The "Unsinkable" Titanic Sinks
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The "Unsinkable" Titanic Sinks
unsinkable titanic sinks
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On This Day: “Unsinkable” Titanic Lost After Hitting Iceberg

On This Day: “Unsinkable” Titanic Lost After Hitting Iceberg | The "Unsinkable" Titanic Sinks |
On April 15, 1912, the world learned that the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, killing 1,500 people.
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Titanic Sinks

sinking of the Titanic

Date: 1912
Date: 1912
-->From: Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History.

Place: North Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Newfoundland
Date: April 14–15, 1912
Type: Ship accident
Description: The White Star liner Titanic, considered "practically unsinkable," foundered in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg, resulting in the loss of two-thirds of its passengers and crew.
Causes: Overconfidence in technology, lack of communication about ice warnings, errors in judgment about weather conditions and speed, and lack of enough lifeboats to accommodate those on board combined with striking an iceberg
Casualties: According to the U.S. Senate Inquiry: 1,517 passengers and crew members; according to the British Board of Trade Inquiry: 1,503 passengers and crew members
Cost: Titanic, fully outfitted, cost about $7.5 million and carried $5 million in insurance; $16,804,112 in claims for loss of life and property were made in the United States against its owners, but after lengthy legal action only $663,000 was paid out to claimants.
Impact: Major changes in safety regulations for shipping

A shocked world learned on April 15, 1912, that the RMS Titanic, the newest, largest, and most luxurious ship ever built, had struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage en route from Southampton, England, to New York. Late on the cold clear night of Sunday, April 14, 1912, Titanic was steaming westward at 21–22 knots. For the previous four days, some of North America's richest people, as well as some of Europe's humblest emigrants, had enjoyed a transatlantic crossing of unprecedented comfort. Suddenly, lookouts spotted an iceberg dead ahead. The first officer ordered the engines reversed and tried to steer around the berg, but the ship was too close to avoid it. At about 11:40 P.M., Titanic struck what seemed to have been a glancing blow to the iceberg. Most passengers and crew felt no concern about the collision, having faith in their "unsinkable" ship. However, on inspection, it became clear that the ship's first five watertight compartments were rapidly flooding and that the ship would founder.

Captain E. J. Smith ordered the lifeboats uncovered and distress signals sent out by wireless in the hopes of finding a nearby vessel to come to Titanic's aid. He was well aware that there were only enough lifeboats for 1,178 of Titanic's more than 2,200 passengers and crew. Almost half would die in the frigid water if it sank before help arrived. About an hour after striking the iceberg, the first lifeboats were launched, but many were only partially filled. The ship's engineers worked desperately to keep the great vessel afloat as long as possible, but the pumps could not keep up with the volume of water rushing in. At 2:20 A.M. on Monday, April 15, Titanic sank, drowning more than two-thirds of its passengers and crew. Several hours later, the Cunard liner Carpathia picked up 705 survivors from the lifeboats. A $7.5 million ship had sunk after only four and one-half days in service. Prominent multimillionaires like John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim perished alongside working-class immigrants from all over Europe. The Senate investigation that followed failed to find evidence of negligence but recommended that new regulations be introduced governing passenger ship structure, safety equipment, and navigation in order to increase the safety of the transatlantic crossing.

At four city blocks long and 11 stories high, Titanic was the biggest ship ever built when it was launched at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, Ireland. The White Star Line wanted Titanic and its sister ship Olympic built to carry passengers between Europe and the United States in unprecedented comfort and safety. Titanic, the newer and more luxurious of the two, had a gymnasium, Turkish bath, squash court, and shipboard swimming pool. It also had a hospital and a darkroom for developing shipboard photographs. The opulently decorated staterooms, lounges, and dining areas, as well as the attentive service, reminded first-class passengers of staying in one of the finest hotels. Even third-class accommodations far surpassed those of Titanic's rivals.

White Star ordered Harland and Wolff to build these ships for safety. Theorizing that running aground and collisions were the greatest dangers a ship could encounter, Harland and Wolff engineered Titanic to withstand these two types of damage. The craft had a double-bottomed hull and its interior was divided by transverse bulkheads into a series of 16 watertight compartments. According to its designers, in a collision with the bow of the ship, Titanic could stay afloat with the first four compartments completely flooded, and in the event of a broadside collision, the ship could stay afloat with any two central compartments completely flooded. It was inconceivable to its owners and builders that Titanic would ever encounter a greater threat than this. These features caused Shipbuilder magazine to call Titanic "practically unsinkable."

Overconfidence in this technology led the builders and owners to send Titanic into service with only enough lifeboats for about half of those on board. Although in early plans Titanic was to have 32 lifeboats for her full capacity of more than 3,000 passengers and crew, they did not consider it necessary to provide lifeboats for all aboard; they believed that in the event of a mishap passengers would be safer staying on the big ship than getting into small lifeboats on the ocean. Additionally, the outdated regulations of the British Board of Trade, the agency that governed safety matters for British ships, required only 16 lifeboats on ships weighing more than 10,000 tons. Although Titanic weighed more than 46,000 tons, its total of 20 boats exceeded the board's minimum requirements.

The shortest route between Great Britain and the United States was a "great circle" that took ships far north in the Atlantic Ocean to take advantage of the curvature of the earth. Ice was a well-known navigational hazard on this route. In fact, from January 15 to August 14, ships used the "summer route," which was farther south and longer than the "winter route" but provided protection from the icebergs and field ice that would drift south from late winter to late summer. In April 1912, however, Titanic's use of this summer route was not sufficient to avoid encountering ice. It had been an unusually mild winter and ice had drifted much farther south than usual, into the shipping lanes.

