Friday, April 12, saw the Titanic steam some 386 miles; Saturday, April 13, brought it another 519 miles closer to New York, with a similar distance on Sunday. The days were among the finest and smoothest that experienced travelers had ever seen on the North Atlantic. The ocean was on its best behavior. Everyone praised the stability of the ship and the lack of vibration, to the enormous delight of Ismay and the personal satisfaction of Andrews and Captain Smith. They had a blue-blood winner on their hands. Everything simply was perfect.
In the wireless room on the Titanic, the two operators, John George Phillips and Harold Bride, had their hands full with a continuous flow of messages largely to or from first-class passengers. On Sunday wireless reports of ice and icebergs began to come in as the Cunard liner Caronia reported a huge ice field at 42 degrees north stretching from 49 to 51 degrees west. Five other ships sent out similar radio messages of ice in the western reaches of the North Atlantic, where the Arctic current brought its deadly cargo of ice into the steamer lanes. At 1:42 P.M. the ice was 250 miles in front of the onrushing Titanic when the Baltic sent it a message; later, at 7:30 P.M., the Californian reported that it was surrounded by three giant icebergs. Still, the ice was 50 miles away and not visible, so no extra care was taken, even though the Titanic’s lookouts, Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, were operating at a grave disadvantage because someone had left their powerful binoculars at Southampton. They had to rely only on their own sharp vision.
Unfortunately, it was not enough. At about 11:30 P.M. Fleet and Lee suddenly realized that haze had obscured the closely approaching mass of a one-million-ton iceberg when it was only about 1,500 feet in front of their ship. The lookouts screamed their warning to First Officer William Murdoch in command on the bridge: “Iceberg right ahead!” Murdoch had two choices before him: do nothing and ram the iceberg destroying the bow of the Titanic and sending everything that was not nailed down flying; or try to put the wheel hard a starboard in hopes of swerving enough to miss the looming disaster. Murdoch reacted instinctively and ordered the helmsman to put the wheel over hard-a-starboard, while ordering the engine room to stop all engines and then go full astern.
It was the wrong decision even if a perfectly human reaction. Four years earlier the North German Lloyd liner Kronprinz Wilhelm had faced a huge iceberg under similar circumstances, and her officer in charge had elected to ram the berg no matter what the consequences. The liner’s bow crumpled back against the ship, destroying the first watertight compartment and giving her passengers and crew a rude shock. The move permitted the Kronprinz Wilhelm to survive and limp into New York. The Titanic, by swerving to avoid the iceberg, suffered a fatal blow that sliced opened the starboard side for approximately one third of her length and compromised the integrity of five of her 16 watertight compartments. The ship was designed to survive the loss of up to three compartments; with five down, it was doomed.
Only Hours Left
After meeting Captain Smith on the bridge, Andrews immediately went below to evaluate the damage. The news was not good, Andrews realized: the Titanic had about three hours to live. The distress signal immediately went out, but help was a long way away.
The closest vessel appeared to be the Cunard liner Carpathia, which was outward bound from New York to the Mediterranean and about 58 miles away to the south-east. The Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Rostron, awakened by the pounding on his cabin door by his radio operator, could not believe the news, but he acted immediately to ensure that every aspect of his ship was prepared to rescue any survivors. The deck crew was told to prepare to swing out the lifeboats; the doctor was told to alert all his staff; and the chefs were told to make a large batch of hot soup for the frozen passengers. Only when all appropriate officers and departments had been given their orders did Rostron ask his radio officer to confirm that the message was genuine. For all that he and his crew did during the next 24 hours Rostron ultimately received a knighthood from King George V.