The ‘unsinkable’ Titanic went down 50 years ago after hitting iceberg
by Robert J Serling
11:40 pm, April 14, 1912. At that precise moment in history, just 50 years ago, a sailor named Frederick Fleet was perched in a crow’s nest high above a great ocean liner.
Below him were 1324 passengers and 899 crew members. In less than three hours, more than 1500 of them would be dead. Of this they were blissfully unaware. Their mammoth and magnificent floating hotel had been labeled the world’s first unsinkable ship.
Fleet poured through the cold, clear night, gasped in horror at what lay ahead, and yanked an alarm cord three times. It meant “object in water dead ahead.” Fleet picked up a phone and called the bridge.
“Iceberg right ahead!” he shouted.
“Thank you,” said the bridge, in a classic example of British calm during a crisis.
The bridge signaled the engine room. Stop and full speed astern. Quartermaster’s wheel hard to starboard.
But 46,000 tons of steel were moving at 25 miles per hour. That much weight combined with that much speed was the equivalent of a point-blank broadside from the 16-inch guns of a battleship. The liner hit the berg a glancing blow.
Those aboard hardly felt the shock. Some bridge players in the card room didn’t even look up. But far below, the iceberg had torn the ship’s belly like a giant can opener. The first six of 16 supposedly watertight compartments were flooded immediately. The giant vessel dipped gently forward. She was doomed only 37 seconds after lookout Fleet had flashed the warning.
At 12:15 am, the ship’s radio operator began sending distress calls. First the accepted “CQD” international distress signal followed by the vessel’s own call letters “MGY.” Later, the operator tried a brand-new distress call. For the first time in history, the initials “SOS” flashed their chilling message across an ocean.
At 1:13 am, the water reached the engine room.
Forty-six thousand tons of steel tilted to a 60-degree angle. Heavy machinery ripped loose and smashed through bulkheads and compartments.
At 1:53 am, the radio went dead.
At 2:26 am, April 15, 1912, the unsinkable “MGY” slipped beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
Those initials stood for Royal Mail Ship Titanic, the White Star line, Captain E J Smith commanding.
That was how the Titanic died a half century ago. Why she died was a question debated for many years. It was never determined exactly how many persons lost their lives when the Titanic sank. Various accounts list the toll as 1635, 1517, 1490 and 1503. Walter Lord, author of the best-seller on the Titanic, “A Night to Remember,” accepts the British Board of Trade total — 1503 — as probably closest to the truth.
Regardless of how many died, there is no question that theirs were the most needless, inexcusable deaths in maritime history. The story of the Titanic is one of bravery mingled with stupidity… gallantry mixed with unbelievable carelessness.
The Titanic sailed for New York April 10, 1912, a $7.5 million symphony of plush luxury carved into steel. She carried enormous amounts of food and drinks for her 1324 passengers. She had beautifully furnished cabins and staterooms, Turkish baths, swimming pools, deck games, a gymnasium and dining facilities that put the finest hotels to shame.
She carried just 20 lifeboats of varying sizes, with a total capacity of 1176 persons. There were 2223 persons aboard. It was a cold, simple mathematical equation that added up to unnecessary death for a lot of people. This was the first and worst mistake made by the men who built, commissioned and sailed the “unsinkable” liner.
Mistake No. 2 involved the crew, which was green and unfamiliar with the new ship. The only lifeboat drill consisted of lowering a couple of boats to show a few sailors how the davits handled. The Titanic already was under way before any crew member received a single instruction concerning assignments in the event of any emergency.
To make a good showing on this, her maiden voyage, the Titanic was pushed almost to her top speed. Fifteen hours before she collided with a killer berg, she received warnings of ice packs along her course. She kept receiving such warnings almost up to the moment of impact. When she hit, she still was going almost 25 mph. That was mistake No 3.
Mistake No 4 can be summed up briefly: complacency bred by overconfidence. Captain Smith had been at sea for nearly 40 years and was well aware that under the cold, glistening beauty of an iceberg lurked a demon of immovable strength. But everyone said the Titanic was unsinkable. He treated the berg warnings as he would a routine weather report.
Only 10 minutes before disaster struck, the British liner Californian radioed she was stuck in an ice field. The Titanic operator told the Californian to shut up because he had passenger messages to send to an east coast wireless station. At that moment, the Titanic was only four miles from bisecting her angle of death. When the berg and the liner met, all the mistakes – lack of sufficient lifeboats, a green crew, too much speed and woeful overconfidence in the ship’s strength — were suddenly magnified into catastrophe.
If the Titanic had paid any attention to the berg warnings, she would have been going slower and the collision — about as outwardly violent as a caress — might not have been fatal. Even if the impact still had been fatal, a slower speed might have resulted in Titanic’s staying afloat longer — giving rescue ships a chance to reach her. As it was, she sank in two hours and 40 minutes.
It was bad enough that there were not enough lifeboats. Yet even the ones the Titanic carried were not fully used. A little more than 700 persons got into boats that could have taken nearly 1200. This was partly the fault of passengers who wouldn’t believe the ship was going down and delayed getting into the lifeboats until it was too late. But also at fault was the inability of the crew to fill and launch the boats properly. There was no shortage of life jackets, but most of those who used them died of exposure in the icy water.
Among those who died were the Black Gang — the stokers who kept the fires going until the sea poured in on them, so the ship’s wireless might have the power to keep calling for help. Among those who died were 20 engineers from the company that built the Titanic. They went below to see what they could do against the water that was tearing their creation apart. Among those who died were eight musicians who played ragtime while the deck slanted ominously under their cheerfully tapping feet. They were still playing a hymn when the Titanic went down (not “Nearer My God to Thee,” as legend has it, but an old Episcopal hymn called “Autumn”).
The several investigations following her sinking resulted in major reforms so obvious and logical that the Titanic’s faults appeared even more unforgivable.
Ice Patrol born
The chief product of the various investigations was the creation of an International Ice Patrol. Within days after the Titanic sank, the United States ordered two Coast Guard cutters on North Atlantic patrol for the remainder of the ice season. The following year, Great Britain contributed a third patrol ship. And in 1914, representatives of 13 nations agreed to organize and support an international patrol.
Today, nearly 50 countries are members. Although the United States and Canada supply the bulk of the planes and ships doing the patrol work, the other maritime powers share in the expenses. Since the patrol was started, only two ships have been lost to iceberg collisions. One sinking occurred in World War II when the patrol had to be abandoned temporarily. The other was the Hans Hedoft, a Danish merchant ship which radioed she had struck a berg off Greenland in 1959 and disappeared with a loss of 95 lives.
There was one curious similarity between the sinking of this 2875-ton vessel and the huge Titanic. In neither ship did the watertight bulkheads extend much above the lower decks. In case of the Titanic and presumably the smaller Danish ship 47 years later, once the forward compartments gave way, the liner continued to sink by the nose until the water merely overflowed into each succeeding compartment. Higher bulkheads might have saved the Titanic.
There was another liner built years later that had the same structural fault. She was the Andrea Doria, an Italian liner which sank in July, 1956, after colliding with the liner Stockholm off Nantucket light. Fifty lives were lost.
It would be foolhardy to say that a disaster like the Titanic sinking could not happen in modern times. But the chances have been greatly reduced.
Even without an ice patrol, radar gives its own iceberg warning. And no passenger liner would operate today under the conditions that doomed the Titanic and its human cargo. All passenger ships now carry enough lifeboats for every passenger and crew member. Crews are drilled in handling lifeboats not less than twice a month.
One of the tragedies of the Titanic was the fact that the liner Californian was only 19 miles away and could have pushed through the ice pack to the rescue. But the Californian’s radio operator — it had only one — had been on duty for hours without relief and went to sleep just before the Titanic hit the berg. He was still asleep while the Titanic was calling frantically for help from ships too far away to help. Today, all liners have radio operators on duty 24 hours daily.
The Californian also was guilty of ignoring the Titanic’s rocket signals. The captain of the smaller ship thought they were part of a celebration. Modern maritime rules ban the firing of any rocket at sea for any purpose other than a distress signal.
These far more rigid rules of the sea, plus the Ice Patrol itself, have reduced the iceberg menace drastically. The patrol covers an area of 45,000 square miles — about the size of the state of Pennsylvania. When a big berg is spotted, a cutter literally baby-sits with it until it has moved out of the shipping lanes or melted to a non-dangerous size when it reaches warmer water.
Before World War II, the patrol used to hold an annual memorial service over the spot where the Titanic went down. First, three volleys from a cutter’s guns. Then taps, over the watery grave of the ship they called unsinkable.
The legend of the Titanic gradually dimmed until recent years when Lord’s book stirred fresh interest.
Even at the time it happened, the sinking of the Titanic was treated rather prosaically in a few US newspapers. It is recalled that a Texas editor glanced at the first bulletin and calmly put it on a spike labeled “shipping news.”
Perhaps the enormity of the disaster was eclipsed by its awful finality. There is no physical evidence left of the Titanic to stir memories, except in the minds of the handful of still-living survivors. There was some talk a few years ago of salvaging the huge ship but the cost would have been tremendous.
The White Star line itself merged with Cunard in 1934, and, in the early fifties, Cunard dropped White Star from the corporate name.
Pier 59, where the Titanic would have docked in New York, has since been rebuilt, and is used by United States Lines for incoming cargo ships from Dublin, Glasgow and Liverpool and outgoing vessels to German ports. The pier, located at 18th street and Hudson River in Manhattan, bustles with activity.
Immediately in front of Pier 59, where a half-century ago relatives of the Titanic victims gathered to await news of the ship, a multi-lane ramp expressway now thunders with the noise of passing cars and trucks. Less than two blocks away, workmen are tearing down the old brownstone houses from whose windows curious residents watched as countless carriages rolled up to the pier.
There is no trace of tragedy on Pier 59 today. No residue of grief nor sediment of drama even remotely connected with the events of April 14, 1912.
Except maybe at night, when the deep, haunting sounds of ship horns drift over Pier 59 like a ghostly requiem to the ship that never reached port.
Top illustration: Advertisement for the 1958 movie, A Night to Remember