it was 20 minutes to midnight on April 14 in the year 1912, when one of the most sensational disasters in the world struck at sea. Morse codes crying distress cried in vain on telegraph lines. Captain and crew and the officials on board rushed around looking for a means of stopping the great onrush of water inside the ship.
When the extraordinary, "unsinkable" ship, Titanic, slid out of Southampton there was only joy and laughter and a sense of history. If there were any tears at all the tears were because of parting with beloved ones, for the ship was on its way across the North Atlantic to New York. There was the sound of music filling the ship, and crowds roaming, looking at luxuries that had never been afloat before—a gymnasium, swimming pool, libraries and high class restaurants. The First Class department was most beautifully decorated and with the most spectacular furniture. Only the very wealthiest could have afforded that sort of luxury, and a roll call of First Class guests might have resounded with the names of the richest men in the world at that time.
The Titanic, while being built, must have brought a great deal of attention to Belfast. The building of this ship actually took place on Queen's Island in Belfast Harbour and of course special facilities had to be provided. The construction was being handled by ship builders Harland and Wolff, and to say that the Titanic was the largest ship they ever built was not saying much because nobody had ever built a larger. That new addition to the White Star Line, was the largest ship in history.
The Titanic was a handsome vessel to look at. Although its style was in the tradition of all ocean-going vessels, its bow had a special look, a rather noble and majestic presence. Its sides, at least down to its water-mark, were painted black, with a strip of white going round the ship just below the level of the decks. There were four red chimneys, and there were 11 decks behind an impressive tower or forecastle.
The man chosen to captain this ship was the experienced Captain Edward John Smith, who had worked on a sister ship, the Olympic; and the Chief Mate was Henry Tingle Wilde. The rest of the crew were around 880 members, and this included all sorts: hostesses, maids, clerks, cleaners, musicians, entertainers, chief cooks and bottle washers.
The passengers were about 1,317, and among the three classes, Third Class had the most passengers—709. Second Class had the least, 284, and First Class had 324. These First Class passengers were treated as guests, and in fact were highly pampered. They were individually welcomed aboard by Captain Smith, and it is certain that the White Star Line chief, Bruce Ismay, was there to greet them, for he was travelling, too, on this maiden voyage.
Among the First Class passengers were millionaire John Astor and his wife Madeleine, industrialist Benjamin Gugghenheim, and actress Dorothy Gibson, all of them very prominent in that day. Maybe the luckiest man to book first class was the owner of the Titanic, JP Morgan cancelled at the last minute.
The Titanic left Southampton harbour, and without turning, sped to Cherbourg (on the French side of the English channel), where 274 boarded. She then turned to Queenstown in Ireland. It was when she left Queenstown to pick her way among icicles in that freezing North Atlantic water, and when there was music and dancing and when, ironically, all concern had flown out of the window, that the unspeakable moment came.
On that cold Sunday night of April 14, 1912, the impact of the collision between an iceberg and the Titanic must have been the most ghastly sound ever heard by any of the 2,464 persons on board. Joy suddenly turned to horror.
True, this did not have to occur. The ship's 'lookout,' Frederick Fleet, did spot the iceberg and alerted the first Officer on the bridge, William Murdoch, but Murdoch ordered the ship to be steered around the iceberg and to put the engines in reverse. But it was too late to make the manoeuvre, for the Titanic was too close to the iceberg. No announcement about the iceberg had been made on the loudspeakers. The starboard (right) side of the Titanic struck the iceberg with such force that a series of holes opened out under the water line. The blow shifted the plates which had made the Titanic "unsinkable," and it caused five of the water-tight compartments to be breached. Water rushed in, and it was clear the ship was doomed. The Titanic began sinking bow first and the more it submerged itself it was the more the ship got filled up with water. The passengers, in disarray and confusion, rushed to the top deck where officers were preparing to send off the lifeboats.
Then, too, there were not half enough life-boats, but on top of that, in the panic most of the lifeboats were sent off half full.
Despite the odd fact that the Titanic was fitted out with most of the ultra-modern equipment of the day but not enough lifeboats, it's new staff were not trained in handling emergencies. This led to another outbreak of confusion and panic. But as the ship went down a number of people did not even need lifeboats. They were drowned in their cabins.
The first class passengers were best served by the rescue operation and by the preferential treatment they received. They were also helped by the position of the first class cabins—on top.
But although there was confusion and panic this was only among the passengers, not the crew. The officers did their best to enforce discipline, and the revolver had to be drawn many times when men tried to break the "women and children first" rule that the captain imposed.
And, also, there was not even the semblance of panic among the musicians. It might sound like a fairytale but the musicians played bright and lively music as if nothing was happening. According to unfounded stories they also played the hymn "nearer my God to Thee". The reports read by this researcher did not say that but it very well may have been so.
It was a cold and clear and beautiful moonlit night when the Titanic went down. Desperate cries for help had been made by officers, through wireless and through flares, but there were no ships within distance, and one or two that were near enough could not reach quickly enough. The Titanic took about two and a half hours to sink. As it stood on its stem, because of the force of the water it broke in two. Just before this, the ship, Carpathia, was alerted and rushed to the rescue.
When the Carpathia arrived all that was there were a great number of lifeboats drifting on the now placid water. In the moonlight and in the silence the scene did not seem real.
The Carpathia took three days to reach New York because of bad weather and rough seas. The ordeal was over.
How many people survived? Of the approximately 2,464 aboard, 1,514 were lost at sea, and so about 950 survived. The figures cannot be exact.
The Titanic, after resting in peace more than two miles deep on the ocean floor, was spotted in 1985 through the use of radar, and may have been visited. However, on this the 100th anniversary of the disaster, the world will remember the Titanic as the central object in the greatest and most painful sea story ever told.