Monday, September 26, 2011


On April 25, 1912, firemen from Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, refused to work on the ship because of insufficient lifeboats and caused a strike. The company insisted that the collapsible boats they provided had been tested and were adequate, but the men picketed, saying those boats were old, formerly used on troopships. Furthermore some collapsibles refused to open and one man had put his hand through the canvas side. The firemen were accused of mutiny, but the magistrates refused to fine or imprison them. When faulty boats were replaced, the strikers returned and the ship sailed on May 15.

on learning of the Titanic’s sinking, a U. S. Senator from Michigan, William A. Smith (not to be confused with E. J. Smith, captain of the Titanic) called for an inquiry, the results of which were to be a reform of the laws governing ocean travel. In addition to requiring enough lifeboats for everyone on board, other safety measures were adopted. More ships were outfitted with double hulls, and watertight compartments had complete bulkheads. Crews were required to be proficient in the handling of lifeboats and passengers required to attend a boat drill where they would learn how to don a life jacket and which lifeboat to board. Cruise ship passengers still do that today.

North Atlantic shipping lanes were moved forty miles south during winter if there was any danger of ice, and ice patrols were formed to keep ships out of the path of icebergs. This became our present day Coast Guard.

One of the most important changes in England came about gradually, but the Titanic disaster is often cited as the beginning of the movement. That was the end of the belief that Steerage passengers--the lower class--were expendable. They resented being considered less worthy of living than wealthy passengers, and they began to insist on respect and the ability to rise above the station into which they’d been born. The lesson of the Titanic and, later, of World War I, taught them that leadership was not an exclusive possession of the rich. They changed their attitude and took more control of their lives.

Yes, the U.K. still has a queen, princes and princesses, Lords and Ladies. Yet immigrants continue to come here because of our Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal...”

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A little-known but interesting (to me) result of the sinking of Titanic was because it allowed a woman to be reunited with her children. A French couple with two small children was having marital problems and they separated for awhile, the wife taking their little boys to her mother’s home. The husband decided to kidnap the children and take them to America, so he pretended to want them only for the Easter weekend.

His wife agreed, but instead he went to Southhampton, used another name and boarded Titanic. When the ship was sinking, he couldn’t board a lifeboat and passed his two children over the heads of other passengers to give them to women already in Collapsible D. The husband perished, and the children, aged two and three, who knew no English, were called “Waifs of the Sea.” However, their picture appeared in many newspapers, their mother recognized them, and the White Star Line sent her to New York to get them and bring them home. It was a kind of happy ending. A recently-published book, DANGEROUS AFFAIRS, by Gardner Brooks, is basely loosely on that true story.

There will be one more Blog in this series and the subject will be a few films made about the Titanic tragedy. Please check it out next week.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Earlier that evening, before Titanic struck the iceberg, wireless operator Phillips had been feverishly sending messages, trying to catch up on what had accumulated while his equipment was down. These were forwarded through the relay station at Cape Race on Newfoundland. Though the operators were also required to (and did) send shipping messages to the bridge, they worked for the Marconi company, not the White Star Line. Passengers’ messages were a priority since they were paying for them.

At 11:30 p.m. Phillips was suddenly interrupted by the voice of the Californian’s wireless operator. “Say, old man, we are surrounded by ice and stopped.”

It was considered rude to interrupt another ship’s messages without asking permission first, and Phillips--who had been working for almost twelve hours straight and had just spent a large part of that time repairing his system--snapped back, “Shut up! Shut up! I’m busy. I am working Cape Race.”

The Californian’s operator fell silent, sent no more messages about ice, shut down his equipment and retired for the night. Did this confrontation have anything to do with the later refusal of the ship to come to Titanic’s rescue?


More than twice as many people perished in the Titanic sinking compared to those who survived, but it needn’t have been as bad as it was. My research turned up a few things that may have contributed to the death toll.

First, everyone agrees there weren’t enough lifeboats. That was obviously the fault of the White Star Line which should have provided more. However, Titanic actually held more than were required by law. Unfortunately, the law was written before shipping companies began building ever larger vessels to accommodate the surge of immigrants to the new world, as well as the desire of wealthy people to travel back and forth to Europe. Titanic had davits installed for forty-eight lifeboats to be stored on the Boat Deck, but providing that many actual boats was vetoed by J, Bruce Ismay, among others, who felt they would “clutter up the deck” and obscure passengers’ views.

