This Week in History: the Sinking of Titanic

Lesson One: I am doing very badly with my goal of posting history on appropriate days.

On April 14, 1912, RMS Titanic sank, killing 1500 passengers while 700 survived in lifeboats.  This week marks the 102nd anniversary.

Lesson Two:  CNN is even less on the ball than I am.

The above interview began as a story of the deep sea search for Malaysia Flight 370, and the expert has also worked on explorations of Titanic’s wreck.  As the interview continued, the bottom headline changed several times, as if the editor doesn’t understand the story’s actual topic, and the “Breaking News” label never disappears.

Anyone else remember when “Breaking News” announcements were limited to things like presidential assassinations, major acts of terrorism, military actions and shuttle explosions?  “Bluefin [an exploring remote sub] Returns Early to Surface” is not breaking news.  It’s barely news.  Come on.  Stop pimping the news. (A video of the interview can be found via Mediaite.)

Lesson Three:  When referring to Titanic, the proper grammar is, in fact, “Titanic,” not “the Titanic.”  I have to fight to get it right too.

Now, the history.

Collapsible D Lifeboat
Collapsible D, the last launched lifeboat. The boat had canvas sides so it could be folded up for easy storage.  Passengers included the Titanic Orphans, Edmond and Michel Navratil, ages three and two. They had been kidnapped by their father, who did not survive.

More lifeboats wouldn’t have mattered.

Common knowledge about Titanic often revolves around the lack of lifeboats and a general sense of arrogance concerning the technology.  It is certainly true that Titanic’s lifeboats could only hold half the passengers and a third of the ship’s total capacity.  It is also true that legislation passed afterward required enough lifeboats to contain all passengers.

However, most of Titanic’s lifeboats launched far short of their capacity (they could have held another 500 people in total), and crew members were often begging people to evacuate.

Moreover, more boats would have required more launch points and more crew to man them, as the available boats were still being launched only minutes before the ship’s front half sank.  The last two boats were washed overboard rather than launched.  More boats, on their own, wouldn’t really have helped.

titanic orphans
The Titanic Orphans.  Michel Navratil recalls:
“I don’t recall being afraid, I remember the pleasure, really, of going plop! into the lifeboat… The next morning, I saw Carpathia on the horizon. I
was hauled aboard in a burlap bag. I thought it was extremely incorrect to be in a burlap bag!” (Children of the Titanic)

Resistance to Evacuation

The fact that people didn’t believe Titanic would sink was not simple arrogance.  The design of luxury ships of the time – not just Titanic – appeared to experts to be unsinkable.  Moreover, no liner had sunk without adequate time to evacuate passengers to another vessel. In short, Titanic herself was expected to be the lifeboat, keeping people afloat until rescue.

Moreover, a month earlier Oceana had foundered, and the only deaths occurred in connection with a lifeboat.  Most people were rescued from the ship itself, while one lifeboat capsized, killing nine, and another leaked bad enough to require bailing. (Davenport-Hines, p. 67)

The idea of climbing into a small boat dangling 80 ft. over a pitch black sea was reasonably terrifying.  It was understood that Titanic was not going to make it to New York under her own power, but many thought it would remain afloat.

Speeding Through the Ice Field

After the disaster, changes were also made to policies concerning how ships reacted to warnings of ice fields.  The fact that Titanic ignored radio warnings about ice was absolutely normal.  The policy of the time was to only slow for ice if you actually saw ice.  Unfortunately,  the water was calm: a choppier sea would have crashed against the iceberg, giving warning of its presence.

“Captain Smith was aware of the ice ahead, he didn’t slow down because he was sure that on this brilliantly clear night any iceberg could be spotted in time to avoid it. In reaching that decision, Smith did not feel that he was doing anything rash. He was following the practice of all captains on the Atlantic run.”- Walter Lord, The Night Lives On, as quoted here.

Titanic was not attempting to break speed records, as everyone knew it couldn’t be done: the speed race was being run by smaller liners. Titanic boasted luxury, not speed.  There was hope it would beat the speed of its sister, Olympic, but at the time of the accident Titanic was not traveling its maximum speed.

Height of Watertight Bulkheads

Watertight bulkheads extended through the lower levels of the ship but did not mar the upper, more luxurious levels.  A common belief is higher bulkheads would have saved Titanic.  In fact, it would not.  Titanic was expected to handle up to four compromised compartments, and no one could imagine a scenario compromising more than four.

Had they never seen the iceberg at all, Titanic would not have sunk.  A head-on collision would have killed people in forward sections, but the ship would have remained afloat as only a couple compartments flooded.

However, since Titanic attempted to dodge, it side-swiped the iceberg.  The damage was tiny, only about 13 square feet.  However, it stretched in patches over about 300 feet, compromising five or six compartments.  The height of bulkheads was immaterial. (Martin, p. 116-121)

A breaching side-swipe scenario had not occurred to designers, in part because “this type of side-swipe disaster had never occurred before in recorded maritime history.” (Martin, p. 10)

J. Bruce Ismay
J. Bruce Ismay

The “Cowardice” of J. Bruce Ismay

Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, which owned Titanic, became the great villain of the disaster, in part simply because he survived.

While the ship’s captain and designer both went down with the ship, Ismay found a seat aboard Collapsible C, the last lifeboat launched from the starboard side.  Many saw it as cowardly, and there was even an inquest into it. The conclusion, however, was him remaining aboard would have served no purpose and, thus, was acceptable.  Up until then, Ismay had been assisting women and children into boats.  But that final boat had open seats, and, at the last moment, he hopped in.

After survivors were rescued by Carpathia, Ismay confined himself to a cabin and refused to eat, probably guilt-ridden for having survived.

As an Aside: I first conceived of this post in the wake of the Korean ferry sinking.  With some 200 high schools students missing, a surviving principal recently committed suicide in grief.  I can only begin to imagine how he must have felt.  Survivor’s guilt can be crushing.

On the other hand, the captain of the ferry is currently under arrest, and there are many accusations that he abandoned the ship early, which is an entirely different scenario from Ismay’s.

Trapping Third Class Passengers

There’s lots of discussion as to why less third class passengers survived than first or second class.  Much of it has to do with their placement on the boat: they were farther from the lifeboats than other passengers.  There were also gates separating areas designated for different classes, and there’s the possibility that some were not opened.  It’s also true that third class men were forcibly held back, but third class women and children were allowed through.

Survivors recall stewards yelling for third class passengers to abandon ship.  That’s certainly contrary to a policy of sacrificing those passengers.

Accuracy of the Movie Titanic

If you can just ignore the main plot, which is ridiculous, the 1997 Titanic movie is fairly accurate (although, it does imply Titanic was trying to break a speed record, among other things). Many rooms are based on illustrations and phots of both Titanic and Olympic, as well as what’s left at the bottom of the ocean.  The depiction of Ismay’s lifeboat leap seems accurate at least in spirit, with him looking miserably ashamed as his lifeboat descends.

While some crew were begging people to evacuate, others faced mobs of panicked people.  Guns were fired and seem to have hit a couple passengers rushing the lifeboats.  There also were multiple reports of an officer shooting himself, although his identity is up to some debate.

As depicted, only one officer returned to search for survivors in the water.  Others feared boats would be swamped by panicked swimmers.  But, as depicted in the movie, most people quickly froze to death, and only a handful were saved.

John Astor IV
John Astor IV

The elderly couple that returned to their cabin together were Isador and Ida Straus. Isador was an owner of Macy’s.  Ida refused to part with her husband.  To save her, the crew offered to let Isador board a lifeboat with her, but he refused to take a seat that could otherwise go to a woman or child – which is unfortunate, as the boat launched only half full.

They did not go to their room but, instead, remained on deck until they were washed overboard.  The room scene better conveyed the romance of their final gesture, in my opinion.

One figure I wished we saw more of was John Astor, the richest man on the ship.  Astor requested he join his 18-year-old, pregnant wife on a boat because of her condition but was refused.  He made no more attempts to save himself.  Instead, he actively assisted in evacuation efforts, sometimes literally picking people up and placing them in boats.

Elias Nicola Yared, 12, related how he and his sister, Jamila, 14, both non-English speaking immigrants, had made it to the upper deck but didn’t know what to do:

The last lifeboat was being loaded. Rough hands grabbed my sister around the waist and hauled her unceremoniously over the railing of the ship. I was forced to let go of her hand and remained behind on the not so unsinkable Titanic. A middle aged gentleman was with his very young, pregnant wife. He helped her into the lifeboat, then looked back to the deck and saw others wanting to get aboard. He kissed his wife good bye, and, returning to the deck, grabbed the first person in his path. Fortunately, I was there in the right place at the right time and he put me into the lifeboat. Who was the gallant man who performed this kind act? We were told he was John Jacob Astor IV.  – Children of the Titanic


The wreckage wasn’t found until 1985, in part because Titanic radioed the wrong coordinates.  It sits in two pieces with significant distance between them more than 2 miles underwater.  The front portion is largely intact because it slowly flooded over two hours.  The back half only flooded after the ship snapped in half about 15 minutes before it sank.  Thus, it was full of air pockets which imploded during descent, and it sits as a crushed heap on the ocean floor.

The wreck is expected to collapse within the next 50 years.  Natural organisms are feasting on the steel, with the byproduct being “rusticles.”

(Hover to read captions.  Click to view full image.)

All bodies have likely dissolved or been devoured  However, there has been extensive debate as to appropriate investigation of what is essentially a mass tomb, and some have gone so far as to suggest there are still bodies deep within the wreck. To me, the question of bodies is moot.  It was the final resting place for hundreds of people, regardless of current condition.

The original explorers promised to only bring up artifacts laying outside the ship, which are plentiful.  Titanic ejected huge amounts of items as it spiraled downward.  However, others have taken items from inside the ship and have even brought up pieces of the ship itself.

Recently, National Geographic published complete images of the front and back halves of Titanic by stitching together hundreds of underwater photos.  This method is necessary because only small portions of the wreck could be illuminated at any one time.

Ken Marshall has done some wonderful illustrations of the wreck as it sits at the bottom of the ocean, which can be found at

“Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark. Professionals built the Titanic.” – Anonymous

Print Sources

Davenport-Hines, Richard.  Voyagers of the Titanic. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

Maltin, Tim.  101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.


  1. I always liked the saying, “The Titanic was built by professionals and the Arc was built by amateurs. The professionals were so arrogant with their ability that they could not see the flaws in their design. The amateurs saw every flaw because they were humble and we see which one was successful.” Everyone needs to be confident in their abilities but we need Humility to understand our limits, especially when we stand next to The Creator.

  2. Sorry I meant ARK

    1. Author

      If it makes you feel any better, I once had a student tell me Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

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