The Tragic Story of the ‘Unsinkable’ Titanic

In the early hours of Monday, April 15, 1912 some 110 years ago today the RMS Titanic [1] passenger ship sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on her maiden voyage, capturing the world’s attention and taking with her more than 1,500 souls.

On its way to New York City from Southampton, the opulent British steamship was four days into her trip and about 375 miles away from Newfoundland [2] when she struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. Over the next several hours the crew tried desperately to save the estimated 2,224 individuals on board before the ship broke apart and foundered at 2:20 a.m. Only roughly 706 (492 passengers and 214 crew members) survived.

Credit: Getty

Origins and Construction

Commissioned in 1908 by the White Star Line and built between 1909 and 1912 by Harland & Wolff, [3] the Titanic was the second of White Star’s trio of Olympic-class ocean liners [4] and was made to compete with Cunard’s Mauretania and Lusitania, [5] both in operation since 1907 and considered the largest and most luxurious of all steamships at the time.

Weighing in at about 46,000 tons [6] and between 883 and 892 feet long, [7, 8] the Titanic (and Olympic) soon replaced the Mauretania and Lusitania as the “largest steamers in the world.” [9]

P. A. S. Franklin, Vice President of the International Mercantile Marine Company, said of the vessels:

The Titanic's Grand Staircase
The Titanic’s Grand Staircase ©Thomas Schmid

“In the new steamships we will have the most marvelous vessels afloat. They will contain every feature of every other steamship, and some more besides. They are steamships of magnificent distances, they have splendid squash courts, the rooms are spacious – in fact, they are the finest types of marine architecture yet sent to sea.” [10]

Indeed, the Titanic had a great many ornate decorations and “featured an immense first-class dining saloon, four elevators, and a swimming pool. Its second-class accommodations were comparable to first-class features on other ships, and its third-class offerings, although modest, were still noted for their relative comfort.” [11] She also boasted nine decks with a capacity of anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 persons all told [12] and max speed of 23 knots. [13]

Catering to the upper class and millionaires, the Titanic had four first-class dining facilities, including the “A la Carte” restaurant decorated in the Louis XVI style and the attached “Café Parisien,” [14] in addition to a dining saloon and the “Verandah Cafe.” Living accommodations included parlor suites that consisted of bedrooms, a sitting room, bathroom, and servant’s room [15] that “[could] be engaged with private promenade decks attacked [sic] 30 feet in length and 15 feet wide” for $4,500 each (equivalent in purchasing power to ~$130,430 today). [8]

The Cafe Parisien
The Cafe Parisien [14] ©Thomas Schmid

The Maiden Voyage

Expected to “show her heels” to the fastest ships afloat, [16] the Titanic departed from Southampton, England on Wednesday, April 10, 1912 at noon amongst much excitement.

The passenger list of the Titanic‘s maiden voyage was a notable one, with 350 passengers in the first class cabin. These included:

Colonel and Mrs. John Jacob Astor; Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt; Major Archibald Butt, military aide to President Taft; F. D. Millet, the artist and president of the Consolidated American academy at Rome; Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Strauss; Mr. and Mrs. G. D. Widener and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Widener of Philadelphia; Vice President J. B. Thayer of the Pennsylvania Railroad; J. Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star lines; C. M. Hays, president of the Grand Trunk railway; Henry B. Harris, American theatrical manager; Benjamin Guggenheim, mining millionaire; William T. Stead, noted London publicist; and others. [17, 18, 19]

  • Colonel John Jacob and Mrs. Madeleine Astor
  • Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt
  • Major Archibald Butt
  • Francis Davis Millet
  • Isidor and Ida Strauss
  • George Dunton Widener
  • Eleanor Widener
  • John B. Thayer
  • J. Bruce Ismay
  • Charles M. Hays
  • Henry B. Harris
  • Benjamin Guggenheim
  • William T. Stead

Captained by Edward J. Smith, the ship had a crew of 860 men, led by Chief Officer Henry Wilde, Officers William Murdoch, Charles Lightoller, Herbert Pittman, Joseph Boxhall, Harold Lowe, and James Moody (in order of their rank), and Purser Hugh McElroy.

