Here, we pick up the story just as the lifeboats had been launched from the “unsinkable” vessel that, in a horrifying twist of fate, was cursed on its very first voyage to disprove such claims. In the end, about 1,500 people lost their lives in the icy Atlantic that night.
The Titanic sinks: Views from the lifeboats
Those in the boats that had drawn off from the ship could see that the end was at hand. Her bows had gone under, although the stern was still fairly high out of the water. She had sunk down at the forward end of the great superstructure amidships; her decks were just awash, and the black throng was moving aft.
The ship was blazing with light, and the strains of the band were faintly heard still playing as they had been commanded to do. But they had ceased to play the jolly ragtime tunes with which the bustle and labor of getting off the boats had been accompanied; solemn strains, the strains of a hymn, could be heard coming over the waters.
Many women in the boats, looking back towards that lighted and subsiding mass, knew that somewhere, invisible among the throng, was all that they held dearest in the world waiting for death; and they could do nothing. Some tried to get the crews to turn back, wringing their hands, beseeching, imploring; but no crew dared face the neighborhood of the giant in her death agony. They could only wait, and shiver, and look.
The beginning of the Titanic’s end
The end, when it came, was as gradual as everything else had been since the first impact. Just as there was no one moment at which everyone in the ship realized that she had suffered damage; just as there was no one moment when the whole of her company realized that they must leave her; just as there was no one moment when all in the ship understood that their lives were in peril, and no moment when they all knew she must sink; so there was no one moment at which all those left on board could have said, “She is gone.”
At one moment the floor of the bridge, where the Captain stood, was awash; the next a wave came along and covered it with four feet of water, in which the Captain was for a moment washed away, although he struggled back and stood there again, up to his knees in water.
“Boys, you can do no more,” he shouted, “look out for yourselves!” Standing near him was a fireman and strange juxtaposition two unclaimed solitary little children, scarce more than babies. The fireman seized one in his arms, the Captain another; another wave came and they were afloat in deep water, striking out over the rail of the bridge away from the ship.
The slope of the deck increased, and the sea came washing up against it as waves wash against a steep shore. And then that helpless mass of humanity was stricken at last with the fear of death, and began to scramble madly aft, away from the chasm of water that kept creeping up and up the decks.
Then a strange thing happened. They who had been waiting to sink into the sea found themselves rising into the air as the slope of the decks grew steeper.
Up and up, dizzily high out of reach of the dark waters into which they had dreaded to be plunged, higher and higher into the air, towards the stars, the stern of the ship rose slowly right out of the water, and hung there for a time that is estimated variously between two and five minutes; a terrible eternity to those who were still clinging.
Many, thinking the end had come, jumped; the water resounded with splash after splash as the bodies, like mice shaken out of a trap into a bucket, dropped into the water.
All who could do so laid hold of something; ropes, stanchions, deck-houses, mahogany doors, window frames, anything, and so clung on while the stern of the giant ship reared itself towards the sky. Many had no hold, or lost the hold they had, and these slid down the steep smooth decks, as people slide down a water chute into the sea.
We dare not linger here, even in imagination; dare not speculate; dare not look closely, even with the mind’s eye, at this poor human agony, this last pitiful scramble for dear life that the serene stars shone down upon. We must either turn our faces away, or withdraw to that surrounding circle where the boats were hovering with their terror-stricken burdens, and see what they saw.
They saw the after part of the ship, blazing with light, stand up, a suspended prodigy, between the stars and the waters; they saw the black atoms, each one of which they knew to be a living man or woman on fire with agony, sliding down like shot rubbish into the sea; they saw the giant decks bend and crack; they heard a hollow and tremendous rumbling as the great engines tore themselves from their steel beds and crashed through the ship.
They saw sparks streaming in a golden rain from one of the funnels; heard the dull boom of an explosion while the spouting funnel fell over into the sea with a slap that killed everyone beneath it and set the nearest boat rocking; heard two more dull bursting reports as the steel bulkheads gave way or decks blew up; saw the lights flicker out, flicker back again, and then go out forever, and the ship, like some giant sea creature forsaking the strife of the upper elements for the peace of the submarine depths, launched herself with one slow plunge and dive beneath the waves.
