In early April 1912, 2,223 people boarded the largest, safest, most luxurious passenger steamship in the world for a trip from Europe to America.
The British ocean liner Titanic, making its very first voyage, was advertised as a technological wonder. Its planners, architects, and engineers had incorporated into it all the latest improvements in ship-building, making it, according to the publicity of the time, virtually unsinkable.
Over 100 years later, as a result of numerous best-selling books and movies (and endless documentaries on television) about the Titanic’s first—and last—voyage , the vast majority of Americans know that those planners, architects, and engineers were wrong. For shortly before midnight on April 14, just east of Newfoundland, the ship struck an iceberg and sank in less than three hours.
And the people on board were forced to trade the luxurious surroundings of the elegant state rooms, the Turkish baths, the swimming pool, the sumptuous lounges and dining rooms, and the magnificent ball room for the slim hope of bobbing about in tiny lifeboats in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Most didn’t even have that hope—those planners, architects, and engineers were so sure of the safety of the craft that they didn’t think it necessary (and the British government didn’t require them) to provide enough lifeboats to match the number of passengers and crew. The twenty lifeboats on board only had a capacity of 1,178, and most weren’t even full of passengers when launched after the collision with the iceberg.
Over 1,500 people died that night.
Early “wireless” reports were garbled, and thus some early headlines were totally misleading.
But as the hours wore on, the grim reality set in.
Even many of the gloomy headlines at that point didn’t reflect the full enormity of the situation. For instance, the headline in the paper above noted over 850 were saved. They weren’t. Barely 700 were rescued a few hours later when another ship, the Carpathia, arrived to pluck the survivors from the water.
The deaths included both poor immigrants who bought tickets for the third class accommodations on the boat, and some of the wealthiest people in America, who had been enjoying the finest of first class amenities.
The richest man on the ship, millionaire John Jacob Astor IV (founder of New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel) went to the same watery grave as the poorest peasant family who had hoped to start a new life in America.
As women and children were being loaded onto the few lifeboats first, Astor had asked if he could accompany his 19-year-old new wife Madeleine because she was pregnant and would particularly need care, but he was denied. He was reported by survivors to have calmly stepped back, tossed his gloves to his wife in the boat, lit a cigarette, and watched as she disappeared into the night. Less than two hours later, he was dead. All his millions could not save him.
It was indeed a tragedy for the 1,500+ people who died that night and their loved ones back home. Yet it was, at the same time, a great relief to the families and loved ones back home of the 700+ survivors. Some of those survivors no doubt viewed their rescue as a miraculous intervention by God, or at least Fate. And some turned the tragedy into a triumph of the spirit of concern for others.
For instance, there was socialite Margaret Brown:
When the ship collided with the iceberg and began to sink, she helped many others to lifeboats before being forced into one herself. Once in the water, she and the other women in the lifeboat worked together to row and keep spirits up, despite the alleged panic and gloom of Quartermaster Robert Hichens.
When the RMS Carpathia arrived to rescue the survivors, Margaret assisted with the rescue efforts; her proficiency in languages was an asset, she helped prepare survivor lists for outside communication and raised funds with other rich survivors to help those less fortunate among surviving passengers and crew, collecting $10,000 by the time the ship made port in New York City.
For her calm action in the disaster, the media acclaimed her as one of the heroines of the hour. She was quoted as saying that her survival was attributable to “typical Brown luck… we’re unsinkable”. She became known as the Unsinkable Mrs. Brown for the rest of her life. [A 1964 movie of her life, dubbing her The Unsinkable Molly Brown, starred Debbie Reynolds.]”
She went on to head the Titanic Survivors’ Committee, participated in fundraising for victims of the sinking and helped to get a memorial to the Titanic erected in Washington, D.C. Margaret also published her account of the sinking in newspapers.
Her fame helped her promote the issues she felt deeply about – the rights of workers and women, education and literacy for children, and historic preservation. During World War I in France she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France to rebuild areas behind the front line, and helped wounded French and American soldiers. Shortly before her death in 1932 from a brain tumor, she was awarded the French Legion of Honour for her “overall good citizenship” including her relief work in France, her efforts for Titanic survivors and her other activism and philanthropy at home in America. (Wikipedia.com article: “Margaret Brown”)
Many on the Titanic, including women (who were given first priority, with children, to board the lifeboats after the collision with the iceberg) were not convinced at first that the ship could sink, and thus refused early on to get in those lifeboats. The powerful ship looked so massive and sturdy while it was still afloat, the lifeboats looked so tiny and flimsy, and the waters were so cold and dark.