Minor disorganization and occasionally shaky communications, attributable to the unfamiliarity of the crew with each other and the new ship, contributed to the accident. For example, the lookouts stationed high up in the crow's nest had no binoculars. At Southampton, some of the binoculars for the officers of the bridge (the ship's command center) were lost when the senior officers were shuffled at the last minute to bring in more experienced men. The officers kept the remaining pairs on the bridge, leaving the lookouts without any for the duration of the voyage. Binoculars might have enabled the lookouts to spot the iceberg sooner and let the ship avoid it altogether. In addition, although Titanic carried a state-of-the-art, long-range Marconi set—an early two-way radio capable of transmitting telegraph communications—two critically important messages, which would have warned Titanic's officers about ice directly in its path that Sunday, did not reach the bridge at all. During the voyage, Titanic's wireless operators relayed and received several messages from ships encountering ice on the route, but there was no protocol giving priority to picking out messages with navigational information from wireless traffic and delivering them immediately to the bridge. This lack of information led to a key error in judgment. Unaware of how close the dangerous ice field was, Titanic's captain saw no reason to slow down or post extra lookouts on a clear night.

Weather conditions that night added to the danger. Visibility was clear, but there was no moon, and the sea was dead calm. Both these factors made it more difficult than usual to spot icebergs a long way off.

Once Titanic hit the iceberg and Captain Smith knew the ship would sink, confusion and lack of communication hampered the evacuation and increased the number of fatalities. Neither the passengers nor all of the officers initially knew the full gravity of the situation, so assembling passengers and readying and loading lifeboats at first went slowly. Many of the boats were lowered half empty by officers who, not having been informed that the boats had been tested fully loaded by Harland and Wolff, did not trust them to hold the stated capacity. The fact that there were no assigned places in the boats and that there had been no boat drill for either passengers or crew during the voyage added to the confusion of the loading and launching process, as did an apparent lack of seamen experienced in lowering and handling small boats. Of a crew of nearly 900, less than 70 were seamen. Most were the stewards, cooks, waiters, bellboys, janitors, and other service workers needed to run a floating five-star hotel. Without a drill and with too few crewmen to help guide them, third-class passengers found it especially difficult to make their way to the lifeboats. As a result, poorer passengers suffered the highest rate of losses. Only a few of the third-class male passengers, and less than half of the third-class female and child passengers survived, despite the officers' emphasis on putting "women and children first" into the lifeboats.

At the beginning, there was little sense of urgency. Passengers, confident of the giant ship's safety, proved reluctant to be lowered some 70 feet down to the surface of the icy water, and the crew did not force them. It was warmer inside the ship and, at least in the first-class lounge, a band played music to keep spirits up. As the bow sank lower and lower in the water, it finally became clear to all that the ship would sink. By this time, most of the lifeboats were launched. As the final boats were loaded, the officers had to use the threat of firearms to keep order among tense and panicky passengers.

As Titanic made its final plunge into the depths, some 1,500 souls were cast into the sea. Survivors remembered that the air was filled with their cries for help. Yet only one of the underfilled boats went back to pick up people in the water. Had a rescue ship arrived before Titanic sank, most lives could have been saved. But Titanic's passengers and crew were not that lucky. Although the running lights—the illumination required when a boat was underway at night—of a distant ship were seen roughly five to 10 miles away, the vessel did not respond to the wireless messages sent or the distress rockets fired by Titanic. It remains unclear why this mystery ship, subsequently identified by the British Board of Trade as the Californian although its captain denied it, did not assist the Titanic. Carpathia, the closest ship that did respond, was 58 miles away. It arrived after those in the freezing water had long since succumbed to hypothermia. Carpathia's crew rescued only 705 survivors. Adding to the tragedy was the fact that most of the bodies were carried away by the current and never recovered despite several expeditions sent by the White Star Line to do so.

Fed by inaccurate newspaper reports, all day long on April 15 there was hope that Titanic was damaged but under tow and that all passengers and crew would be safe. Finally, a short message to White Star's New York office from the company's managing director, himself a survivor on the Carpathia, dashed these hopes.

As the reality set in, waves of grief and anger rolled across the United States. How could the "unsinkable" Titanic sink? What negligence or incompetence had cost so many innocent lives? By the time Carpathia docked in New York on Thursday, April 18, the U.S. Senate had already formed a subcommittee to investigate the disaster. The hearings began the next morning in New York but soon were transferred to Washington, D.C. The committee's final report, issued six weeks later, noted the misguided assumptions, errors in judgment, and disorganization. However, because of the lax regulations in effect in 1912, these problems did not constitute legal negligence under either U.S. or British law. Thus the Senate report made numerous recommendations to increase regulation to better protect the safety of passengers at sea. From May to July 1912, the British Board of Trade held its own inquiry, chaired by Lord Mersey. Its findings exonerated the owners and crew; it also made recommendations to increase safety on the high seas.

In response to the Titanic disaster, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation requiring enough lifeboats for all persons on board ships and 24-hour manning of wireless equipment at sea. In 1915, Congress made lifeboat drills mandatory. Another response was the United States's participation in the International Conference for the Safety of Life at Sea held in London in 1913. It resulted in an international agreement that adopted the requirement of lifeboats for all; mandated moderation of speed and/or alteration of course in the event of ice reports; forbade the use of distress signals for any other purpose; laid down wireless and structural requirements; and provided for the creation of an International Ice Patrol to warn ships of ice and other navigational hazards in the North Atlantic.




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