On this day, 109 years ago at 20 minutes before midnight, the largest ship in the world brushed against an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The damage caused by the encounter was fatal. The new White Star liner Titanic sank the next morning at 2:20. Of the 2,222 passengers and crew on board, only 705 survived.
The tragedy shook the entire world in 1912 but the horrors of two world wars intervened in the following decades. Memory of the disaster largely receded from the public consciousness until the publication in 1955 of “A Night to Remember,” Walter Lord’s seminal (if flawed) account of the accident. Titanic assumed epic proportions with the release of James Cameron’s $200 million film recreation in 1997.
The movie was essentially a doomed love story involving a fictional couple from different economic backgrounds. Whether or not the rich girl’s survival while the poor boy froze to death was an attempt by the filmmaker to make a social statement is probably irrelevant to the millions who wept openly over the fate of Jack and Rose. The historical aspects of the disaster itself were painstakingly accurate. Cameron deftly avoided all of the fallacies that inevitably assert themselves when momentous events assume the mantle of legend.
With one notable exception: First Officer Murdoch’s suicide, explicitly shown in the film, has never been verified conclusively. Murdoch was on duty on the bridge when the accident occurred, so the guilt the man felt must have been overwhelming. His dramatic mea culpa with a pistol always seemed to be more the stuff of legend when the man must have known that the relief that death offered would come soon enough without relying upon a bullet.
It provided Cameron with a shocking moment in his movie even if Murdoch’s suicide is probably as unlikely to be conclusively proven as the strains of “Nearer, My God to Thee” wafting over the placid water. The venerable hymn seems to go in and out of favor as the last piece played by Titanic’s five-man band, all of whom died. There were recollections from some survivors that the final piece was actually a light waltz called “Autumn.”
I would imagine that most people believe that the commencement of the maiden voyage from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912 would have been the subject of tremendous public interest. It really was not. Titanic was the second of three superliners constructed to compete for the lucrative transatlantic passenger market with the Cunard Line’s Mauretania and Lusitania. While the Cunard vessels offered record speed, the White Star ships were designed to provide unparalleled luxury, although their financial viability largely depended upon immigrants looking for better lives in America.
Interest that many would expect surrounded Titanic’s departure was more likely focused on her sister ship Olympic’s maiden voyage in June of 1911. Although at 882.5 feet, Titanic was heralded as the largest ship in the world, she was only one foot longer than Olympic and her reign would have ended soon enough with the entrance into passenger service of Aquitania at 901 feet in May of 1914.
Titanic was, by no means, fully booked when she departed Southampton. There were 2,222 on board when her maximum capacity of passengers and crew was 3,547. She carried a lifeboat accommodation for 1,148 people. The empty cabins, as turned out, were something of a blessing.
The ship had already acquired a bad aura among the ranks of notoriously superstitious sailors before she even left port. A falling timber strut had killed a man during her launch and that, in their minds, was a very bad omen.
A closer look at the events that portended Titanic’s tragic fate would almost make a person reconsider the validity of superstition.
In one crucial respect, Olympic played its own part in the tragedy. Three days out of New York in February of 1912, she struck a submerged object that broke off one of her propeller blades. The mishap necessitated the liner returning to Belfast for repairs and finishing work on Titanic had to be halted. More significantly, however, it meant that Titanic’s maiden voyage would have to be postponed until April.
The month of April is when the danger of ice in the North Atlantic is at its peak. The spring of 1912 had been unusually warm and the number of bergs drifting down from Greenland into the North Atlantic shipping lanes was unusually high. Although Captain Edward Smith had been warned throughout the day on April 14 that other ships in Titanic’s vicinity had encountered ice, he chose to depend on a clear night and alert eyes to avert any potential threat to his ship. This was his last trip for White Star before retirement and he wanted to dock at Pier 59 in New York on Monday, the 17th on schedule.
The Atlantic was complicit, too. It was later described as being as calm as a millpond, but that posed another risk because there was no telltale white foam of waves breaking against the side of a berg. And there was no moon to reflect light off the ice. When a dark shadow silhouetted against a sky ablaze with stars emerged from the darkness, it was already too late for lookout Frederick Fleet to warn of impending danger; too late to save a massive ship that traveled nearly a mile before she even began to turn.
White Star was very anxious to deflect blame from Captain Smith, who at least had the good sense to go down with his ship. Even allowing for the extraordinary conditions that contributed to the disaster, the blame should rest squarely upon Smith’s shoulders. He was responsible for allowing his ship to proceed through ice-menaced waters at a speed that was reckless.
Titanic now rests on a gentle slope 12,500 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic. Even the peace that the seabed promised has been rudely interrupted since the discovery of the wreck in 1985.