The Sinking of the Titanic: How the “Unsinkable” Ship Sank
One hundred and ten years ago, the most famous ship in history sank and to this day, scholars and historians still study the story, aiming to understand exactly what happened and why so that lessons can be learned to prevent history from repeating itself. One might argue that preventing terrible things from happening again is the most important part of historical study, but are we still studying the Titanic to learn, or simply because the story has captivated audiences around the world and we feel a sense of morbid fascination with the tale?
To figure this out, we need to go back in time!
Why Was The Titanic Considered Unsinkable?
The sheer scale of the Titanic made many believe that something so large couldn’t possibly encounter trouble that it could not handle – after all, at the time, the Titanic was the largest ship ever built. A behemoth measuring 269 meters long and weighing over 52 thousand tons, she certainly looked invincible.
Technological advancements incorporated into her build meant that the sixteen watertight compartments on the underside of the ship could be closed electronically to prevent the ship from sinking, should water ingress occur. Engineers of the time estimated that up to four of these compartments could completely fill with water and the ship would remain afloat.
The statement made by Philip Franklin, the Vice-President of White Star Line, the company which owned the Titanic, “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable.” was probably also a contributing factor to the popular belief that the ship could not be sunk.
It’s little wonder, therefore, that millionaires and paupers alike felt completely safe stepping on board the ship when she left Southampton on the 10th of April 1912.
Who Were The Crew?
Much has been made of the fact that the captain was a hugely experienced sailor with decades of experience under his belt, but given his experience, could he have done more to prevent this tragedy from occurring? It is widely reported that he was under significant pressure to achieve the journey in a shorter time than promised in order to generate positive publicity and increase bookings for the ship, but in what way was the hierarchy on the ship set up whereby nobody on his crew felt capable of challenging his decision to alter the ship’s course or to maintain the high speeds at which they were traveling when they began to encounter troubling conditions?
Reports state that many of the crew were not experienced sailors and that even those few who had sailing experience had not received training relating specifically to the Titanic, despite the fact that the ship was so much larger and faster than any ship on which they had previously crewed. In fact, it is reported that many of the crew encountered the ship for the first time the day they stepped on board to depart from Southampton. Unfamiliar with the ship and its equipment, they did not realize that they were not equipped with vital equipment such as binoculars until they were actually needed and found to be missing.
The large majority of the crew were employed to ensure the satisfaction of the first class passengers rather than for their sailing experience and this lack of experience was certainly a contributing factor to the disaster. One non-sailor of note was the wireless operator who prioritized transmitting messages between the first class passengers and their family back on shore over communicating with the SS Californian which had made several attempts to warn the Titanic of poor visibility and ice in the vicinity. Further shortfalls in the crew’s experience became apparent when lifeboats were launched well below their capacity, preventing the rescue of over five hundred people who instead perished when the ship sank.
Were There Any Warnings?
Today, it is commonplace to review any near miss and to make adjustments to plans based on the findings and it is possible that had this approach existed back in 1912, the sinking could have been avoided. The Titanic experienced a significant near miss when exiting the port at Southampton, when the bow wave caused by her sheer scale caused fellow ship “New York” to break her moorings and a collision was only avoided by the quick thinking of a nearby tug boat captain who was able to manage the situation.
Had the opportunity been taken to review safety procedures and staff training at this point, it is true that the ship would have been significantly delayed leaving port which would have been seen as a PR disaster, but certainly less so than the PR disaster that ensued following the ship’s collision with an iceberg four days later.
Circumstances Leading Up To The Collision
As we previously mentioned, the captain was under pressure to make a rapid transit of the Atlantic Ocean, delivering his passengers to America in luxurious comfort and at high speed. His crew were largely untrained and unskilled in the ways of the sea and there was excessive confidence in the untested capabilities of the ship he was captaining.
When he encountered ice in the water, rather than heeding the warnings of the SS Californian and other ships in the vicinity and stopping for the night, he instead altered course without notifying the relevant authorities, making this judgment call based on his decades of sailing experience rather than on solid evidence that it would provide for safer passage.
The lookouts in the crows nest were not equipped with binoculars and visibility was poor that night, so when they spotted the fateful iceberg, there was no opportunity to avoid it. Valiant efforts were made to steer around the iceberg and slow the ship but the collision occurred a mere 37 seconds later. The impact is said to have only lasted for ten seconds, but this was enough to buckle the plates and allow water to flood into six of the compartments on the underside of the ship at a pace that the ship’s pumps could not keep up with. Following examination of the damage, the lead engineer confirmed that sinking was inevitable and evacuation procedures were commenced.