Besides, with the newspapers calling the ship “virtually unsinkable” (The White Star line advertising never said that.), more seemed unnecessary. The sixteen required standard lifeboats, plus the four collapsibles could have saved 1178 lives if they’d all been filled to capacity. But many--especially the earliest ones to be launched from Titanic--were not. For instance, Boat Number One left the ship with twelve people instead of forty.

Why the reluctance of passengers to get into the lifeboats and save themselves? There are several reasons. Due to the sound of the impact and the stopping of the engines, most passengers knew fairly soon that something had happened. Parties had been held that Sunday evening, so many partygoers were still dressed in their finery. They took to the decks to see whatever they could and to discuss the situation with one another. Participants at two tables of Bridge in the smoking room barely looked up from their game.

Some stewards, not wanting people to panic, made light of the problem. Many passengers were told it was merely a drill and they could soon return to their staterooms. The band was encouraged to keep playing (the new ragtime music), and lights blazed all over the ship. Furthermore, it was so cold on deck that many chose to retreat to warm rooms instead of get into a relatively tiny lifeboat which (in the beginning at least) would lower them some sixty-five feet into the icy, black Atlantic.

Since more third class than first class passengers perished, many believed at the time that it was deliberate discrimination. True, it wasn’t easy to get from third class to the boat deck, but that was a requirement of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1907. (see Sparks’s Titanic FAQs for details). Not only were there several ways up, stewards were supposed to help passengers find those routes. However, it was a new ship, many stewards were just as new, and--with the sudden necessity of lowering and manning lifeboats, those extra duties were easily overlooked.

Even Cameron’s film shows locked gates that kept steerage passengers below. but everything I’ve read disputes that. The London Independent, in an article published April 11, 1998, states that the Public Records Office carries a report that “third class passengers were not prevented from getting to upper decks by locked doors or anything else.”

There are at least two other reasons for third class passengers’ higher death rate. Many immigrants did not speak or understand English. Then, when finally convinced they must abandon the ship, they wanted to carry all their possessions (literally all their worldly goods) with them. Some narrow stairways leading to upper decks couldn’t accommodate the luggage and, in other cases, the material created bottlenecks.

When it became obvious there weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone, the call went out for “women and children first.” Many wealthy men, including John Jacob Astor, watched their wives leave the ship and stood resolutely at the railing assuring them they’d meet up with them “later.” Mrs. Ida Strauss, however, wife of Macy’s department store owner, deliberately stayed behind with her husband.

Those were the scenes--while writing COLD APRIL--that always brought tears to my eyes. I had to ask a man in our critique group to read that chapter aloud, because I couldn’t trust myself to do so without breaking down. Yet, I must add, unlike Cameron’s film, my hero and heroine--although sorely tested--survive. At least one reviewer admitted she shed tears while reading the book. If you did, I’d love to know.

Monday, September 12, 2011


If the blunder alleged by the woman author had actually occurred, and Titanic crashed head-on into the iceberg, a different outcome might have emerged. The bow was probably the strongest part of the ship, perhaps in anticipation of the more likely chance it would take the brunt of any collision.

But, even in 1912, the officers and passengers knew the iceberg had caused severe damage to the starboard (right) side of the ship. After Robert Ballard found the vessel, inspections were done and studies made providing more accurate information. Namely that the steel used in ship construction at the time did not deform under the blows it received, but fractured. That was especially likely under extremely cold conditions, and the water temperature that night was twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the collision caused rivets, which held the side plates together, to pop out and some rivet heads to be sheared off.

Another reason why so much water filled the ship so quickly was that the sixteen watertight compartments were actually not totally watertight. The bulkheads dividing them rose only partway up, like partitions separating cubicles in some office buildings. Some bulkheads rose only to D Deck, others to E Deck, barely fifteen feet above the waterline. As sea water entered and filled a compartment, it was able to flow over the top of the bulkhead and enter the next compartment. And so on.

The captain ordered the lifeboats to be lowered and asked the Marconi operators to send out the distress signal, CQD. Interestingly, that old Morse code was sent at first, but later they used the “new” code--SOS--which was easier and faster to transmit. The Titanic’s use was said to be the first in history. The Cunard liner, Carpathia, fifty-eight miles away, responded and began its four-hour journey to the site.

In addition to the wireless distress calls, Quartermaster Rowe took eight white rockets from a locker on the poop deck and brought them to the bridge, where, at regular intervals between 12:45 and 1:30, he set them off. But no response came. During the official inquiry, crew and passengers reported having seen lights from what they assumed was another ship between eleven to twenty miles away and kept expecting it to come to their rescue, but it never moved.

