category: culture, category: history

historical tidbits about the Titanic’s sinking

As a child, I was a hopeless bookworm fascinated by history and mysteries. When I wasn’t devouring Nancy Drew Case Files and Encyclopedia Brown, I was reading up on the Bermuda Triangle, the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the Lochness Monster (wad up, Nessy!), and Titanic. Our neighborhood library to which my dad would take me had a total of 3 books on Titanic — I checked them all out at least 5 times.

Since I like to pepper this blog with a break from my political writings and, instead, with random, fun tidbits about history, I will impart here a few kernels of information about the Titanic’s sinking (having watched every documentary made on the subject… the James Cameron DVD specials… etc…. why not!). Hey, maybe this blog post can come in handy while you’re at an office party this month and looking for something to read on your phone aside from your Twitter feed, or while you’re on a blind date and in need of conversation pieces (on second thought, you may come off like a massive dork — do NOT bring up “Hey, want to know something interesting about TItanic?” on a date).

I will also discuss the 1997 James Cameron film, one of the true masterpieces of cinematic history. While the insecure may scoff at my love of the film (wrongly assuming it’s due to some tween-like fondness for the Jack-Rose love story, or for Leonardo DiCaprio), the undeniable truth is that the film is to be revered and appreciated by any history buff. How many times have directors, writers, and producers approached historical periods or events for a film… only to completely botch it, employing little to no historical accuracy? Assuming the film’s main purpose is to entertain, they fail to appreciate that a film can be wildly engrossing, visually stunning, and accurate. (Ridley Scott is a director who comes to mind: Gladiator was so loose with historical facts that one historian reportedly walked off the set and another asked that his name not be credited, while Kingdom of Heaven is a disaster of epic proportions.) Titanic does just the opposite. There is no other film — none — that is as historically accurate or takes such a painstakingly detailed and committed approach to even the most minute detail’s adherence to actual events.

In no particular order, let’s talk-Titanic! (otherwise known as: the moment A.J. lost any semblance of coolness!)

The lifeboats is the first issue that folks bring up when discussing Titanic. “If only they’d had more lifeboats, all those people could’ve been saved!” But is that really true? Let’s explore…

First, what we know: 1) Titanic’s crew and passengers numbered about 2,200. 2) Only about 700 souls survived, on lifeboats (1,500 — i.e., 2 out of every 3 — perished). 3) The ill-fated ship carried 20 lifeboats, enough for only about half its passengers (theoretically, each lifeboat could carry about 65 persons = so, 20 X 65 = 1300).

OK, but why did Titanic carry only enough lifeboats for half the persons onboard? Isn’t that illegal?

Nope. Titanic was perfectly within the law — in fact, it carried four more lifeboats than required by the ordinances of the time. You see, shipbuilding in the Edwardian era was advancing so quickly that it was outpacing the legal regulations. While sixteen lifeboats were required for boats weighing over 10,000 tons (by a law enacted almost twenty years before Titanic sailed), no new regulations addressed how many lifeboats should be carried on boats significant larger (such as the 45,000 ton Titanic!). And, as referenced in the film, White Star Line owner Bruce Ismay overruled designer Thomas Andrews‘s original inclusion of additional lifeboats, in order to provide the passengers with more deck space. While Ismay’s decision may seem careless in hindsight, the Titanic — though never outright described/marketed as ‘unsinkable’, contrary to popular belief — was generally believed to be so: thus, the idea of sacrificing critical deck-space for lifeboats seemed unnecessary. In the case of a highly unlikely accident that required evacuation, the lifeboats would be used to transport passengers to a rescue ship — in other words, lifeboats for every single person onboard would just be unnecessary.