Officers of the Titanic
Standing: McElroy, Lightoller, Pittman, Boxhall, Lowe; seated: Moody, Wilde, Smith, Murdoch [20]
Credit: George Behe Collection

On the first day of her trip, the Titanic‘s engines, which were built to run at a maximum speed of 80 revolutions, ran at 68-70 revolutions to the minute and she travelled 467 miles. On the second, the engines increased to 72 revolutions and ran 519 miles; continuing to increase her speed to 75 revolutions, the Titanic traversed 546 or 549 miles on the third day, with plans to speed up to the “full quota” of 80 revolutions that Tuesday. [19]

The Collision

The night of Sunday, April 14, 1912 was a fine one, with such clear air that stars could be seen at the horizon, and the sea was “as calm as a mill pond” – but it was very dark and cold.

Warned of thick ice in “great bergs” by the French steamer La Touraine and the Tunisian of the Allan Line the night prior, Captain Smith had changed his course and “went 60 miles to the southward because of these messages, though he was already on the regular southern route, chosen [specifically] to avoid [the] annual terror of the ocean, floating ice.” [19]

Unfortunately, the interval of testing the temperature of the ocean [21] was not increased from every two hours, nor was the speed of the ship slackened, and no extra lookouts were stationed in heed of this warning. Even more, the reports had given the position of the ice, and Captain Smith knew that they would be in the midst of the bergs at some time Sunday night. However, he did at least warn his men and told Second Officer Lightoller to “keep [the Titanic] on her course, but if you get in the slightest degree doubtful as conditions develop, have me called at once” [19] while he was on watch that night around 9 p.m.

At 10 p.m. First Officer Murdoch relieved Lightoller, and upon discussing the warning, the two estimated that they’d be among the bergs by 11 p.m. Still no extra lookouts were stationed, and the searchlight was not lit.

Moody, quartermaster, took the wheel for the last part of the evening watch. Murdoch stood in the wing of the bridge, and there was silence there, and a crystalline darkness ahead. Far forward, the black line of the foremast was interrupted by a little clot of darkness, high up, where the crow’s nest containing the lookout clung. A gong sounded thrice on the bridge – the signal from the lookout of danger ahead. First Officer Murdoch saw the iceberg, low-lying, almost the color the night, and barely a quarter of a mile – little more than a ship’s length for the Titanic – dead ahead. [19]

Scores Plunge Into Wild Sea

Before Murdoch could even order the quartermaster to port his helm, at around 11:40 p.m., the Titanic struck the berg:

She was going too fast and she was too heavy. From the great low mountain of ice that suddenly loomed alongside there must have been a submerged spur projecting. By her own momentum the Titanic rammed this obliquely and tore her own flank against its jagged edge. The cut opened one compartment after another as it ran aft, but the worst of the wound was close to the bow. [19]

The Sinking

A lot of women would not leave their husbands, or brothers, or sweethearts, so they must have gone down in the ship…

A fireman on watch at the time of the collision said:

At the time she struck, me, with two of my mates, were having a drink. We rushed out and saw the starboard deck covered with ice. My mate said ‘This is serious, Bill,’ and an officer than came along and ordered us below. But the next watch was nearly due, so we waited, and then scrambled out, and were soon on the top deck lowering boats. All the engineers got upon [sic] deck, but were too late, just arriving as the ship went down. [23]

Frustratingly, even though the ship was furnished with 16 lifeboat davits, [24] each capable of lowering three lifeboats, allowing for a total of 48 lifeboats onboard, White Star chose to only equip 20, believing the Titanic to be unsinkable, and therefore rendering (in their eyes) the lifeboats essentially inconsequential. Ironically, an article written on the day she sank, reported that the “Ship [was] Believed to be Sinking, But is Well Equipped With Life Boats.” [17] [25]

W. Wynn, a seaman on the Titanic, wrote a detailed account of his experience:

I woke up when I heard a sort of grinding sound along the side of the boat as the berg tore the bottom side of the ship open on the starboard side. Then we began to list to starboard, and a few minutes later we began to go down by the head. I jumped into my clothes and woke up my mates.

