by Nicholas McIndoe – images Emory Kristof, National Geographic
Interest in the sinking of the RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912 has endured for 100 years. The accident remains one of peacetime’s worst maritime disasters, capturing the imagination of generations like no other. The tragic events of that fateful April night continue to affect our lives today and will generate interest for another 100 years.
The Olympic-class Royal Mail Ship Titanic was owned by the White Star Line and built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, using some of the most advanced technologies of the time and featuring extensive safety measures.
It had a gross tonnage of 46,000, it was 883 feet (268m) overall length (about as long as the Empire State Building is high), had nine decks and could accommodate 3500 passengers and crew at a cruising speed of 23 knots, making it the largest, most luxurious passenger steamship of its day.
Under the command of Captain Smith, Titanic departed Southampton for its maiden voyage to New York at 12 noon on 10 April, with 2, 223 people aboard.
Captain Edward J Smith, Commander of the Titanic, joined the White Star Line in 1880, quickly rising through the ranks to become one of the world’s most experienced and respected sea captains. It became customary for him to command White Star Line’s newest ships on their maiden voyages.
Travelling first class on the maiden voyage were some of the most prominent people of the day, as well as J Bruce Ismay (President of White Star Line) and the ship’s builder, Thomas Andrews.
‘Iceberg, right ahead!’ was the call from lookout Frederick Fleet to Sixth Officer James Moody on the bridge at 11.40pm on a clear, calm night about 400 miles south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The iceberg struck Titanic a glancing blow along its starboard side, buckling the hull in several places and popping rivets below the waterline over a length of 90m. This opened the first six watertight compartments to the sea.
Titanic’s hull was divided into 16 watertight compartments, however they were separated only by bulkheads that did not reach the ceiling. The ship was designed to stay afloat if the first four compartments flooded, but no more. She eventually sank at 2.20 am, two hours and 40 minutes after hitting the iceberg.
Titanic carried enough lifeboats for 1,178 people, little more than half those aboard. Incredulously, this complied with regulations at the time. A total of 1,517 people lost their lives in the disaster, around 700 survived. Captain Smith went down with his ship, but four of the eight officers survived. One notable survivor was J Bruce Ismay, who was criticised for saving himself by getting into a lifeboat.
Despite several ice warnings on 14 April, Titanic was steaming at close to maximum speed when it struck the iceberg. Upon receiving the ice warnings, Captain Smith ordered a new sailing course, further south. However, many ‘non-essential’ ice warnings never reached him and at one stage, Titanic’s wireless operator, Jack Phillips, angrily responded to ice messages by saying he was busy.
On 1 September 1985, an expedition led by Dr Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel, located the wreck of the Titanic 13,000 feet (3962m) down on the bed of the North Atlantic Ocean. She was upright with the hull in two separate sections some 2,000 feet (609m) apart, with debris spread over a large area.
In 1986 Dr Ballard led another expedition to the Titanic site, on board the ship Atlantis II. On board the ship was a newly-developed deep-diving submersible named Alvin, capable of carrying three people to previously unobtainable depths. As a way to test Alvin, the US Navy funded this expedition.
Alvin was equipped with a small, self-propelled device that carried a high-resolution camera named Jason Junior which was sent into the Titanic wreck. An amazing sight met their eyes: plates, glasses, bottles of wine, still in perfect condition, preserved by the sea.
No human remains have ever been found; only personal belongings where bodies once lay. It is a poignant reminder that the disaster claimed over 1,500 lives, and one of the most disturbing images is that of a pair of shoes – not just a pair of shoes; they once belonged to a living person. A point of much debate is that many artefacts from the Titanic are displayed in museum collections.
A number of events are planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking, including a re-release of James Cameron’s 1997, blockbuster hit Titanic in 3D.
The sinking of Titanic brought about sweeping changes in the maritime industry, the most important of which was that lifeboat numbers were to be determined by number of people on board, not by gross tonnage. Ice patrols were also set-up in the North Atlantic. But sadly and somewhat ironically, the Titanic’s innovative watertight design proved to be a mistake and led to its tragic demise. The wreck now lies as a memorial to 1,517 hapless but brave souls. It will eventually disappear but their memory never will.