But having more lifeboats onboard would have definitely saved lives, right?
Not necessarily! One fascinating aspect that is often omitted from discussions is that, due to (1) the speed with which Titanic sank, (2) the lack of organization and communication amongst the staff, (3) passengers’ reluctance to board the lifeboats, (4) the staff’s lack of training in lowering lifeboats, and (5) the time it takes to load and lower a lifeboat… it is unlikely any additional lifeboats would have even been used! As you may recall from the film (which accurately depicts this), as the ship submerges, there is even one lifeboat (a collapsible) that has yet to even be deployed — in other words, they barely had time to load and lower all the lifeboats that were onboard. Additional lifeboats would have likely sunk with the ship and never been of any use. Thomas E. Bonsall, a historian of the disaster, notes that the evacuation was so badly organized that even if they had additional lifeboats, it is impossible to see how they could have launched them due to the lack of time (remember: Titanic sank in a little over 2.5 hours) and lack of organization. In fact, the first lifeboat was not lowered until a full hour (!) after the ship had struck the iceberg.

Alright, well, if there were enough lifeboats for half the folks, why were only 1/3 saved?

The reasons are several.

(1) As depicted in the film, most of the lifeboats were not filled to capacity. In one instance, Thomas Andrews exclaims he saw one lifeboat “with only 12!” (this is true — Boat 1 had only 12 passengers onboard. It consisted of first class passengers and crewmen. Follow the link here and scroll down to “Boat 1” if you’re in the mood to be outraged at the callousness of human beings.)

2) How many could the lifeboats carry? One of the officers on duty that night — who survived — later stated at the 65-capacity number was wrong, as that would require folks to be perfectly balanced, possibly standing, and in calm weather conditions. He argued that a capacity of 40 was a more realistic figure. But this ‘testimony’ seems to be self-interested, in order to defend his own actions of failing to properly load the boats. Because, as you can see from the recap below, a few of the boats had more than 40 on board and made out just fine.

Boat 1: 12 (!!!)
Boat 2: 17 (!!!)
Boat 3: 32
Boat 4: 30
Boat 5: 41
Boat 6: 26
Boat 7: 28
Boat 8: 25
Boat 9: 40
Boat 10: 57
Boat 11: 50
Boat 12: 42
Boat 13: 55
Boat 14: 40
Boat 15: 68
Boat 16: 52
Collapsible A: 13
Collapsible B: 14
Collapsible C: 43
Collapsible D: 20

3) Captain Smith ordered his officers to put the “women and children in and lower away.” Officer Murdoch and Officer Lightoller (both portrayed in the film) interpreted the evacuation order differently; Murdoch thought Smith meant women and children first (but men green-lit if no women around, hence why Murdoch allowed men to board), while Lightoller thought it meant women and children only (hence why he lowered lifeboats with only women and children, even if there was room remaining). Murdoch’s interpretation certainly seems more sensible and Lightoller’s makes little sense — empty seats?! As with most things in life, it was all a game of luck (a line from the film, funny enough). A male who happened to be near a lifeboat Murdoch was lowering, had a fair chance — but around Lightoller? none.

4) Passengers were reluctant to board. ‘Why leave the warm ship and board this clunky, dangerous-looking lifeboat, only to have to return once they sort out the problem?,’ they must have figured. John Jacob Astor, the richest man on the ship, who perished, was one such example, overheard remarking that staying on the ship was safer than boarding the lifeboats.

5) The divets (mini-cranes that lower the lifeboats) did not seem to support the weight of the heavy lifeboats carrying passengers. To make matters worse, officers had no idea how many passengers each boat could sustain. In fact, James Cameron noted that, while filming, the divets constructed for the film’s ship/set (which were actually stronger than those on the Titanic) were visibly straining from the weight of lowering the lifeboats (not breaking but certainly bending). Did the divets on the Titanic start to shake and bend? Did the officers fear that they would break? Did such fears lead them to initially lower lifeboats with lower numbers and gradually increase the number on each?

Alright, so the lifeboats may or may not have been a contributing factor in the number of casualties. What about the speed with which Titanic was traveling? Wasn’t that the biggest factor? 

Aside from the lifeboats issue, the usual culprit regarding Titanic is the speed it was traveling. There is no denying that made a difference. We know Captain Smith was urged to speed it up and ‘stretch her legs’, to arrive early and make headlines, by owner Bruce Ismay. We know this because a woman sitting at the table next to them one afternoon overheard the conversation (and testified to that effect at the post-sinking hearings). In fact, she is depicted in the film: look over Ismay’s shoulder at the first-class female passenger who glances over — eavesdropping — as Ismay and Captain Smith have their infamous chat. Of course, it is a matter of opinion whether Smith should have disregarded Ismay’s suggestion. He apparently did not and the speed did make a difference. Here’s why:

Titanic swerved to avoid the iceberg. This caused the iceberg to slice through the side of the ship, making holes all along the side. The ship was designed to withstand water in four of its forward compartments – but not five. Well, guess what? It sliced through four… and into five. And it sliced into five by only a few inches! In other words, Titanic could have dealt with the side-swipe slashing four of its forward compartments — it was the fifth that was the kiss of death. Ouch. So, essentially, the difference between Titanic sinking or night that night — came down to a  few inches.

A recent documentary, however, “Titanic’s Final Mystery” by Nigel Levy, thankfully sheds light on the speed-as-the-culprit issue. It seems Captain Smith was not really being reckless after all. Even at full speed, the lookouts would have, theoretically, been able to see an iceberg when it is still 30 minutes away! So why did Titanic fail to see it earlier, spotting it only when impact was 30 seconds away? We’ll get to that later. For now, the point is they didn’t see it in time, they swerved, and the ship was sliced through the side, opening holes in one compartment too many.

What are some other coincidences that contributed to the sinking?
As one of the historians on the “Titanica” documentary noted, there were a whole host of factors that came together in one ‘perfect storm’ (or horrific storm, one should say) to cause the ship to sink. Makes one wonder if it’s true that what is meant to happen, will happen.

For instance, the lookout’s binoculars were missing that day, so the lookouts went up on their post without any. Had they seen the iceberg a few seconds earlier, would that have made a difference? Definitely, as perhaps the ship would have turned with enough of an angle so as to avoid the five compartments slashed open. (However, in the “Titanic’s Final Mystery” documentary, it is noted that the binoculars would actually not have been used by the lookouts, as binoculars are for inspection of objects, not detection. In fact, using binoculars might impede one’s ability to see the entire horizon or the full picture of what is laying ahead.)

The wireless operator in The California (a ship who was stopped, only 10 miles away and thus could have saved Titanic’s passengers) went to bed less than half an hour before the Titanic struck the iceberg. Conicidentially, he’d also been told to take a hike by Titanic’s wireless operators earlier that night, as, being so close, his message regarding ice in the area was interfering with the backlog of messages that Titanic was sending out on behalf of its passengers. When the Californian operator sent the message, he wrote:

“Say old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice.”

Titanic’s wireless operator responded:

“Shut up, I am busy working.”

What a mistake.

The freak weather conditions. One may wonder: well why was Titanic’s route planned, in early April’s North Atlantic, through areas known for icebergs? Good question. The truth is: icebergs were not normally a problem in that area. In fact, it was too far south for icebergs, especially ones so large. But, there they were. Moreover, 1912, it seems, was a freak year for icebergs, with twice the amount in the area than was customary. And the icebergs were not the only freak-weather condition contributing to the night’s tragedy. The waters were also eerily calm. Why was this a problem? Well, with calm water and no waves it was much harder to spot an iceberg (since there is no breaking water at the iceberg’s base). Oh, and did I mention the moon was hidden?

