunday, there had been at least six ice warnings from other ships plying the same pathway to North America, known as the Newfoundland route.

First, a radio operator on the steamer Caronia alerted the Titanic's captain, E. J. Smith, who wired back an acknowledgment. Early in the afternoon an operator on the Titanic delivered a specific warning from the Baltic to Smith: "Icebergs and large quantities of field ice today in latitude 41'51'N, longitude 49'52'W." The captain handed it to J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, who read it and put it into his pocket without comment. At least twice, the Californian sent messages. "Three large icebergs," was the first warning from that ship's operator. "Say, old man," he radioed in the evening, from a point 19 miles away, "we are stuck here, surrounded by ice." A testy Jack Phillips snapped back, "Keep out. Shut up. You're jamming my signal. I'm working on Cape Race."

The radio operator's response, which may sound incredible today, reveals the real mandate of radio communication on luxury liners of the period. From the Cape Race operator in Newfoundland, Phillips was receiving messages for the important passengers aboard his ship. That was his first priority. In fact, Phillips and the other radio operators were employees of a telegraph company, the British Marconi Company; they were not members of the White Star crew or subordinate to the captain of the Titanic.

At 9:40 P.m. the Mesaba reported, "In latitude 42'N to 41'25', longitude 49'W to 50'30', saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs, also field ice." If officers on the Titanic's bridge received this message, a matter open to dispute, they would have realized instantly that the dangerous ice lay directly ahead of the liner. Lookouts, who were not even provided with binoculars, had been warned that ice might be encountered any time after 9:30 P.M., but no icebergs were spotted throughout the evening. The clear sky, ablaze with bright stars, revealed only a glassy smooth sea.

Meanwhile, there was an ominous sign. The water temperature fell rapidly from 43' Fahrenheit to slightly below freezing in only a few hours - always an indication in northerly waters that ice might be floating near. Yet the Titanic neither slowed nor turned southward to avoid the danger zone into which it was entering.

Barely a Jolt

At around 10 o'clock, for afterdinner relaxation, a few of the second-class passengers gathered to sing hymns, including a traditional mariner's chorus: "Oh, hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea." At 11:40 P.m., lookout Frederick Fleet suddenly spied a small, dark object, darker than the inky midnight waters upon which it floated. It grew rapidly larger. Sharply striking the crow's-nest bell three times, he telephoned the bridge: "Iceberg right ahead!" First Officer William Murdoch immediately ordered the engine room to reverse engines and told his steersman, Quartermaster Robert Hichens, to turn the wheel "hard astarboard!" In the sailing argot of the time, this meant to turn the ship's stern hard to starboard, or toward the right side of the craft, so that the bow would swing to port, or toward the left.

Racing at more than 22 knots, displacing about 66,000 tons of water, the Titanic could not be slowed down instantly. As the great liner finally began to turn away from the looming iceberg, the terrified Fleet breathed a sign of relief - but it was premature. Ice fell onto the deck as the iceberg sheared a 300-foot gash down the starboard side of the ship. As cold green seawater roared into the No. 6 boiler room, fireman Frederick Barrettiust barely slipped into adjacent No. 5 before the watertight door slammed shut.

Yet the collision seemed little more than a slight jolt to the few passengers who noticed it. One socialite described it "as though somebody had drawn a giant finger along the side of the ship." Another woman compared the sound of impact to the ripping of a piece of calico. Some first-class travelers leaped from their comfortable leather chairs in the smoking room to glimpse the iceberg, towering above the topmost deck as it grazed their craft. But they saw little cause for excitement, much less alarm, in the encounter.

The crew already knew better. Captain Smith conferred with the liner's chief designer, Thomas Andrews. After a quick descent into the hold, they learned that five compartments were flooded. Andrews estimated that the unsinkable Titanic could stay afloat for "an hour and a half Possibly two. Not much longer.

Too Few Lifeboats

Just after midnight, about 25 minutes after the seemingly unremarkable impact, the crew was ordered to uncover the 16 lifeboats and 4 canvas collapsibles on board. At most, they could hold 1,178 people, or about 1,000 fewer than the passengers and crew who now began to crowd the decks. Ironically, regulations for stocking lifeboats had required only enough boats to carry 962 passengers, for regulators had not foreseen the construction of such a huge liner. Nor, of course, had anyone given serious consideration to the possibility that a flagship of the White Star Line would ever need to be evacuated. Not all of the lifeboats on board had been supplied with signal flares, food, or containers of fresh water, and life belts were scarce.

The situation now verged on chaos, since the passengers had never been given a boat drill and had no boat assignments. To help keep people calm, Bandmaster Wallace Henry Hartley led his musicians in ragtime music, but the horrible reality suddenly became clear as the first distress rocket shot up into the sky at 12:45 A.M.

The Unresponsive Californian

Just weeks before, an international conference in Berlin had specified a new distress signal, or SOS, which operator Phillips was sending out frantically. At rest in the ice field, the Californian lay only 10 miles away, and some crew spotted glowing lights to the southeast. However, they did not know that it was the Titanic or that the liner was in trouble. Exhausted, perhaps peeved, the operator had shut off his radio after Phillips snubbed him. He was sound asleep as the Titanic begged for help from ships in the area.

Sometime after midnight, the radio operator of the passenger liner Carpathia, which was only half full, decided to call the Titanic about some messages from Cape Race. "CQD SOS," the startled operator heard. "Come at once. We have struck a berg." More than four hours (or 58 nautical miles) away, the Carpathia built up a full head of steam and raced to help. The ship's engineers illegally screwed safety valves shut in the engine room so that the craft's normal limit of 14 knots could be pumped up to 17 knots. Even so it would not arrive until about two hours after the Titanic was expected to go down.

Meanwhile, distress rockets from the Titanic were seen aboard the Californian, but Captain Stanley Lord chose not to wake his sleeping radio operator, who had already worked a 15-hour day. Lord did send signals in Morse code to the unidentified ship but received no reply. According to most postmortems of the tragedy, the drifting Californian could have reached the Titanic at about the time it sank.

"Don't Waste Time!"

The enormously wealthy John Jacob Astor had sneered at first when evacuation was ordered. "We are safer here than in that little boat," he said. When one society matron agreed with him, an annoyed crewman shot back, "Don't waste time! Let her go if she won't get in." Gradually, resistance crumbled, the joking died down, and passengers set to the grim task of filling the lifeboats. Men stood stoically on the deck as women and children boarded the flimsy-looking craft. In the confusion, the first boat, which could hold 65 people, was lowered into the water with only 28 aboard. One capable of taking on 40 was allowed to pull off with only 12 persons.

Mrs. Isidor Straus, wife of the former congressman and chief executive of Macy's, refused to join the other women. "I've always stayed with my husband," she said, turning to him: "Where you go, I go." Astor helped his young bride into one of the half-filled boats and stepped back. His body was among those later recovered at sea. As the ship listed sharply to port, causing the deck to slant precipitously, millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim changed to evening dress, declaring that he was prepared to go down like a gentleman. "No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward,"' he added.

When no more women and children seemed to be left, Ismay, who had been helping others escape from the ship, took his place in one of the last lifeboats at about 1:40 A.M. The White Star Line's managing director would be pilloried in the press for leaving the ship while others remained behind. By 2:15, when the last two collapsibles were about to be launched, the Titanic tilted, making it impossible to use them. From the lower decks the forgotten steerage passengers, women and children definitely among them, streamed up to see what was happening. No one had warned them, and many would still be below as the ship went down.
Captain E. J. Smith / The sinking of the Titanic
Perhaps 1,600 passengers remained. Despite the popular legend that the band began to play "Nearer My God To Thee," in fact the last selection played was the Episcopal hymn "Autumn":
God of mercy and compassion
Look with pity on my pain;
Hear a mournful, broken spirit
Prostrate at thy feet complain.
Hold me up in mighty waters....

More Than 1,500 Dead

Several hundred people gathered on the stern as it raised ever higher into the air. At 2:18 A.M. the Titanic stood up on its bow, pausing in a vertically upright position. Then, with a horrendous noise, a funnel collapsed, the famous watertight bulkheads imploded, and everything loose on the decks - equipment as well as remaining passengers and crew - was swept into waters that were four degrees below freezing. One survivor would later recall "the agonizing cries of death from over a thousand throats, the wails and groans of the suffering, the shrieks of the terror-stricken, and the awful gaspings of those in the last throes of drowning." Incredibly, firemen swirmming nearby were scalded when explosions brought the icy seas to a boil.

At 2:20, tilted now at about 70 degrees, the doomed liner slid beneath the waters, breaking in two as it fell toward the depths at about 20 knots. Moving back and forth, the sundered ship reached the great underwater river known as the Benthic Current flowing 8,000 feet below the surface. At about 2:30 the ship's two halves smacked into the ocean floor at a depth of 13,000 feet, its debris scattered over a half mile area. The shattered wreck lay under pressure of 6,365 pounds per square inch, entombed about 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland. It had proudly sailed the ocean for precisely 4 days, 17 hours, and 30 minutes.

As it went under, the Titanic broke in two. About three and a half hours later, or around 6 A.M. on Monday, April 15, the Californian finally heard the tragic news and began to travel toward the site of the sinking. By 8:50 the Carpathia had taken aboard all of the survivors and set sail toward New York. When the Californian arrived, the captain spent about an hour searching for bodies but, almost unbelievably, would later report that he could find none. Only a week later the cable ship MacKay-Bennett would retrieve 306 corpses in the area.

Less than a third of the passengers and crew, only 705 persons, survived the disaster. The number included 338 men, about 20 percent of the total, and 316 women, about 74 percent of the total. The rest were children. Among those who did not survive were Captain Smith and the radio operator Jack Phillips.

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