However, there was a ship, Californian, whose own log showed it to be at about that position, having stopped at 10:30 because of the large amount of ice ahead. Later, officers on board the Californian testified they had seen the rockets, but received no orders to do anything. The captain denied having seen Titanic and said it must have been a different, smaller ship, which soon disappeared. To this day, there is still controversy about whether the captain, Stanley Lord (not to be confused with Walter Lord who wrote A NIGHT TO REMEMBER about the tragedy), was derelict in not going to Titanic’s aid.

Read my next blog for more about that “mystery” ship and why so many died that April night close to 100 years ago.

Monday, September 5, 2011



On September 22, 2010, the newspaper, London Telegraph, published an interview with an author, Louise Patten, who claimed to know the real truth about why Titanic struck the iceberg. Patten, the granddaughter of Titanic’s Second Officer Charles Lightoller, revealed a secret told to her by her grandmother. In her interview, Patten says Lightoller told his wife that he lied during both inquiries into the disaster, that striking the iceberg was actually caused by a “blunder” by Hichens.

In 1912, ship steering was changing from the Tiller system (sail) to the Rudder system (steam), and the two systems were the complete opposite of one another. Under the Tiller system (used on Titanic) “Hard a-Starboard” meant to turn the wheel to the left. Under the Rudder system, to turn it right. (Seamanship in the Age of Sail by John Harland) The steersman (Hichens) supposedly panicked and did the wrong thing.

Lightoller, the most senior officer to survive the sinking, told no one except his wife, who later told her daughter and granddaughter, and they kept this secret so as not to damage his, or the White Star Line’s, reputation. Patten revealed it in a book, GOOD AS GOLD, a novel she published in 2010, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking. And conveniently at the very time of her newspaper interview.

In fact there was no “blunder.” Overseen by Officer James Moody, who stood behind him, Hichens turned the wheel correctly and the ship turned to port in front of the iceberg. Turning the ship the wrong way would have meant it would either crash head-on into the berg or pass it on its port side. Yet the gaping holes were on the starboard side of the ship. Ms. Patten explains that by saying the “blunder” was “corrected” almost immediately, but by then it was too late to avoid the collision.

Except to sailors (even those with small boats), the tiller system is confusing, and Ms. Patten may be excused for not understanding. However, it’s one thing to rewrite history in a novel, and another to report it to a newspaper as if it were true. Perhaps Lightoller did tell that story to his wife, and she, her daughter and granddaughter all kept the secret. But, meanwhile, all, except Ms. Patten, have died.

Furthermore, the records show that Charles Lightoller wasn’t even on the bridge during those crucial moments, and Patten, with her book, is far from an unbiased source. Ms. Sally Nilsson, the great-granddaughter of Robert Hichens, (who, after the collision, was assigned to Lifeboat #6 and therefore survived) has written a book about Hichens’ life to be released by The History Press in November, 2011. (May be pre-ordered on Amazon.)

In her remarks to the Telegraph, Ms. Patten also alleged that Bruce Ismay persuaded Captain Smith to continue sailing after the crash and they did so for ten more minutes, thereby causing more water to enter the ship and hasten its demise.

This contradicts everything I’ve read, particularly official inquiry accounts from the testimony by crew and passengers, which state that the captain came on deck “just seconds after the impact,” that he inquired if the watertight doors had been closed (they had). He ordered, “All stop,” and Murdoch rang the message to the engine room. Smith then asked Officer Boxhall to inspect the ship, and after that, a carpenter rushed up to the bridge stating that water was coming in. Chief Officer Wilde appeared next, saying the situation was serious, and Smith asked that Thomas Andrews, the architect, be asked to come up. It was only then that Bruce Ismay appeared, “wearing carpet slippers and a suit over pajamas” and Smith informed him the ship was damaged.

No testimony from the official records says Ismay told Smith to keep sailing. His family has rejected the idea that he would have done so and resent the slur that he was responsible for so many deaths. Testimony from the official inquiries states that the ship never moved forward under its own power after striking the iceberg, and there’s no report the engines started up again.

As for why Titanic struck the iceberg, there seems to be plenty of blame to go around. But why did so few passengers survive? I’ll cover that next week. Meanwhile, what do you think about this report by Ms. Patten. Did she make it up to sell copies of her new book? Would you do that?