There were only twenty lifeboats on board, a major shortcoming for a ship of its size, but even if all lifeboats had been filled to capacity, it is estimated that only 1,178 passengers and crew would have been able to evacuate the ship. With 2,223 people aboard, it is unlikely that any amount of preparation and capacity loading would have saved everyone, but the numbers may have been considerably more favorable.
When the evacuation commenced, the crew called for women and children to be the first to board the lifeboats but the figures show a significant bias towards those passengers traveling first class, with the majority of the third class passengers and crew never being offered the opportunity to escape and indeed being hindered by the complicated system of gates and gangways designed to segregate them from the first class passengers whilst at sea.
Many of the first tranche of lifeboats to be launched were at less than 50% occupancy because so many passengers refused to leave, believing the hype that the ship was unsinkable and that they would therefore be warm, safe and comfortable if they remained on board and awaited rescue.
Later, once the crew began firing flares and radioing for rescue, passengers began panicking and several lifeboats were launched at less than full capacity for the safety of those already on board, whilst other boats were dropped on deck and overboard empty due to insufficient launching equipment, training and crew to safely deploy them. One officer interpreted the “women and children” command too strictly and launched half-empty lifeboats rather than filling the remaining seats with nearby male passengers, effectively sealing their fate.
Where Did The Ship Sink?
Further complicating the rescue efforts was the fact that Captain Smith had changed course without alerting anybody, so his initial distress calls placed the ship at 8 o’clock dead reckoning. This position was challenged by one of his officers who re-calculated the position as 41°,46’N, 50°,14’W. The difference in positions was about 13.5 nautical miles and would certainly have had an impact on rescuers trying to locate the ailing ship.
Timeline Of Events
It was a calm and cold night on board the Titanic on the night that she sank. The ship had entered an area of high pressure and the air temperature was at freezing. The sea was still and under the moonless sky, there was no light other than that generated by the ship itself. Due to the lack of waves crashing against obstacles in the water, visibility was very poor.
At about 11:40 pm, crew members in the ship’s nest spotted the iceberg that was to seal their fate and took immediate action to have the ship redirected around it. However, these efforts proved fruitless and the ship collided with the iceberg 37 seconds later. Officers aboard the SS Californian, noticing distress flares, attempted to signal the Titanic using a morse code lamp between 11:30 pm and 1:00 am but, receiving no response, made no attempt to approach the ship. During the subsequent inquiries, it was discovered that their lamp had insufficient range to be detected by the crew and passengers of the Titanic who never knew that help was so close at hand.
Following an assessment that the ship was doomed, lifeboats began to be lowered at 12:30 am on the 15th of April 1912 and by 2:10 am, the ship’s lights were extinguished by the rising water levels. The bow of the ship was underwater and the stern of the ship was lifting out of the water. At 2:17 am, the ship broke into two and began to sink.
It is estimated that it took less than ten minutes for the ship to hit the ocean floor where she remains to this day. The wireless operator of the SS Californian was not awoken to check for radio communications until 5:30 am by which point all 710 survivors had already been rescued by RMS Carpathia which had arrived on scene at approximately 4:00 am following a journey of about 4 hours through treacherous waters.
Titanic’s Final Moments
The final moments before the ship sank must have filled the remaining passengers and crew with a sense of true dread as the severity of their situation became abundantly clear. The Titanic, bow sinking quickly, split in half as the stern rose out of the water and flooded rapidly, causing it to tip before sinking to the seabed below. Debris cascaded into the water creating an even more dangerous environment for those surviving swimmers and the surrounding lifeboats. However, the debris was used by many as makeshift rafts to keep themselves afloat in the freezing water.
The Death Toll
The death toll is what sets this maritime disaster apart from any other. Of the 2,223 people on board, only 710 survived. Hundreds of people who ended up in the water drowned and more than a thousand died of cardiac arrest or cold shock due to the temperature of the water or from hypothermia and other injuries sustained during evacuation attempts, either whilst awaiting rescue or shortly afterwards. Only thirteen people who entered the water were successfully rescued by already deployed lifeboats.
Tragically, the Titanic brought the class divide into stark reality as it was uncovered that the majority of deaths were of people traveling second and third class. Only four women from first class died in the sinking, including Edith Evans who gave up her place in the lifeboat to remain with her husband. Only one child from first class was lost.
Captain Smith’s body was never recovered and it is not clear whether he chose to remain in the sinking ship until the end or whether he was in the water but not rescued by a lifeboat. There are several accounts of an authoritative male voice saying “All right boys, good luck and God bless you” as crew members steered a capsized collapsible lifeboat away from the surviving swimmers to prevent it from being mobbed. It is widely theorized that this may have been the Captain’s final farewell as he chose to perish with his passengers.
Stories of the survivors fall into two camps – the vilified and the revered. Bruce Ismay, who was the president of the White Star Line was heavily criticized for escaping on board a lifeboat instead of giving his space to one of the passengers, whilst Charles Lightoller who was one of the men responsible for safely evacuating hundreds of passengers and providing a first-hand account of the sinking was an invaluable source of information and seen as something of a hero.
Again, the class divide was of note at this point. The majority of second and third class passengers to be evacuated were those English-speaking immigrants who could understand and follow the instructions delivered by the ship’s crew. Those who did not speak the language invariably did not survive the tragedy.
Other survivors of note are the ship’s baker who was found alive in the freezing water, his survival being put down to the copious amounts of alcohol he consumed whilst supporting the evacuation efforts. Millvina Dean who was the youngest person on board the Titanic at only 2 months old, went on to live until the age of 97. One of the stewardesses, Violet Jessop, surprisingly chose to return to sea only to survive another two maritime catastrophes on board the Olympic in 1911 and the Britannic in 1916.
The sinking of the Titanic was a catastrophe that appalled people around the globe, causing widespread outrage and leading to inquiries in Britain and America which established that the disaster could not have been reasonably foreseen, all rules and regulations of the day were followed and that it was essentially an “Act of God”. However, the inquiries did find that the unequal treatment of the passengers, lack of lifeboats and insufficient staff training were unacceptable and in 1914, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was established to ensure that such a disaster would not happen again.
The sinking of the Titanic created a new tranche of regulations in the ship-building industry, more stringent guidelines for manufacturing and improved sailing standards and practices across the world, including the need for ship transmissions to be monitored around the clock and for regular lifeboat drills to be carried out. This investment in innovation has ensured that such a disaster has never been replicated.
Memorials were established in Southampton, New York, Belfast, Washington, Liverpool and Lichfield and ceremonies were held around the world to commemorate the dead and to fundraise for the survivors.
Learning From Experience
It is clear that valuable lessons were learned from this disaster and many significant changes were implemented in short order. The Titanic will always be the story to deter ship-builders and manufacturers from ever using substandard materials or cutting corners and its story is widely used in schools, universities and businesses of all kinds when teaching people how to assess risks. It is clear that all of the lessons that could be learned from this event have been learned.
This means that the likelihood is that our fascination with this story is less to do with what we can yet learn from it and more to do with our general fascination with tragic historical events. The story of the Titanic is so interesting that even Hollywood is drawn to dramatize it.
Titanic has always been in the media. Before it was launched, the hype surrounding it was immense. When it sank, there was a media frenzy about the missed opportunities, lack of training, insufficient provision of lifeboats, reckless captaining, inability to raise help from the nearby SS Californian, unfair treatment of third class passengers and significant focus on providing for the survivors. The changes to maritime law that impacted both the United Kingdom and the United States of America were largely down to this tragedy.
And then the story began to appeal to a whole new audience. Walter Lord’s 1955 book, “A Night To Remember” brought the story back to life for another generation of readers, many of whom may have been largely unaware of the detailed events of that fateful night until they picked up a copy of the book.
In 1985, a team of divers found the wreck of the sunken ship and were able to establish the exact damage that had been sustained, as well as finding clothing and memorabilia from the passengers of the ship, allowing further cross reference against the passenger list to try and identify those who had perished within the bowels of the ship.
Finally, James Cameron’s blockbuster film in 1997 became an instant hit at Box Offices worldwide, romanticizing and dramatizing the events of that night, providing an emotional connection for people who otherwise may have been almost entirely unaware of the proceedings and fallout related to this significant maritime disaster.
So yes, it is clear that whilst the lessons learned from the sinking of the Titanic have seen a major shift in engineering and maritime safety, these happened very early on and in more recent history, our fascination with this tragedy is due to the very human nature of it, combined with popular media dramatization which brought the story alive for a new generation of audiences. It seems safe to assume that this process will repeat itself in future generations.