Saturday, April 14, 2012

Titanic Centenary: April 14, 1912. Iceberg, right ahead!

April 14, 1912

Well, here it is, the big day. This post will be longer than the others, for obvious reasons It was a busy day!

Sunday morning was clear but cool. After breakfast, church services were held in each class, with the first class service presided over in their dining saloon (photo, left) by Captain Smith. Some books claim that this was a all-class service, allowing third class up into the grand first class areas for a short time, but I'm hesitant to believe it. Steerage would never have been allowed into the first class areas. A similar service was held in the second class dining room by the assistant purser, Reginald Barker, and a Catholic mass was held in the second class lounge by Father Thomas Byles. (He also held a mass in third class.)

Captain Smith was required to do a lifeboat drill that morning. Why on Sunday, rather than the first day of the voyage, I don't know. But for some reason, he skipped it. When lifeboats had to be loaded that night, many of the crew were unsure where to go or what to do. No one knew their stations and no one had been assigned to any certain boat (each boat should have had a crew member or two assigned to navigate in case of evacuation). If the drill had been held, it's possible the loading of boats would have been more orderly, and more people might have been saved. Because they had no drill to explain the boats, too many crew members were afraid to load them to capacity, worried that the weight of so many people would buckle the lifeboat davits.

Shortly before 2pm, an ice warning was delivered to Captain Smith while he was chatting with J. Bruce Ismay, director of the White Star Line. He gave it to Ismay, who kept it for most of the day and showed it to numerous passengers, rather than passing it on to the bridge. Smith asked for it to be returned just before dinner and at that point posted it on the map with the other ice warnings. Many other ice warnings this day would never make it to the chart room. Would it have made a difference if they had? I doubt we'll ever know for sure.

The temperature dropped throughout the day, going from somewhere in the 50s all the way down to 33 degrees by early evening. The cold kept passengers inside more than usual, leaving many of the public rooms crowded. Two more boilers were fired up and Titanic picked up some speed, at one point traveling at a little over 22 knots, the fastest she would go during her maiden voyage. Despite the rumors later, they were never trying to break speed records on this trip: Titanic wasn't built for speed. Even at her fastest, she stood no chance of surpassing the 26 knots other ships of the time could do. The most they could have been aiming for was to break whatever record her sister ship, Olympic, might have set on her own maiden voyage a year earlier.

After dinner, Rev. Carter organized a hymn sing in the second class dining room that was attended by close to 100 people. One hymn sung, by special request, was "For Those in Peril on the Sea." (The James Cameron film showed this being sung in first class during Captain Smith's church service. It may have been sung there as well.) Up in first class, a private party was being held in the a la carte restaurant in Captain Smith's honor, hosted by the Widener family. Rumors abounded after the disaster that the Titanic's maiden voyage was to be Smith's last (or nearly last), and that the party was in honor of his long career and impending retirement. Around 9:00, Smith left the restaurant to check in at the bridge. They knew they were entering an ice field, and he told Lightoller to keep a sharp eye out. Then, after instructing him to get him at any sign of trouble, he retired for the night. (Photo: First class a la carte restaurant, Olympic)

Another ice warning came in around 9:40pm, but was not delivered to the bridge. The ship had just come within range of Cape Race, the nearest wireless station, and Phillips was busy sending and receiving messages for the passengers. This was the first time they had been in direct communication with North America, and he had a lot of messages to send from passengers to their friends and family. He put the ice warning under a paperweight to be brought to the bridge later, but it never was.

At 10pm, First Officer Murdoch relieved Lightoller for the night shift. At this point the temperature had dropped again, to 31 degrees. There was concern that the ship's fresh water supply might freeze, and the nearly dead calm of the sea was a worry to the lookouts. A calm sea makes it harder to see ice, as there is less chance of spotting water breaking at the iceberg's base. In the crow's nest, the shift change meant lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee were now on duty. They were in for a rough night: it was below freezing, there was no moon to light their way, and no fog or haze to help pick out objects in the sea ahead. These were just about the worst possible conditions when looking for ice. To make matters worse, they had no binoculars. The "glasses," as they were called, had been locked in a cabinet on board before sailing, and the man who had done so accidentally took the keys with him when departing the ship at Southampton.

In first class, the orchestra was entertaining passengers in the lounge, while the hymn sing in second class was finally starting to break up. Some passengers hung around to chat over biscuits and coffee, before eventually turning in for the night. Not too far away, the captain of the Californian, Stanley Lord, was about to turn in as well. But he was bothered by a light he had seen, thinking a ship might be nearby. His own ship was surrounded by ice and stopped for the night, so if there was another ship close by, he felt they should be warned. He went down to the wireless room and asked which ships were close. The operator, Cyril Evans, replied, "Just the Titanic," but Lord didn't believe the ship he saw was big enough. Still, he told Evans to contact Titanic anyway, and warn her of the ice. He did, but over on Titanic, Phillips was still busy with his backlogged messages, and due to the proximity of the two ships, the Californian's incoming message was very loud. Startled and annoyed, Phillips told him to shut up, that he was working Cape Race and Evans was jamming his signal.