At first, passengers were reluctant to leave the ostensibly safe Titanic, which showed no outward signs of being in imminent danger, and board small lifeboats. As a result, most of the boats were launched partially empty. One boat, boat number one, meant to hold 40 people, left the Titanic with only 12 people on board. With “Women and children first” the imperative for loading lifeboats, Second Officer Lightoller, who was loading boats on the port side, allowed men on only if oarsmen were needed and for no other reason, even if there was room. First Officer Murdoch, who was loading boats on the starboard side, let men on board if women were absent. As the ship’s tilt became more apparent, people started to become nervous, and some lifeboats began leaving fully loaded. Shortly after 2:00 AM the waterline had reached the forward boat deck, and all the lifeboats, save for Collapsibles A and B, had been lowered. Collapsible D was the last lifeboat to be lowered from the davits with 44 of its 47 seats filled.
Around 2:10 AM, the stern rose out of the water exposing the propellers and the forward boat deck was flooding. Events began to transpire rapidly as the last two lifeboats floated right off the deck, collapsible lifeboat B upside down, and collapsible lifeboat A half-filled with water. Shortly afterwards the forwardmost funnel collapsed, crushing part of the bridge and many of those struggling in the water. On deck, people were scrambling towards the stern or jumping overboard in hopes of reaching a lifeboat. The ship’s stern slowly rose into the air, and everything not secured crashed towards the bow. While the stern rose, the electrical system finally failed and the lights went out. Shortly thereafter the stress on the hull caused Titanic to break apart into two large pieces, between the third and fourth funnels, and the bow section went completely under. The stern section briefly righted itself on the water before rising back up vertically. After a few moments, at 2:20 AM, the stern section also sank into the ocean.
Of a total of 2,223 people, only 706 survived; 1,517 perished. If the lifeboats were filled to capacity 1,178 people would have been saved. Of the First Class, 199 were saved and 130 died. Of the Second Class, 119 were saved and 166 were lost. Of the Third Class, 214 were saved and 536 perished. Of the crew, 214 were saved and 685 perished. The majority of deaths were caused by victims succumbing to hypothermia in the 28° F (-2° C) water. Out of the 16 lifeboats and 4 collaspsibles launched only one came back. Another boat helped. Lifeboat 4 was close by and picked up eight crewman, two of whom later died. Close to an hour later, Lifeboat 14, under the command of fifth officer Harold Lowe, went back and rescued four people, one of whom died afterwards. Other people managed to climb onto the two collapsible lifeboats that floated off the deck. There were some arguments in some of the other lifeboats about going back, but many survivors were afraid of being swamped by people trying to climb into the lifeboat or being pulled down by the anticipated suction from the sinking ship, though this turned out not to be severe. Only 12 people were picked up from the water.
By 3.30am, Carpathia had reached the exact position given by Titanic’s radio operator, but sickeningly, there was nothing to see. No ship. No lights. No lifeboats. Nothing.
At 4.00am, Captain Rostron ordered the engines of his ship stopped. All of Carpathia’s crew and officers were desperately straining to see some clues, some wreckage, or even some survivors, in the early morning light. Suddenly, one of the crew spotted a green light low down ahead in the water. It was a flare from one of the lifeboats! Boat No. 2, under command of Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall, was spotted moments later, and after a little maneouvering from Carpathia, the tiny lifeboat came alongside her starboard gangway doors. First Class passenger Elizabeth Allen was the first to be taken aboard at 4.10a.m., and she confirmed to Carpathia’s stunned purser that Titanic had indeed sunk.
Eventually, other lifeboats approached the side of the liner, and more and more survivors began to come aboard, many of them sobbing pitifully, many in shock, some just quietly reflecting on what they had witnessed in the last few terrible hours. Many of the female survivors were firmly under the belief that their husbands, fathers, grandfathers and uncles had been rescued by other vessels, or indeed could be aboard Carpathia.
The last lifeboat to be picked-up was No. 12, seen here in this dramatic photograph [below]. It was overloaded, and Second Officer Herbert Lightoller was using all of his sea-faring skills to sail the boat towards the safety of Carpathia. It eventually pulled alongside at 8.30a.m., and 30 minutes later, the final person to be rescued stepped aboard Carpathia.
In a strange twist of fate, there is a popular hymn that was written in 1912, the same year as the sinking of the Titanic–about people far from a safe shore who are about to drown. There is no historical evidence that the writers were inspired by the circumstances surrounding that great tragedy, but the poignancy of the analogy is certainly there.
Love Lifted Me Words by James Rowe, Music by Howard E. Smith You can hear the music to this hymn online at: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/l/lliftdme.htm
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more,
But the Master of the sea, heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!
Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help …
Love lifted me! Souls in danger look above, Jesus completely saves,
He will lift you by His love, out of the angry waves.
He’s the Master of the sea, billows His will obey,
He your Savior wants to be, be saved today.