Monday, August 29, 2011

Titanic Strikes Iceberg - Why?

It seems that tragic events usually have more than one cause. If this hadn’t happened, and that hadn’t occurred at the same time... Such was the case on the night of April 14, 1912.

In the first place, was the ship traveling too fast? Day by day, as it crossed the Atlantic, it covered more nautical miles than the day before. Although Titanic was supposed to be the largest, strongest and most luxurious ship ever built, speed had never been its goal. However, J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, was on board, and rumors abounded that he urged Captain Smith to increase Titanic’s speed. What a coup for him if they beat the Olympic’s record and arrived in New York on Tuesday instead of Wednesday. Did the captain heed that advice? Whether he did or not, the ship was obviously traveling too fast for the conditions surrounding them that night.

There had been at least six warnings about ice during the day and evening, delivered by Marconigram. Titanic contained a special set of rooms on the Boat Deck for the Marconi Wireless Company and its operators. At about noon on Sunday, Captain Smith showed one such message to Ismay from the ship Baltic which stated that there were “icebergs and a large quantity of field ice” in the area they traveled. Ismay put the message in his pocket. But on Sunday night, the wireless set developed problems and Radioman Phillips spent four hours fixing it. By then he was swamped with messages from passengers that had to be sent. Did iceberg sighting messages go unheeded or unreceived due to that?

At the same time, the binoculars were missing from their usual place in the crow’s nest. When Fred Fleet and Reginald Lee, the two lookouts, took their turn at the watch, they complained to the second officer, Charles Lightoller, and a search was conducted but without success.

The night was bitterly cold, but there was no moon, and the sea was so calm it was later described as looking like “a piece of polished plate glass.” There was also no breeze to stir waves that might kick up at the base of an iceberg and reveal it.

Finally, at 11:40 p.m., Fred Fleet spotted something ahead. In seconds he recognized it as a huge iceberg, gave three sharp tugs on the bronze bell and grabbed the telephone connecting him to the bridge. He said, “Iceberg right ahead.” First Officer Murdoch shouted, “Hard a-starboard” to quartermaster Hichens (or Hitchens), then rang for “Full steam astern” (reverse direction) on both engines. Hichens immediately spun the wheel, and slowly the bow turned to port. As the ship glided past, they realized the iceberg had been hard to spot because it was a “blue” berg, recently turned over and still dark with sea water.

Thus, although the Titanic seemed to have missed the iceberg, the starboard side of the hull below the waterline scraped along the under-water mass of the berg. The tear, although more modest than originally thought, did immediate and irreparable damage, and over 1500 lives were doomed. However, in my next post you’ll learn about a woman who claims something else happened that night.

Reader: What do you think was most responsible for hitting the iceberg? Should the ship, like the Californian, have shut down the engines and stopped for the night?

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