SINKING OF THE RMS TITANIC
(Departure of the Lifeboats)
At 00:45, lifeboat No. 7 was rowed away from Titanic with an estimated 28 passengers on board, despite a capacity of 65. Lifeboat No. 6, on the port side, was the next to be lowered at 00:55. It also had 28 people on board, among them the “unsinkable” Margaret “Molly” Brown. Lightoller realised there was only one seaman on board (Quartermaster Robert Hichens) and called for volunteers. Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club stepped forward and climbed down a rope into the lifeboat; he was the only adult male passenger whom Lightoller allowed to board during the port side evacuation. Peuchen’s role highlighted a key problem during the evacuation: there were hardly any seamen to man the boats. Some had been sent below to open gangway doors to allow more passengers to be evacuated, but they never returned. They were presumably trapped and drowned by the rising water below decks.
Meanwhile, other crewmen fought to maintain vital services as water continued to pour into the ship below decks. The engineers and firemen worked to vent steam from the boilers to prevent them from exploding on contact with the cold water. They re-opened watertight doors in order to set up extra portable pumps in the forward compartments in a futile bid to reduce the torrent, and kept the electrical generators running to maintain lights and power throughout the ship. Steward Frederick Dent Ray narrowly avoided being swept away when a wooden wall between his quarters and the third-class accommodation on E deck collapsed, leaving him waist-deep in water. Two engineers, Herbert Harvey and Jonathan Shepherd (who had just broken his left leg after falling into a manhole minutes earlier), died in boiler room No. 5 when, at around 00:45, the bunker door separating it from the flooded No. 6 boiler room collapsed and they were swept away by “a wave of green foam” according to leading fireman Frederick Barrett, who barely escaped from the boiler room.
In boiler room No. 4, at around 01:20 according to survivor Trimmer George Cavell, water began flooding in from the metal floor plates below, possibly indicating that the bottom of the ship had also been holed by the iceberg. The flow of water soon overwhelmed the pumps and forced the firemen and trimmers to evacuate the forward boiler rooms. Further aft, Chief Engineer Bell, his engineering colleagues, and a handful of volunteer firemen and greasers stayed behind in the unflooded No. 1, 2 and 3 boiler rooms and in the turbine and reciprocating engine rooms. They continued working on the boilers and the electrical generators in order to keep the ship’s lights and pumps operable and to power the radio so that distress signals could be sent. According to popular belief, they remained at their posts until the very end, thus ensuring that Titanic‘s electrics functioned until the final minutes of the sinking, and died in the bowels of the ship. According to Greaser Frederick Scott at the British inquiry, at around 02:05 when it became obvious that nothing more could be done, and the flooding was too severe for the pumps to cope, some of the engineers and crew came up onto Titanic‘s open well deck, but by this time all the lifeboats had left. Scott testified to seeing eight of the ship’s 35 engineers gathered at the aft end of the starboard boat deck. None of the ship’s 35 engineers and electricians survived. Neither did any of the Titanic‘s five postal clerks, who were last seen struggling to save the mail bags they had rescued from the flooded mail room. They were caught by the rising water somewhere on D deck.
Many of the third-class passengers were also confronted with the sight of water pouring into their quarters on E, F and G decks. Carl Jansson, one of the relatively small number of third-class survivors, later recalled:
Then I run down to my cabin to bring my other clothes, watch and bag but only had time to take the watch and coat when water with enormous force came into the cabin and I had to rush up to the deck again where I found my friends standing with lifebelts on and with terror painted on their faces. What should I do now, with no lifebelt and no shoes and no cap?
The lifeboats were lowered every few minutes on each side, but most of the boats were greatly under-filled. No. 5 left with 41 aboard, No. 3 had 32 aboard, No. 8 left with 39 and No. 1 left with just 12 out of a capacity of 40. The evacuation did not go smoothly and passengers suffered accidents and injuries as it progressed. One woman fell between lifeboat No. 10 and the side of the ship but someone caught her by the ankle and hauled her back onto the promenade deck, where she made a successful second attempt at boarding. First-class passenger Annie Stengel had several ribs broken when an overweight German-American doctor and his brother jumped into No. 5, squashing her and knocking her unconscious. The lifeboats’ descent was likewise risky. No. 6 was nearly flooded during the descent by water discharging out of the ship’s side, but successfully made it away from the ship. No. 3 came close to disaster when, for a time, one of the davits jammed, threatening to pitch the passengers out of the lifeboat and into the sea.
By 01:20, the seriousness of the situation was now apparent to the passengers above decks, who began saying their goodbyes, with husbands escorting their wives and children to the lifeboats. Distress flares were fired every few minutes to attract the attention of any ships nearby and the radio operators repeatedly sent the distress signal CQD. Radio operator Harold Bride suggested to his colleague Jack Phillips that he should use the new SOS signal, as it “may be your last chance to send it”. The two radio operators contacted other ships to ask for assistance. Several responded, of which RMS Carpathia was the closest, at 58 miles (93 km) away. She was a much slower vessel than Titanic and, even driven at her maximum speed of 17 kn (20 mph; 31 km/h), would have taken four hours to reach the sinking ship. Another to respond was SS Mount Temple, which set a course and headed for Titanic‘s position but was stopped en route by pack ice.