So we know approximately 700 persons went into the lifeboats and 1500 perished. But couldn’t the lifeboats (especially the ones that had room) return and pick up some of the folks who fell into the sea?
Yes, of course they could have. However, in a show of humans’ dark side, selfishness, and callousness — only one (out of the 20 lifeboats) returned to pick up survivors (if I recall correctly, six persons were saved this way). Several individual passengers on various lifeboats urged their fellow rescued passengers — or officers-in-charge — to return. In the movie, this is portrayed by Molly Brown, who urges those on her lifeboat to ‘grab an oar’ and row back… only to be refused and threatened. While the human instinct of self-preservation is understandable, and the fear that the lifeboat could be swamped is not without merit, the refusal to return is almost unforgivable. Humans struggling in hypothermic-inducing-levels-of-cold, wearing awkward life jackets, are not exactly going to successfully ‘swarm a boat.’ The failure to return must be an aspect of that night that haunted survivors for the rest of their lives.

Who are some of the heroes of Titanic?
In a story about the perils of human selfishness and arrogance, I prefer to focus on the positive aspects of Titanic’s story. Let’s start with the electricians: Titanic had 32 electricians onboard. Early on, they were told to save themselves and make a run for it. All 32 decided to stay in the bowels of the ship, working in order to keep the electricity and wireless operations working. And they did — the wireless operators were able to send out repeated messages (to no avail, sure, but at least they were able to make the effort), and the lights stayed on (helping passengers find their way) until only a few minutes before Titanic floundered.

The band (consisting of devout Christians) also opted to play until the end, to ease the tension and panic of passengers.

And, of course, there are the officers who performed ably and the many male passengers who calmly did not even fight for a place on a lifeboat, resigning themselves to their fate with dignity and grace. (In fact, some have noted that male fatalities were disproportionately British due to British culture’s emphasis on chivalry and a ‘stiff upper lip’ in times of crises. As the ship sank, Captain Smith is said to have shouted: “Be British boys, be British!” One cannot help but smile at these stories — tough Brits certainly went down with their pride and heroism intact.

Weren’t there any ships nearby that could come to Titanic’s rescue?
Indeed there were — namely, the California. But the ship that ultimately arrived on the scene was the Carpathia — albeit it at 4 am (an hour and a half after Titanic had already sunk and the 1500 who went into the sea were long dead). Though it arrived late, Carpathia nonetheless rescued those in lifeboats from the freezing temperatures and, it should also be noted, the Carpathia’s captain hauled-ass (to put it in modern-day terms) through icebergs to get there as fast as it could (in 4 hours), without hesitating for a moment.

Which brings us to the villain (or just woefully inept) player in the Titanic story… the Californian.

The Californian was a ship which had stopped (due to a huge sheet of ice, it decided to stop and wait until morning to continue its journey) only 10 miles away from Titanic. In fact, Titanic could see Californian earlier that night, and vice versa.

As I mentioned earlier, the Californian sent Titanic radio messages regarding the ice in the area. But its messages were interfering with the personal messages that Titanic’s wireless operator was sending out (on behalf of passengers: e.g., “See you in New York; having a grand old time!), so Titanic’s operator asked the Californian to leave him alone. Shortly thereafter, the Californian’s operator went to sleep. It was roughly 11:30 pm. And Titanic hit the iceberg less than a half hour later. OUCH. So, when Titanic began furiously sending out wireless signals (including the new “SOS” cry for help), no one was listening in the Californian’s empty wireless room.

Titanic then began firing rockets into the air (rightly so). This should have worked. That, too, failed. Sure, the lookouts on the Californian’s deck saw the rockets — and even phoned down to the Captain several times (essentially: ‘Hey Captain, there’s a ship a few miles away and it looks kind of weird — we think they’re firing rockets into the air’). The Captain, however, failed to take any appropriate action. He simply told the lookouts to try signaling to the ship with a lamp (Morse Code) but did not tell them to go to the wireless room and turn it on to see if any messages were coming through. Incredible, huh?

So, despite being within visual distance, the Californian did nothing. Imagine for a minute what it must have felt like the next morning for the Californian’s crew when they woke up and heard the news… and realized they could have helped but didn’t. That they could have saved 1500 lives… but didn’t. Sometimes, when I want to go to sleep but need to stay up a little while longer, I think of the Californian’s wireless operator changing history by deciding to go to bed… and, it does the trick! (Not really, I usually pass out.)

So, Remember the Californian! Don’t be them! 🙂

As for inquiries afterward, there were many of course. The Californian’s captain’s story kept changing and he even reportedly hid the ship’s official log, so as to hide that they had noticed the Titanic’s rockets. 

What could Titanic have done differently to avoid the casualties?
In one of the documentaries, James Cameron has a fun exercise with fellow experts in which he poses to them the following question: “Let’s say you’re on Titanic. The iceberg has already hit and the damage is done. What would you do differently?” One expert suggested driving to the California (the same way you can go a small distance in an injured car with a flat tire, a ship taking on water can still move a few miles). Others seemed skeptical of this, however. One suggested moving folks onto the iceberg (yeah, that sounded crazy to me, too) — but one expert rightly retired that the iceberg was a few hundred meters back (so how would they get passengers on it?).

In a book I read years ago, it was suggested that Titanic would have been better off hitting the iceberg straight on. It is hard to argue against this theory in light of what we know: that the damage was mainly due to the side-swipe (which tore holes/a gash along the side, in five compartments). Hitting the iceberg straight on would have just resulted in one big thud and a bump (and damage to the stern or maybe one or two forward compartments) but it could have remained afloat.

BTW, the freak side-swipe? It had never happened before in maritime history and has never happened since! Seems Murphy’s Law was in play that night.

What happened to the Titanic’s survivors?
They were taken to New York. In fact, many were given rooms at the Chelsea Hotel on 8th Avenue and 22nd Street (holla to my old hood!). A friendly bellhop there told me some of the ghost stories of the hotel, including one woman routinely seen by guests. She was apparently a passenger whose fiancé didn’t make it onto the lifeboats. Shortly after reaching the Chelsea Hotel, besotted by grief, she took her own life in one of the rooms.

So there’s my Titanic-facts recap! Feel free to let me know your thoughts, especially regarding what you think Titanic could have done differently or any thoughts you have this mystical, certainly timeless, event.


3 thoughts on “historical tidbits about the Titanic’s sinking

  1. I loved reading that. Your writing style is infectious and your enthusiasm for the topic is unmistakable. Like you I’ve been fascinated with the Titanic story from a young age. The idea that humans could be so confident and yet so wrong has always captivated me. I never understood why the movie was getting bad press before it was released. It seemed like excellent subject matter for a movie and of course it had been adapted in the past with some success.

    I definitely never understood the backlash the movie got from some quarters after it became successful. It was a masterful production made by a director who was as right for this material as any director has ever been for any movie. James Cameron was at least as excited about going on the diving expedition to explore the actual wreck as he was about making the movie. He had a genuine passion for the project, even giving up his own salary to secure a budget increase (which the studio later voluntarily gave him back after its success). Cameron is a borderline megalomaniacal, detail-oriented perfectionist, just what a historical motion picture needs.

    I dislike how the movie has been pigeonholed as some kind of teen romance phenomenon by some of its fans and detractors alike. The entire point and purpose of the production was to tell the true story of the Titanic. The human story is simply there as an accessory so that it feels like a movie, in which we’re invited to experience events through the close perspective of characters, as opposed to a history lesson taken in from a greater emotional distance. Roger Ebert made the brilliant observation that the early scenes of Jack and Rose’s courtship surreptitiously serve the purpose of introducing us to the details of all the locations that will later factor into the climactic third act. The movie was always meant to be judged on how well it told the story of the Titanic tragedy. On that measure it succeeded beyond compare.

    I was wondering, A.J., about a couple points of accuracy with respect to the ship’s destruction in the movie. I’ve read that the size of the hole or holes in the ship’s hull caused by the impact of the iceberg was about the size of a refrigerator. I seem to remember the movie showing it as more of a long gash. I also remember reading that theories about the way the ship broke apart and shifted position on the water before sinking may have been revamped since the movie was made, so that what the movie shows there may not be considered accurate any more. What’s your opinion on these two matters?

    Thanks for the great history lesson!

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