There was no great maelstrom as they had feared, but the sea was swelling and sinking all about them; and they could see waves and eddies where rose the imprisoned air, the smoke and steam of vomited-up ashes, and a bobbing commotion of small dark things where the Titanic, in her pride and her shame, with the clocks ticking and the fires burning in her luxurious rooms, had plunged down to the icy depths of death.
The Titanic slowly sank into the dark sea
As the ship sank and the commotion and swirl of the waves subsided, the most terrible experience of all began. The seas were not voiceless; the horrified people in the surrounding boats heard an awful sound from the dark central area, a collective voice, a compound of moans, shrieks, cries and despairing calls, from those who were struggling in the water. It was an area of death and of agony towards which those in the boats dared not venture, even although they knew their own friends were perishing and crying for help there.
They could only wait and listen, hoping that it might soon be over. But it was not soon over. There was a great deal of floating wreckage to which hundreds of people clung, some for a short time, some for a long time; and while they clung on they cried out to their friends to save them.
One boat that commanded by Mr. Lowe, the Fifth Officer did, after transhipping some of its passengers into other boats, and embarking a crew of oarsmen, venture back into the dark center of things.
The wreckage and dead bodies showed the sea so thickly that they could hardly row without touching a dead body; and once, when they were trying to reach a survivor who was clinging to a piece of broken staircase, praying and calling for help, it took them nearly half an hour to cover the fifty feet that separated them from him, so thick were the bodies.
This reads like an exaggeration, but it is well attested. The water was icy cold, and benumbed many of them, who thus died quickly; a few held on to life, moaning, wailing, calling but in vain.
A few strong men were still making a desperate fight for life. The collapsible boat, which Bride had seen a group of passengers attempting to launch a few minutes before the ship sank, was washed off by a wave in its collapsed condition.
Such boats contain air compartments in their bottom, and thus, even although they are not opened, they float like rafts, and can carry a considerable weight. Some of those who were swept off the ship by the same wave that took the boat found themselves near it and climbed on to it.
Mr. Lightoller, the Second Officer, had dived as the ship dived, and been sucked down the steep submerged wall of the hull against the grating over the blower for the exhaust steam. Far down under the water, he felt the force of an explosion which blew him up to the surface, where he breathed for a moment, and was then sucked back by the water washing into the ship as it sank. This time, he landed against the grating over the pipes that furnished the draught for the funnels, and stuck there.
There was another explosion, and again he came to the surface not many feet from the ship, and found himself near the collapsible boat, to which he clung. It was quite near him that the huge funnel fell over into the water and killed many swimmers before his eyes. He drifted for a time on the collapsible boat, until he was taken off into one of the lifeboats.
Bride also found himself strangely involved with this boat, which he had last seen on the deck of the ship. When he was swept off, he found himself in the horrible position of being trapped underwater beneath this boat. He struggled out and tried to climb on to it, but it took him a long time; at last, however, he managed to get up on it, and found five or six other people there.
And now and then some other swimmer, stronger than most, would come up and be helped on board. Some thus helped died almost immediately; there were four found dead upon this boat when at last the survivors were rescued.
There was another boat also not far off, a lifeboat, capsized likewise. Six men managed to scramble on to the keel of this craft; it was almost all she could carry. Mr. Caldwell, a second-class passenger, who had been swimming about in the icy water for nearly an hour, with dead bodies floating all about him, was beginning to despair when he found himself near a crate to which another man was clinging. “Will it hold two?” he asked. And the other man, with a rare heroism, said: “Catch hold and try; we will live or die together.”
And these two, clinging precariously to the crate, reached the overturned lifeboat and were hauled up to its keel. Presently another man came swimming along and asked if they could take him on. But the boat was already dangerously loaded; the weight of another man would have meant death for all, and they told him so. “All right,” he cried, “Goodbye; God bless you all! ” And he sank before their eyes.
Captain Smith, who had last been seen washed from the bridge as the ship sank, with a child in his arms, was seen once more before he died. He was swimming, apparently only in the hope of saving the child that he held; for in his austere conception of his duty, there was no place of salvation for him while others were drowning and struggling.
He swam up to a boat with the child and gasped out: “Take the child! ” A dozen willing hands were stretched out to take it, and then to help him into the boat; but he shook them off. Only for a moment he held on, asking: “What became of Murdoch? ” and when they said that he was dead, he let go his hold, saying: “Let me go”; and the last that they saw of him was swimming back towards the ship.
He had no life-belt; he had evidently no wish that there should be any gruesome resurrection of his body from the sea, and undoubtedly he found his grave where he wished to find it, somewhere hard by the grave of his ship.
The irony of chance, the merciless and illogical selection which death makes in a great collective disaster, was exemplified over and over again in the deaths of people who had escaped safely to a boat, and the salvation of others who were involved in the very center of destruction.
The strangest escape of all was probably that of Colonel Grade of the United States army, who jumped from the topmost deck of the ship when she sank and was sucked down with her. He was drawn down for a long while, and whirled round and round, and would have been drawn down to a depth from which he could never have come up alive if it had not been for the explosion which took place after the ship sank.
“After sinking with the ship,” he says, “it appeared to me as if I was propelled by some great force through the water. This may have been caused by explosions under the waters, and I remembered fearful stones of people being boiled to death.
“Innumerable thoughts of a personal nature, having relation to mental telepathy, flashed through my brain. I thought of those at home, as if my spirit might go to them to say goodbye. Again and again I prayed for deliverance, although I felt sure that the end had come. I had the greatest difficulty in holding my breath until I came to the surface. I knew that once I inhaled, the water would suffocate me.
“I struck out with all my strength for the surface. I got to the air again after a time that seemed to me unending. There was nothing in sight save the ocean strewn with great masses of wreckage, dying men and women all about me, groaning and crying piteously.
“I saw wreckage everywhere, and what came within reach I clung to. I moved from one piece to another until I reached the collapsible boat. She soon became so full that it seemed as if she would sink if more came on board her. We had to refuse to let any others climb on board.
“This was the most pathetic and horrible scene of all. The piteous cries of those around us ring in my ears, and I will remember them to my dying day. ‘Hold on to what you have, old boy,’ we shouted to each man who tried to get on board. ‘One more of you would sink us all.’ Many of those whom we refused answered, as they went to their death, ‘Good luck; God bless you.’
“All the time we were buoyed up and sustained by the hope of rescue. We saw lights in all directions particularly some green lights which, as we learned later, were rockets burned by one of the Titanic s boats. So we passed the night with the waves washing over and burying our raft deep in the water.”
It was twenty minutes past two when the Titanic sank, two hours and forty minutes after she had struck the iceberg; and for two hours after that the boats drifted all around and about, some of them in bunches of three or four, others solitary.
Almost every kind of suffering was endured in them, although, after the mental horrors of the preceding hour, physical sufferings were scarcely felt. Some of the boats had hardly anyone but women in them; in many the stokers and stewards were quite useless at the oars.
But here and there, in that sorrowful, horror-stricken company, heroism lifted its head and human nature took heart again. Women took their turn at the oars in boats where the men were either too few or incapable of rowing; and one woman notably, the Countess of Rothes, practically took command of her boat and was at an oar all the time.
Where they were rowing to, most of them did not know. They had seen lights at the time the ship went down, and some of them made for these; but they soon disappeared, and probably most of the boats were following each other aimlessly, led by one boat in which some green flares were found, which acted as a beacon for which the others made.
One man had a pocket electric lamp, which he flashed now and then, a little ray of hope and guidance shining across those dark and miserable waters. Not all of the boats had food and water on board. Many women were only in their night-clothes, some of the men in evening dress; everyone was bitterly cold, although, fortunately, there was no wind and no sea.
The stars played in the sky; the darkness became a little lighter; the gray daylight began to come. Out of the surrounding gloom, a wider and wider area of sea became visible, with here and there a boat discernible on it, and here and there some fragments of wreckage.
By this time, the boats had rowed away from the dreadful region, and but few floating bodies were visible. The waves rose and fell, smooth as oil, first gray in color, and then, as the light increased, the pure dark blue of mid-ocean.
The eastern sky began to grow red under the cloud bank, and from red to orange, and from orange to gold, the lovely pageantry of an Atlantic dawn began to unfold itself before the aching eyes that had been gazing on prodigies and horrors. From out that well of light in the sky came rays that painted the wave-backs first with rose, and then with saffron, and then with pure gold.
And in the first flush of that blessed and comforting light the draggled and weary sufferers saw, first a speck far to the south, then a smudge of cloud, and then the red and black smoke-stack of a steamer that meant succor and safety for them.