Much nearer was SS Californian, which had warned Titanic of ice a few hours earlier. Apprehensive at his ship being caught in a large field of drift ice, Californian‘s captain, Stanley Lord, had decided at about 22:00 to halt for the night and wait for daylight to find a way through the ice field. At 23:30, 10 minutes before Titanic hit the iceberg, Californian‘s sole radio operator, Cyril Evans, shut his set down for the night and went to bed. On the bridge her third officer, Charles Groves, saw a large vessel to starboard around 10 to 12 mi (16 to 19 km) away. It made a sudden turn to port and stopped. If the radio operator of Californian had stayed at his post fifteen minutes longer, hundreds of lives might have been saved. A little over an hour later, Second Officer Herbert Stone saw five white rockets exploding above the stopped ship. Unsure what the rockets meant, he called Captain Lord, who was resting in the chartroom, and reported the sighting. Lord did not act on the report, but Stone was perturbed: “A ship is not going to fire rockets at sea for nothing,” he told a colleague.
By this time, it was clear to those on Titanic that the ship was indeed sinking and there would not be enough lifeboat places for everyone. Some still clung to the hope that the worst would not happen: Lucian Smith told Eloise, his wife of two months, “It is only a matter of form to have women and children first. The ship is thoroughly equipped and everyone on her will be saved.” Charlotte Collyer’s husband Harvey called to his wife as she was put in a lifeboat, “Go, Lottie! For God’s sake, be brave and go! I’ll get a seat in another boat!” Neither man survived.
Other couples refused to be separated. Ida Straus, the wife of Macy’s department store co-owner and former member of the United States House of Representatives Isidor Straus, told her husband: “We have been living together for many years. Where you go, I go.” They sat down in a pair of deck chairs and waited for the end. The industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim changed out of his life vest and sweater into top hat and evening dress and declared his wish to go down with the ship like a gentleman.
At this point, the vast majority of passengers who had boarded lifeboats were from first- and second-class. Few third-class (steerage) passengers had made it up onto the deck, and most were still lost in the maze of corridors or trapped behind gates and partitions that segregated the accommodation for the steerage passengers from the first- and second-class areas. This segregation was not simply for social reasons, but was a requirement of United States immigration laws, which mandated that third-class passengers be segregated to control immigration and to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. First- and second-class passengers on transatlantic liners disembarked at the main piers on Manhattan Island, but steerage passengers had to go through health checks and processing at Ellis Island. In at least some places, Titanic‘s crew appear to have actively hindered the steerage passengers’ escape. Some of the gates were locked and guarded by crew members, apparently to prevent the steerage passengers from rushing the lifeboats. Irish survivor Margaret Murphy wrote in May 1912:
Before all the steerage passengers had even a chance of their lives, the Titanic’s sailors fastened the doors and companionways leading up from the third-class section … A crowd of men was trying to get up to a higher deck and were fighting the sailors; all striking and scuffling and swearing. Women and some children were there praying and crying. Then the sailors fastened down the hatchways leading to the third-class section. They said they wanted to keep the air down there so the vessel could stay up longer. It meant all hope was gone for those still down there.
A long and winding route had to be taken to reach topside; the steerage-class accommodation, located on C through G decks, was at the extreme ends of the decks, and so was the farthest away from the lifeboats. By contrast, the first-class accommodation was located on the upper decks and so was nearest. Proximity to the lifeboats thus became a key factor in determining who got into them. To add to the difficulty, many of the steerage passengers did not understand or speak English. It was perhaps no coincidence that English-speaking Irish immigrants were disproportionately represented among the steerage passengers who survived. Many of those who did survive owed their lives to third-class steward John Edward Hart, who organised three trips into the ship’s interior to escort groups of third-class passengers up to the boat deck. Others made their way through open gates or climbed emergency ladders.
Some, perhaps overwhelmed by it all, made no attempt to escape and stayed in their cabins or congregated in prayer in the third-class dining room. Leading Fireman Charles Hendrickson saw crowds of third-class passengers below decks with their trunks and possessions, as if waiting for someone to direct them. Psychologist Wynn Craig Wade attributes this to “stoic passivity” produced by generations of being told what to do by social superiors. August Wennerström, one of the male steerage passengers to survive, commented later that many of his companions had made no effort to save themselves. He wrote:
Hundreds were in a circle [in the third-class dining saloon] with a preacher in the middle, praying, crying, asking God and Mary to help them. They lay there and yelled, never lifting a hand to help themselves. They had lost their own will power and expected God to do all the work for them.
Henry Reuterdahl (August 12, 1870 – December 21, 1925) was a Swedish-American painter highly acclaimed for his nautical artwork. He had a long relationship with the United States Navy.
In addition to serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Naval Reserve Force, he was selected by President Theodore Roosevelt to accompany the Great White Fleet voyage in 1907 to document the journey. In addition to his artwork, he was a frequent writer on naval topics, and served as an editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships.