Published: March 17, 2018
On her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, the passenger liner Titanic hit an iceberg and sank on this day in history, resulting in the world’s worst peacetime shipping disaster.
Five days earlier the toweringly impressive ship — eleven storeys high, a sixth of a mile long and weighing 46,328 gross tons — slipped her moorings at Southampton to the cheers of awestruck crowds. She was the pride of the White Star Line, the biggest ship the world had seen, and certainly the best.
For a single crossing the “millionaire suites” cost up to £870 ($1,200) — equivalent to about £44,000 ($62,000) today — and were designed, as one newspaper reported, “for the financial giants of our time: men who could lightly pay for this single voyage the year’s keep of ten British families.”
There was no shortage of takers for the ship's wondrous facilities. Leaders of industry, finance and commerce and figures from British and European aristocracy were joined by members of some of the wealthiest families in the United States.
They included Benjamin Guggenheim, whose fortune lay in mining, smelting and banking; Isidor Straus, whose money came from commerce and banking and his partnership in the famous Macy's department store; George Widener, son of tramway magnate P A B Widener, said to be the wealthiest man in Philadelphia; Charles Melville Hays, president of the Canadian Grand Truck Railroad; and John Jacob Astor, perhaps unkindly described by one journalist as “the world's greatest monument to unearned income.”
Astor had divorced in 1909 and two years later, at the age of 45, married 18-year-old Madeleine Force, a girl younger than his son, Vincent. Society was outraged and Astor went abroad with his young bride to escape criticism. They were now returning, Madeleine five months’ pregnant and Astor anxiously wondering if he would be able to regain his old position in New York society.
They and some 2,200 other souls were enjoying their sumptuous surroundings when, at 11.40pm on the fifth night out, lookout Fred Fleet, peering from the crow’s nest into a calm, clear night bursting with stars, spotted something directly ahead.
Walter Lord, in his book A Night to Remember, tells dramatically what happened next: “At first it was small, but every second it grew larger and closer. Quickly, Fleet banged the crow’s nest bell three times — the warning of danger ahead. At the same time he phoned the bridge. ‘What did you see?’ asked a calm voice at the other end. ‘Iceberg right ahead,’ replied Fleet.
“For the next 37 seconds Fleet watched the ice draw nearer. Now they were almost on top of it and still the ship didn’t turn. The ‘berg towered wet and glistening far above the forecastle deck and Fleet braced himself for a crash. Then, miraculously, the bow began to swing to port. At the last second the stern shot into the clear and the ice scraped swiftly by along the starboard side. It looked to Fleet like a close shave.”
He was mistaken. The jarring of a collision brought Captain Edward J Smith rushing from his cabin to the bridge, resulting in an exchange recounted at the subsequent inquiry in New York: “Mr Murdoch, what was that?”
“An iceberg, sir. I hard-a-starboarded and reversed the engines and I was going to hard-a-port around it, but she was too close.”
“Close the emergency doors,” Smith snapped. But First Officer William Murdoch had already thrown the switch that sent the massive doors crashing into place. The ship was divided into 16 watertight compartments which could be sealed by these doors in the event of an accident. This feature, in addition to the Titanic’s double bottom, prompted the Shipbuilder magazine to describe the great vessel, in what turned out to be a haunting epitaph, as “practically unsinkable.”
More colourfully, passenger Mrs Albert Caldwell, who boarded at Southampton, remembered asking a crewman if the ship really was safe. “Lady,” he replied, “God himself could not sink this ship.”
Thomas Andrews, managing director of Harland & Wolff, builders of the ship, made a tour of inspection and found that the first five compartments were flooding, suggesting a 300ft gash.
Andrews, wrote Walter Lord, explained to the captain what this meant: “The Titanic can float with any two of her 16 compartments flooded. She can even float with her first four compartments gone, but she cannot float with her first five compartments full.
"The bow will sink so low that water in the fifth compartment must overflow into the sixth. When this is full, it will overflow into the seventh, and so on. It is a mathematical certainty — the ship is doomed.”
As the crew began loading passengers into the pitifully few lifeboats, Second Officer Charles Lightoller was supervising the loading on a strict “women and children only” basis. He was at the centre of a much reported incident when John Jacob Astor helped his wife into boat No 4 then asked if he could join her. “She is,” he said, “in a delicate position.”
“No, sir,” Lightoller told him. “No men are allowed in these boats until the women are loaded first.” Astor had a fortune of $4,250 cash in his pocket at this time. “It was about as much use to him,” wrote Geoffrey Marcus in The Maiden Voyage, “as the $150 million he possessed ashore.”
There were 16 lifeboats, plus four “collapsibles”. Altogether, they could carry 1,178 people. But there were more than 2,200 aboard the Titanic.
One man who did step into a boat — he insisted at the subsequent British and American inquiries that it was being lowered, there was room in it and there was no one else around — was the White Star Line chairman J Bruce Ismay.
He later came under fierce criticism, summed up by Rear Admiral A T Mahan, speaking to reporters: “So long as there was a soul that could be saved, the obligation lay upon Mr Ismay that that one person — and not he — should have been in the boat.”
While the drama was unfolding, members of the ship’s orchestra helped to keep up morale by playing ragtime tunes. One of the myths that grew was that as the ship went down the musicians played the hymn Nearer My God to Thee.
As survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie put it: “If that had been one of the selections, I assuredly would have noticed it and regarded it not only as a tactless warning of immediate death, but one likely to create panic.”
Second Officer Lightoller, who survived by perilously standing on an upturned boat with a group of other survivors, later recalled the ship's last moments in a memorable account:
“I could see the massive outline of the Titanic silhouetted against the starlit sky, her blackness emphasised by row upon row of lights; still burning. But only for a matter of minutes.
“At an angle of about 60 degrees all the lights suddenly went out and, with a roar, the gigantic boilers left their beds and crashed down through the bulkheads and everything that stood in their way. Crowds of people were still on the after-deck and at the stern, but the end was near.
“Slowly, the immense stern reared up, with propellers and rudder clear of the water, till at last she assumed the exact perpendicular. Then with an ever-quickening glide she slid beneath the water of the cold Atlantic. Despite our own danger, every one of us had been spellbound by the sight, and like a prayer as she disappeared, the words were breathed . . . ‘She’s gone’.”
The time was 2.20am. Colonel Gracie added his own dramatic recollection: “There arose to the sky the most horrible sounds ever heard by mortal man. The agonising 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 for breath of those in the last throes of drowning, those of us who survived this terrible tragedy will never forget.”
The exact toll is not known. According to the American inquiry there were 706 left alive of the 2,223 people on board. The official British figures were 711 survivors from a complement of 2,201.
Arguments have continued to rage over what could – or should – have been done to save passengers' lives. But there is probably no dispute over an insight into a vanished world described some years later by survivor Jack Thayer, the son of a railroad millionaire:
“There was peace and the world had an even tenor to its ways. From time to time there were events — earthquakes, floods — which stirred the sleeping world, but not enough to keep it from resuming its slumber. It seems to me that this disaster not only made the world rub its eyes and awake, but woke it with a start, keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace and happiness.
“To my mind, the world of today awoke on April 15, 1912.”