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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Titanic: 100 Years Later

The Extraordinary Story of the White Star Liner Titanic

The great steamship sank 100 years ago, but its legendary drama, heroes and villains remain as unforgettable as ever
RMS Titanic



By F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The most important shipping event in North Atlantic history was the creation of the International Mercantile Marine company (IMM) in 1902. This giant shipping trust was the brainchild of the Philadelphia Quaker shipping magnate Clement Acton Griscom and was made possible by the financial backing of the New York banker J. P. Morgan. Among the many U.S., Belgian, British, Dutch and German lines controlled by the IMM, certainly the most famous among the British-flag steamship lines was the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company—more commonly known as the White Star Line.

Its flagship, the Titanic, was the largest ship in the world when it took its maiden sailing from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. Weighing 46,328 tons and spanning 852.5 feet long by 92.5 feet wide, she could reach a speed of 21 knots, or about 39 kilometers per hour. The ship could accommodate 2,567 passengers, although on its maiden voyage, it was not fully booked because not every experienced—or wary—traveler cared to face the North Atlantic in April. Only about half of the cabins had been sold, to 1,316 passengers. Their fate, and that of the 892 crew members, would become a part of history.

Floating Palaces

The plan to construct the Titanic and its sister ships came as a direct response to the White Star Line’s principal competitor, the Cunard Line, which had just commissioned two new superliners in 1907: the Lusitania and the Mauretania. Both could steam at 25 knots, making them the fastest liners on the North Atlantic.

Bruce Ismay, managing director of the IMM and president and chairman of the White Star Line, decided not to try and chase the Cunard liners, which could cross the Atlantic in five days. Instead he built a trio of the largest ships in the world that would be capable of six-day crossings. They would be less expensive to operate and, perhaps, more attractive to wealthy passengers.

When the Titanic was launched on May 31, 1911, it was the second of the three sister ships and was only 1,004 tons larger than its sister Olympic. Based on its experience with the Olympic, White Star realized it could sell far more first-class cabins and suites than were available. The solution on the Titanic was to enclose a portion of the promenade deck so as to increase the number of suites and to regard a portion of the second-class cabins as interchangeable with first class. The Titanic cost a reported $7.5 million, which was a phenomenal sum for the time.

(In terms of names, some sources indicate that the third sister ship was to be christened the Gigantic, but following the disaster to the Titanic, it was ultimately named the Britannic and completed in 1915. Unfortunately, it hit a mine in the Aegean Sea during World War I while serving as a hospital ship and sank without ever taking a commercial sailing.)

The master of the Titanic was the commodore of the White Star Line, Captain Edward John Smith. He had also been the first master of the Olympic and, therefore, had had a year's familiarity with the flaws and qualities of the new White Star floating palaces. He learned that they responded slowly to their rudders, partially because one of the three propellers was positioned immediately behind the rudder. Thomas Andrews, designer of the ships, brought up this issue with Ismay, but the White Star president expressed his reluctance to delay the construction in order to refine the design. He reportedly commented that the only place these liners would have to maneuver quickly would be in port and that was what you had tugboats for.

Andrews wanted another change as well: a second row of lifeboats that could be launched as soon as the first set was in the water. The result would have been enough lifeboats for all the passengers and crew. Ismay protested that they already had more than the legally required number of lifeboats (16) and the extra boats simply would clutter up the beautiful open expanse of the upper deck, where first-class passengers would want to stroll. Hence, the Titanic sailed with 16 lifeboats capable of accommodating 1,178 human beings out of the 2,200-plus passengers and crew onboard. The regulations governing the number of lifeboats had not been changed since 1894—18 years earlier—and the Titanic was 460 percent larger than the largest ship in the world at the time the outdated rules were published.

Bon Voyage

Promptly at 12:30 P.M. on April 10, 1912, the thunderous blasts of the Titanic’s foghorns signified that the liner was preparing to sail as tugs nudged it away from its pier. Tragedy nearly struck immediately as the enormous suction of the huge liner's hull pulled on the U.S. liner New York, snapping the lines holding it to the pier. As a result, the New York’s stern swung out toward the Titanic. Quick action by a tugboat caught the New York before it could smash into the Titanic.

The normal custom of the White Star Line ships was to sail from Southampton, England, across the English Channel to Cherbourg, France, to pick up additional passengers. Then during the night the ships would cross to Queenstown, Ireland, where last-minute Royal Mail bags were delivered to the ships and where many of the third-class passengers—often bound for a new life in America—would board from special ferry boats. The Titanic reached Ireland for her mail and final passenger pick-up on April 11.