Around 11:30, many passengers had turned in for the night, but some were still up. In first class, there was a large group of men playing cards in the smoking room, while others were in the lounge, reading or chatting. Most of the public rooms closed around 11pm, but the smoking rooms remained busy with men engrossed in card games. Outside, it was now 30 degrees, and the water was 28 degrees. Hardly anyone was outdoors unless they had to be.

Over on the Californian, Evans decided to turn in for the night. He was the ship's only wireless operator, and had been working for about 18 hours. He turned off the system and went to bed. He wasn't the only one: because it wasn't required to have someone monitoring the wireless 24 hours a day, many ships only had one operator, who would shut down for the night before sleeping.

11:35pm: Lookouts Fleet and Lee were probably about frozen at this point, and counting the minutes until the next watch would relieve them at midnight. There was a slight haze at that point, and through it, Fleet spotted something black in front of them. Realizing what it must be, he rang three loud bells, the signal for something straight ahead, then grabbed the phone connected to the starboard end of the bridge. Frantic, he didn't wait for Sixth Officer Moody, who picked up the other end, to say anything. The ensuing conversation, though short, is repeated just about verbatim in every book and movie about the disaster.

Fleet: "Are you there?"
Moody: "Yes. What do you see?"
Fleet: "Iceberg, right ahead!"
Moody: "Thank you."

The words "thank you" were barely out of Moody's mouth before he was turning to First Officer Murdoch and repeating Fleet's warning: "Iceberg, right ahead." Murdoch, who had just spotted the ice himself, jumped into action, signaling to the engine room to stop the engines and reverse them in an effort to slow down, then called to the quartermaster, Robert Hitchens, to turn the wheel "hard a-starboard." They were going to try to steer around the berg.

(A side note: some believe that if Murdoch hadn't ordered the ship to slow, and has instead continued on at the 22 1/2 knots they were making, they might have been able to turn her quicker and avoid the ice entirely. But like most speculations of this sort, no one will ever know for sure.)

Titanic was a huge ship with a relatively small rudder for her size, which meant she didn't turn quickly. She did eventually turn, but not soon enough. While they avoided a head-on collision, they didn't get out of the way in time, and the iceberg scraped along the starboard side of the ship. It was barely felt in most areas—little more than a faint vibration—but most passengers who were awake at the time reported feeling or hearing something. The men still playing cards in the second class smoking room claimed to have seen the iceberg itself pass the room's windows, but aside from some of the officers who had been watching the collision, the only other physical evidence in the passenger areas were the chunks of ice that had broken off of the berg and fallen onto the decks and into a few open portholes. Below decks, however, the damage was much more apparent. Water began to fill the forward holds and boiler room #6 immediately, and with great force.

Moments after the iceberg made contact, Murdoch ordered the wheel hard to port in an effort to turn the stern end of the ship away from the berg, but it was too late: the damage was already done. He rang the alarm for the watertight doors to be closed (in some accounts he closed the doors before the iceberg made contact) and ordered the time to be logged: 11:40pm. From the time Fleet spotted the berg to the time it hit? Only 37 seconds. If they had noticed it a few seconds sooner, or the ship was traveling a knot or two slower, it might have been avoided entirely.

In the first class dining room, a group of stewards had been gossiping amongst themselves and heard a "faint grinding noise" as the berg scraped by, and others later reported that they felt a slight bump or jolt, or heard a ripping or grinding sound, but nothing drastic enough to be concerned. For the most part no one but the bridge officers had a clue that anything was wrong. Even those awakened by the collision weren't immediately concerned. Most who looked out into the hallways to see what had happened ended up returning moments later, convinced it was nothing. A few even went back to sleep. When the ship stopped soon after, rumors began circulating that she had merely dropped a propeller, and that they would be moving again soon.

Captain Smith had felt the collision while resting in his cabin and rushed up onto the bridge to ask what they had struck. After hearing Murdoch's report, he ordered Sixth Officer Boxhall to find the carpenter and have him sound the ship. At this point, he knew they were in trouble, just not how badly. Boxhall took a quick tour of the bow of the ship and returned with news that he hadn't seen any damage, but that one of the mail clerks told him there was water in the mail rooms. Needing to see the damage for himself, Smith got Thomas Andrews, director Harlan & Wolff, the builder of the ship. Together, they began their tour.

What they found was not good news. Less than 20 minutes had passed since the collision, and already water was quickly filling six of the watertight compartments. The ship was built so that she would stay afloat if the four forward-most compartments filled, but not six. As the ship started going down at the head, water would spill over the top of the watertight bulkheads, filling those behind it like water in an ice tray. Titanic was doomed.

Today is the final stop of the Destined Blog Tour: Literary Obsession

For those of you who have been following along this week, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed the posts and reviews.


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