For those of us who love sea stories, the finding of the RMS Titanic two miles down in the North Atlantic is great news.
Although the Titanic sank more than 73 years ago, the disaster remains vivid in the English-speaking world. It has inspired several books and at least two movies.
By a chance of timing, the story is told again in the current Parker’s Gazette, an “Old News” paper edited and published by Larry Goudge (P.O. Box 28444, Santa Ana, Calif. 92799).
It is a good account by Edward S. Kamuda, telling how the Titanic sailed from Southampton on April 10, 1912--the largest, most luxurious and supposedly the safest liner in the world--struck an iceberg on the night of April 14 and sank bow down with a loss of 1,517 lives. Only 706 survived. Many who perished were among the elite of two continents.
It is a story of human vanity and folly, and of courage. In one memorable scene, Mrs. Isador Straus, whose husband owned Macy’s, refused to go into a lifeboat without her husband. In keeping with Victorian chivalry, the rule was women and children first.
“We have been together for many years,” she is said to have told her husband, “and I will not leave you now. Where you go, I will go too.”
Kamuda writes that “they walked away together to the glass-enclosed promenade deck and were never seen again.”
The Titanic was compartmented and double-bottomed, and was considered unsinkable. When she struck the iceberg shortly before midnight, she seemed merely to shudder. But below the waterline the ice had ripped a 300-foot gash in her starboard side. She was mortally wounded.
The ship had received several radio warnings about icebergs from other ships. But it was a clear, calm night, and she was on course and steaming full ahead at 22 1/2 knots. Capt. Edward J. Smith had gone to bed, as had most of the passengers. The temperature was 33 degrees and falling fast.
At 11:40 a lookout saw something looming dead ahead. He rang the warning bell three times and called the bridge.
“What do you see?” he was asked.
“Iceberg, dead ahead!” he shouted.
“Thank you,” came the nonchalant reply.
For some reason First Officer William Murdoch, then on duty, first ordered “hard-a-starboard,’ then “hard-a-port.” The ship seemed merely to graze the iceberg as it passed.
Murdoch ordered the engines stopped and pulled a lever to close the watertight compartments. Then he called the captain.
Capt. Smith quickly saw that the engine room was filling fast with icy water. The ship was doomed. He ordered his radiomen to send out a call for assistance. The message crackled over the North Atlantic.
“CQD . . . CQD . . . Have struck an iceberg. . . . Require immediate assistance. . . . CQD . . . CQD . . . CQD . . . MGY.” (MGY was code for the Titanic.)
In a later message the wireless operator threw in an SOS. SOS had just been agreed on as an international signal of distress, and the Titanic was the first big passenger liner to use it.
On the Cunard liner Carpathia, 52 miles away, the ship’s operator picked up the faint call. He penciled the message and ran to the quarters of Capt. Arthur H. Rostron.
“Are you certain it is the Titanic?” the astonished captain asked.
Assured that it was, Capt. Rostron, like all great commanders, acted on the instant.
“Very well, then, tell them we are coming at once with all speed!”
Meanwhile, the Titanic’s deck was rapidly tipping as her bow sank. Hundreds of passengers and crew crowded onto its rising stern in life jackets. It is legend that the ship’s band stood gallantly through the nightmare, and at the last played “Nearer My God to Thee.” It is true, according to Kamuda, that the band played as the ship was going down, but it played Irving Berlin favorites, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and at the end a popular hymn of the day called “Autumn.”
By the hundreds people jumped or fell from the ship into the freezing water. Some fought for places on the bottoms of overturned lifeboats. Capt. Smith is said to have swum to one to hand an infant up, then swam back to go down with his ship.
At 4 a.m. the Carpathia appeared after its full-speed dash through the ice fields. The Titanic’s lifeboats were hauled up, and most of those who were in them survived.
Among them was the redoubtable Leadville gold queen, the scandalous Denver social climber, Margaret Tobin Brown, who had been to Europe on one of her many trips to spend money and rub elbows with royalty. Asked by New York reporters to what she owed her survival, Mrs. Brown answered, “Typical Brown luck. We’re unsinkable.” She was known forever after as “the unsinkable Molly Brown.”
Capt. Rostron of the Carpathia became a true hero of the sea. He is shown in a photograph, lean and handsome in his full-dress uniform, receiving a silver cup from Mrs. Brown, who stands under an enormous hat topped with ostrich feathers.
Some of the entrepreneurs who found the Titanic are eager to raise her. But marine scientists say let her rest in peace.
Most likely nothing would be found to answer the old questions.
Why did Capt. Smith not alter his course after the radio warnings? Why did the Titanic have lifeboats for fewer than half her passengers and crew? Why had there been no boat drills?
The sinking of the unsinkable ship shocked the world, but like the crash of airliners it was only a momentary setback in this technological century.