Among the passengers, thoughts of perishing at sea were likely few and far between. The Titanic was regarded as the last word in naval architecture. Fifteen transverse bulkheads divided her hull into 16 watertight compartments with doors that were controlled electrically. The Titanic was described as “practically unsinkable” by the Shipbuilder's souvenir issue, so confident was everyone about its construction. The confidence, however, did not stop the owners from taking out a $5 million insurance policy on the hull of the ship, covered by such companies as the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company of New York City, with the first premium of $100,000 being paid before the Titanic sailed. Hence, White Star was partially covered against any total loss, and the policy ultimately was honored in full.

So delighted was Ismay with the second of his majestic vessels and the elite passengers who had booked to sail on its maiden voyage that he decided to join them to receive his share of the plaudits. After all, the passenger list included Colonel John Jacob Astor, arguably the wealthiest man in the U.S., and his new wife, who was expecting, and Mr. Isidor Straus, the founder of Macy's Department Store, and his wife. Other distinguished passengers included President William Howard Taft's military attaché Archibald Butt; Mr. and Mrs. John B. Thayer, a senior vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and their teenage son Jack; and Mrs. Margaret Brown of Denver, Colo., who was to gain fame as the Unsinkable Molly Brown for taking command of a lifeboat.

Into the Open Sea

The green hills of Ireland swiftly fell away as the Titanic’s engines built up to full speed in its afternoon departure from Queenstown. In first class the orchestra played jaunty tunes, and the chefs in the kitchens worked their culinary magic. There was little to do in their cabins for first-class passengers except to change their clothes several times every day in order to have the correct appearance according to the hour. Some wealthy passengers even took more than one cabin so as to have additional closet space for colossal steamer trunks and wardrobes. Anything tagged “not wanted on voyage” was consigned to the appropriate baggage rooms. An upper-grade first-class cabin on the Titanic could cost more than $600 in 1912 (equal to about $13,000 today), and a suite of rooms much more than that. They were enormous sums compared with the earnings of an American laborer ($20 to $30 a month) or a schoolteacher ($200 to $350 a year). On the other hand, one could cross in third class for as little as $26.50, which enabled you to travel on the same ship as the privileged even if the food might best be described as “wholesome.”

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.

The tragedy enveloping the Titanic became worse when, as the first lifeboats were loaded, many passengers refused to board them, fearing the frigid North Atlantic more that the false warmth and comfort of their ship. In the end the lifeboats of the Titanic left the ship with nearly 500 fewer lives than they could have saved. Furthermore, the lifeboats that got away stayed away until after the ship had filled with enough water for her stern to soar into the heavens and the hull to split into two gigantic pieces before plunging two miles down to the ocean floor. The near-freezing water temperature meant that anyone thrown in had approximately 10 to 12 minutes before losing consciousness. The Titanic, which had side-swiped the iceberg at about 11:40 P.M., sank about 2:20 A.M. the next morning, April 15, 1912.

When the Carpathia arrived approximately 110 minutes later, Captain Rostron and his crew were able to rescue 711 souls out of the 2,201 that had been onboard. Eleven of those rescued were pulled from the ocean after having managed to climb on the overturned hulls of some of the collapsible lifeboats that landed upside down in the ocean. Among those rescued from the North Atlantic was the junior radio officer of the Titanic, Harold Bride, but his feet were horribly frostbitten. Two days later Bride would learn that the Carpathia’s radio operator, Harold T. Cottam, was near collapse after having been on duty for more than 30 hours. Bride had himself carried to the Carpathia’s radio room to replace Cottam and worked nonstop sending and receiving messages mostly from survivors and those hoping against hope to learn the fate of loved ones. Bride, who ultimately lost several toes, went on to an active career as a journalist.

A Two-Nation Investigation

Ismay, the White Star’s president, had been shown to a first-class private cabin as soon as he boarded the Carpathia and remained in seclusion on the rescue ship until it reached New York on April 18. He did send an order to New York to hold the next White Star liner scheduled to sail until he could board it and return to England. Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan was determined that Ismay would not escape so easily and rushed to New York to serve the British shipping magnate with legal papers demanding his attendance at a formal inquiry by the U. S. Senate Committee on Commerce. Because many American lives had been lost, this request was not totally unreasonable, although technically, U.S. authorities had no jurisdiction because the Titanic was a British ship that had sunk in international waters.

Nevertheless, the Senate inquiry began on April 19 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City and proved to be a very hostile proceeding for Ismay. Even the British government ultimately expressed its displeasure over the inquiry, and the British press was furious at the U.S. intervention. Ismay finally returned to England to face the formal British inquiry, which opened on May 2 in London's Scottish Drill Hall and lasted 36 days. The British inquiry thoroughly covered every aspect of the disaster, underlining the fact that although the White Star Line had honored the letter of the law in the number of lifeboats placed on the Titanic, the number was nowhere near sufficient. The Board of Trade regulations promptly changed, and White Star immediately added lifeboats on Titanic’s sister, the Olympic, increasing the number from 20 to 48.

The one officer who was vilified was not onboard either the Titanic or the Carpathia. Rather, it was Captain Stanley Lord of the Leyland liner California—which was stopped by ice some 10 to 20 miles from the Titanic—who failed to act.

The failure can be traced to two critical junctures. One was the decision of the California’s radio officer, Cyril Furmstone Evans, to go to bed after having been on duty for 16 hours. A counterpart on the Titanic, John George Phillips, had told him to “shut up” after he had nearly blown the earphones off Phillips’s head because the ships were so close to each other at the time.

The second mistake occurred in the possible misinterpretation of the distress rockets fired off by the Titanic. The California’s duty officers reported they saw rockets and they had awakened Captain Lord to tell him; he should have roused Evans to confirm the situation. In fact they all decided that the rockets simply were being fired off by another ship seeking to navigate its way through the ice. This may well have been the case: the Norwegian sealing vessel Samson, which had no radio, was firing off rockets as it weaved its way through the ice.

The principal witness testifying against Captain Lord was a second donkeyman in engineering (a junior supervisor), Ernest Gill, who hated Lord, and supplied his damning testimony after being paid nearly a year's salary by a journalist for his story. After giving his testimony he immediately disappeared from the scene and was never heard from again. The officers on the California may never have seen the rockets of the Titanic. On the other hand Captain Lord should never have dismissed the statements of his officers without pursuing the matter further.

In total, 1,503 people on the Titanic died, according to the British inquiry. The U.S. investigation pegged the number at 1,517; one reason for the discrepancy is that, at the time, officials counted passengers only after the ship reached its the final destination, to account for passenger changes at ports and stowaways.

The toll underlined the value of social standing at the time. Of 144 women in first class, only four died, and three of them because they refused to leave their husbands. Thirteen out of 93 women in second class died, but 76 out of 165 third-class women perished—many because they were not allowed on deck until all the lifeboats had left. Of children only one out of the 29 traveling in first or second class died, whereas 52 of 79 in third class, or steerage, died. Among male passengers on the White Star liner, one-third in first class perished, 92 percent in second class failed to survive and 84 percent in third class died.

Three-quarters of the almost 900 crew members, including Captain Smith, went down with the ship. When wives went to collect the paychecks of their dead husbands in Southampton, they discovered that the men's pay had ended when the Titanic sank, because under British maritime law the crew members were paid by the ship, not the steamship line.

Echo of the Titanic

“Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it,” is an old adage that suddenly has new meaning. On Friday, January 13, 2012, about 9:45 P.M., the Costa Concordia, more than twice the size of the Titanic, struck a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea just offshore of Giglio Island near the western coast of Italy. It suffered a hole some 160 feet long in its side and drifted back to Giglio, where the hull came to rest on its side. (Perhaps ironically, the owner of the Costa Concordia, Carnival Cruise Lines, had bought Cunard, which in turn had taken over White Star decades ago.)

Getting the 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew off the ship as quickly as possible was imperative because the ship was in danger of shifting and sinking. Complicating matters was that none of the passengers had yet practiced lifeboat drills, which were scheduled for the next morning during the first full day at sea. During the remainder of the evening and night, all but 32 passengers were rescued; those who lost their lives were trapped in sections of the ship that rapidly filled with water as the ship lay on its side.

Captain Francesco Schettino was steering an unauthorized course too close to the dangerous shoreline for, by some accounts, the entertainment of crew members and passengers so that they could see some of the towns and villages that the crew called home. No radar, sonar or other advances in marine navigation can alleviate human stupidity. Fortunately, a catastrophe was narrowly averted by sheer luck: the ship got stuck on a rock instead of being in open water, where it would have sunk. Had it gone under, it could have created a disaster that would have dwarfed the calamity of the Titanic.

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