When I got up on deck I was told to get the boats ready. A lot of women would not leave their husbands, or brothers, or sweethearts, so they must have gone down in the ship, for I missed their faces when we got on board the Carpathia. [23]

However, when the order was given to prepare the boats, one survivor remembers a scene of great confusion. He “started to run towards his allotted place at the side of one of the boats, when he was stopped by an officer, who held a revolver to his temple and told him to stand back, evidently under the impression that he was bent upon saving himself rather than others.” [23] Yet, another seaman did state that he “believed that some of the firemen became panic-stricken and were only prevented from rushing the boats by the officers who levelled their revolvers at them.” [23]

One man recalled that “one or two Italians tried to rush the boats, but the chief officer kept them back, and finally fired at them… Then the officer shot himself.” [23] A third-class steward said that he had “noticed some Italians rushing about; the only panic there was existed among the foreigners” and that after jumping overboard he simply “swam for about 20 yards and found an upturned boat with about 27 others clinging to it.” [23]

An SOS from the Titanic received by the S.S. Birma
An SOS from the Titanic received by the S.S. Birma

Jack A. Phillips, the Titanic‘s chief wireless operator, was already transmitting “C Q D – C Q D – C Q D” [26] in hopes of nearby vessels receiving the signal when his second, Harold Bride, “half dressed, without even his trousers on, stood in the inner doorway and joked…’Send S O S, Jack, this is the first time you ever got the chance.'” [19] The first to respond, German ship Frankfurt received the following message: “Have struck iceberg; need immediate assistance; 41.46 north latitude, 50.14 west longitude.” [19]

It was utter chaos aboard the Titanic as they attempted to survive and wait for help to come.

The boat Wynn was in had 42 women, 3 stewards, 3 sailors, and 2 male passengers:.

We were told by the first officer, Mr. Murdock [sic], to pull well clear of the ship, so we pulled away about half a mile and we saw all the boats put in the water until the last boat, which I believe was capsized with about 40 people in it as the ship sank. Some were drowned, and others swam and got on the boat as she floated bottom upwards.

We saw the ship go down bow first, and heard the rumbling noise the engines made as if the whole lot was falling through the ship. The Titanic stood upright on end for some five minutes. Suddenly the Titanic disappeared under water altogether at 2.20 and the cries became weaker as each one was cut off and drowned. [23]

Another survivor, a young man on a lifeboat with 51 women and four other men, spoke about the horror the women in his boat felt as cries of distress rang out from those who were drowning and dying as the ship sank: “We told them that the noises came from the other boats, which were without lights.” [23]

Albert Edward James Horswill, a Navy veteran and sailor employed by the Titanic, acted as a bowman in one of the emergency boats. He remembered some people getting out of the boats after entering them, sure that it was “safer” on the ship than it would be in the boats:

When she sunk the liner broke in two between the third and fourth funnels. It was a good job the ship did not explode above the water, otherwise there would not be a quarter of them there to tell the tale. After the ship had gone down he heard four distinct explosions… Asked if he heard the band playing, Horswell [sic] said he distinctly heard the music until the liner went under. He…heard the tune of “Nearer, my God, to Thee.” [23]

The Rescue and Aftermath

The actions of two specific wireless operators were the catalyst of the rescue of those on the Titanic: Harold Cottam of Cunards’ Carpathia, and an unnamed man on the Cape Race station (located on Newfoundland’s southeastern point). The operator from Cape Race had sent out a message intended for the Titanic, but it was Cottam on the Carpathia that heard it just before going to sleep for the night. He had planned to relay the message to the Titanic the following day when he heard the “S O S – S O S” from Phillips. Upon confirming the intended contents of the message, Cottam ran to his captain and “in two minutes the Carpathia had swung and was rushing to the rescue, crowding on all possible speed in spite of the knowledge that she, too, was rushing into the danger zone of the icebergs.” [19]

The Cape Race operator had also received Phillips’ message and promptly alerted the nearby Virginian of the Allan Line that was to the northward of the Titanic, who replied that she, too, was going to the Titanic. He also took the time to apprise the Allan Line office in Montreal of the situation, who in turn notified the press.

The last words to ever be heard from the Titanic came 30 minutes later in the form of an incomplete message: “Ship sinking by the head, women being taken off in boats…” [19]

Other ships further out also answered on that black Monday, “the Olympic that she was in 40.32 north 61.18 west and going to the Titanic; the Baltic that she was 200 miles to the eastward and rushing to help,” [19] as well as the Parisian and the California.

Meanwhile, those from the Titanic did their best to hold on. According to Wynn,

After being in the boat for 6.5 hours in the icy cold, we saw the lights of a ship, and we had fresh courage and pulled for the ship, and when we got there we found it was the Carpathia. After a few hours we had all the people on the Carpathia safe except four or five who had been picked up in the water and died shortly after. The Carpathia took some of our boats, and two we had no room for were cast adrift.

We were all well cared for. People gave up their berths and handed them over to the Titanic passengers and their clothes as well, and they treated us very kindly all over the ship.

I heard from one of the last men to leave the ship that the last seen of Capt. Smith was when he swam up to one of the boats with a baby in his arms. He handed the child to one of the occupants of the boat, but the poor mite died soon afterwards. Efforts were made to get the captain into the boat, but he refused assistance, and swam back to where the Titanic sank and was never seen again in the darkness. One woman went wrong in the head through the loss of her husband. [23]

First to arrive at the scene of the wreck, reportedly within two hours of the event, the Carpathia was able to rescue the more than 700 survivors, though at the time it was estimated to be about 500 in a wireless sent by the Carpathia‘s Captain A. H. Rostron [27] at 7:55 a.m. on April 16th:

“I am proceeding to New York unless otherwise ordered, with about 500. After having consulted with Mr. Ismay and considering the circumstances with so much ice about, concluded New York best. Large number icebergs and twenty-mile field of ice with bergs almost floes.” [22]

Arriving in New York on that Thursday, April 18th at 9:30 a.m., the Carpathia docked at Pier 54 in Chelsea Piers on the West Side of Manhattan – the same dock it had departed from some seven days earlier – to discover roughly 30,000 people waiting to welcome the survivors. Families of passengers reunited with loved ones and injuries were tended to. For his role in the rescue, Captain Rostron was awarded a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, [28] but was reluctant to speak publicly about the events and avoided attention for the rest of his life. [29]

Molly Brown presenting Carpathia Captain Arthur Henry Rostron with a silver cup for his role in the rescue of Titanic survivors
Molly Brown presenting Carpathia Captain Arthur Henry Rostron with a silver cup for his role in the rescue of Titanic survivors. Credit: Library of Congress

The Wreckage and Current Day

In August 1985, almost three-quarters of a century after she sank to her watery grave, the Titanic was found and the first underwater images of her were recorded.

At a depth of roughly 12,500 feet (3,800 meters), it lies in two main pieces approximately 2,000 feet (600 meters) apart. While a number of ideas have been presented to raise the Titanic, the ship is too fragile to do so and the proposals too expensive. However, a number of expeditions have been conducted to explore the ruins and the site is protected by a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) convention.

Unfortunately, she is rapidly disintegrating due to metal-eating bacteria, with the crow’s nest already gone and the railing of the bow at risk of collapse at any time. [30] Fortunately, even though there will most likely come a time in which the Titanic no longer physically exists, there is no doubt its sorrowful, but prominent, story will live on in history.

Notes and References:

[1] An RMS, or Royal Mail Ship, is one that carries mail under contract to the British Royal Mail.

[2] Newfoundland is an island off the east coast of North America and part of the Newfoundland and Labrador Canadian province.

[3] Harland & Wolff is a shipyard specializing in ship repair, conversion, and offshore construction founded in 1861 by Edward James Harland and Gustav Wilhelm Wolff in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

[4] White Star Line’s trio of Olympic-class ocean liners consisted of the Olympic (completed in 1911), the Titanic (1912), and the Britannic (1914). The Britannic would meet a similar fate as the Titanic, sinking while serving as a hospital ship in World War I in November 1916 after hitting a mine. The Olympic went on to serve as a troop transport during the war and had the longest career of the three, operating until 1935.

[5] The Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo during World War I, resulting in great loss of life, and was the final push for the United States to join the war.

[6] “Harland and Wolff (Limited), Belfast,” The London Times, January 17, 1912, Ireland section, Engineering supplement.

[7] “Monster Ships to be Built Very Soon: Decks and Canals Must be Built to Accommodate These Leviations,” Camden Post-Telegram, January 29, 1912, Last edition.

[8] “Parlor Suites and Private Decks on Board Titanic for Millionaires,” The Montreal Gazette, January 20, 1912, Maritime Matters section.

[9] “The Largest Steamers in the World,” The Manchester Courier, January 9, 1912, Shipping and Cruises section, Final Morning Express.

[10] “Squash Courts on Liners,” The New York Times, August 8, 1910.

[11] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Titanic,” by Amy Tikkanen, April 9, 2021.

[12] “Will Rank Among Wonders of the World,” The Journal and Tribune, October 20, 1910.

[13] A knot is a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour (approximately 1.151 miles per hour).

[14] Most popular amongst younger passengers, the Café Parisien featured wicker tables with pink and blue tops, ivy-covered trellises, and could seat up to 69 people.

[15] “A 45,000 TON DISPLACEMENT: Titanic Starts on its First Trip: A WHITE STAR LINER Is now the Largest Vessel Afloat Carrying Passengers,” Parsons Daily Eclipse, April 10, 1912.

[16] “TITANIC ON MAIDEN TRIP: Sister Ship of the Olympic Sailed Today for New York,” Parsons Daily Eclipse, April 10, 1912.

[17] “Ocean Liner Titanic, Biggest Ship Afloat, Hits an Iceberg,” The Sheboygan Press, April 15, 1912.

[18] “HITS AN ICEBERG: Titanic, Largest Boat in the World, is Sinking: WIRELESS CONNECTION LOST: Ship Reported in Distress In Mid-Atlantic – Passengers Reported to Have Been Rescued,” The Junction City Union, April 15, 1912.

[19] “Story of the Titanic Tragedy, as Summarized from the News of the Past Week, Makes One of the Most Terrible Chapters in All the History of the Sea,” The Boston Globe, April 21, 1912.

[20] Of all the Titanic‘s officers, only four would survive: Charles Lightoller, Herbert Pittman, Joseph Boxhall, and Harold Lowe.

[21] Any sudden fall in the ocean’s temperature would indicate that an iceberg was somewhere near.

[22] “SCORES PLUNGE INTO WILD SEA: When the Titanic Is Sent to the Bottom: ‘SAVE, OH, SAVE,’ FLASHES WIRELESS: As Lifeboats Are Sucked into Arms of Deep,” The Marion Weekly Star, April 20, 1912.

[23] “Titanic Crew: 167 Survivors Land at Millbay Docks: Seafarers’ Union and Right of Detention: Remarkable Episode in the Sound: Moving Incidents told to Interviewers,” The Western Morning News, April 29, 1912.

[24] A davit is a crane-line device used on a ship for supporting, raising, and lowering boats, anchors, and other equipment.

[25] Following the sinking of the Titanic, the crewmen on her sister ship, the Olympic, went on strike over its small number of life boats.

[26] C Q D is one of the first distress signals adopted for radio use; it was understood by wireless operators to mean “All stations: Distress.”

[27] Carpathia Captain Arthur Henry Rostron would later be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress and appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

[28] Since the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions. “Awards, Honors, & Medals,” United States Senate, accessed April 11, 2022.

[29] Matthew Wilson, “Only 700 of Titanic’s 2,200 passengers survived. Photos show how they made it to safety,” Insider, April 15, 2021.

[30] “The Titanic is vanishing. An expedition will monitor the ship’s decay ‘before it all disappears,” CBS News, July 2, 2021.

Interested in learning more about the Titanic? Read Behe’s On Board RMS Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage (click on the title to see its current price) or Rossignol and Mackey’s Titanic 1912: The original news reporting of the sinking of the Titanic (For Free if you have Kindle Unlimited – otherwise, click on the title to see its current price).

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