Written by Paula Moldenhauer
Why are we drawn to stories about the RMS Titanic?1 Its sinking is one of the greatest tragedies of its time. Yet instead of only whispered grief, there remains fascination with everything Titanic, even one hundred years later.
Perhaps we’re drawn to Titanic’s riches. The largest moveable object built by man, she was dubbed one of the greatest achievements of her time. While only 20 percent of London had electricity, this ship was electric from bow to stern. The Titanic’s breathtaking opulence included carved oak staircases, chandeliers, and beautiful crystal. Passengers enjoyed a heated saltwater pool, Turkish baths, lavish lounges, a library, and even a gymnasium boasting an electric camel. The collective assets of her passengers totaled over $600 million. To secure a first-class suite on Titanic, passengers paid as much as $4,350 for the journey—equivalent to an estimated $100,000 in today’s economy.
But Titanic wasn’t the only fancy ship of her day. She had two sister ships, the RMS Olympic, who had a long and illustrious career, and the Britannic, whose intended purpose was interrupted by World War I, during which she served as a hospital ship instead. Many pictures touting the magnificence of the Titanic were actually pictures of Olympic, since most of the pictures taken of Titanic accompanied her to the bottom of the Atlantic.
There’s more to Titanic’s allurement than her grandeur. Perhaps part of the draw is the audacity that was reflected by this saying: “Even God Himself couldn’t sink her.” Actually, the White Star Line, a British shipping company and owner of the Titanic, never made such a claim. It said, “With Titanic’s transverse bulkheads and watertight doors, it renders this vessel practically unsinkable.” While some historians report that a deckhand made the famed comment, it seems more likely that the quote was written after the sinking and glamorized by Hollywood.
Our attraction to the Titanic goes deeper than being enamored with opulence, horrified by disaster, or shocked by arrogant declarations. The stories of the heroism of the survivors and the deceased call forth our admiration—and cause us to ponder our own courage.
The true story of RMS Titanic encompasses conflicting accounts from her 705 survivors. Titanic had nine decks and was over 882 feet long. One man said if the Titanic were placed on 34th Street in New York City, she would stretch north of 37th Street. When analyzing stories of the Titanic, perspective is gained by considering how her 2,225 passengers processed the tragedy, each one responding according to his or her background and location on that great ship.
Titanic’s construction began in 1908 in Belfast, Ireland, and sea trials for the magnificent vessel were conducted on April 2, 1912. Titanic began her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, on April 10 at 12:15 p.m., journeying down the River Test. Another ship, the New York, rose so high on the swell caused by Titanic that its moorings snapped, causing it to almost collide with the Titanic. Disaster was avoided, and ninety minutes later the Titanic arrived in Cherbourg, France, to take on more passengers.
On the morning of April 11, the great ship arrived in Queenstown, Ireland, and then departed for New York City. The seas were calm, and Titanic made good time on April 12 and 13.
On Sunday, April 14, passengers enjoyed a hearty breakfast and were given an opportunity to attend Sunday services. There is dispute about whether services were open to all or if separate services were held by class. The latter seems most likely. Steerage passengers were separated from the rest of the ship via locked gates, a recognized practice of the time.
Throughout Sunday, temperatures outside were so bitter that most passengers avoided being on deck. The second-class library was filled with people who were reading, playing cards, writing letters, or visiting. First-class entertainment included an exclusive dinner with the captain. Third-class passengers enjoyed festivities in their own common room. Unknown to any of them, the ship received seven warnings about icebergs that day.
That evening all enjoyed a wonderful meal. While the differences between the first-class and third-class accommodations were profound, the Titanic offered better lodging and food to its third-class passengers than they were accustomed to at home. The Titanic was filled with contented passengers.
After dinner, Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter led a hymn sing in the second-class dining salon, and about one hundred passengers attended. Among the hymns sung was “For Those in Peril on the Sea.”
Lawrence Beesely, author of The Loss of the SS Titanic,2 attended the hymn sing and then retired to his room to read. He was disturbed around 11:40 p.m. when his bed began to vibrate more than usual. This perplexed him, but more perplexing was the quiet that followed as the Titanic’s engines stopped. He left his berth to make inquiry and was told that nothing was wrong. In truth, the Titanic had hit an iceberg, and water was already pouring into her side.
Beesley roamed the ship but didn’t find anything amiss. Some men in the smoking room admitted that an iceberg, approximately 80 feet tall, had passed by their window, but they weren’t concerned. In fact, one card player joked that someone should “just run along the deck and see if any ice has come aboard” so he could put some in his whiskey.
At midnight, April 15, Captain Edward John Smith was informed that the ship would be afloat for only a couple more hours. He radioed for help, but none was forthcoming. Captain Smith knew there were only enough lifeboats for about a third of those aboard. (It is interesting to note that Titanic was outfitted with more lifeboats than was required by British regulations. The tragedy prompted reform of safety requirements.)
Smith sent the crew to gather passengers, who were told to put on lifebelts and go on deck. Most of the passengers still believed that nothing was amiss. As they assembled, women and children were encouraged to get into the lifeboats.
The first lifeboat was lowered around 12:45 a.m., about the same time that the band began playing ragtime on the deck. Most of the early boats lowered carried less than half of their occupancy limits and contained first- and second-class passengers. Third-class passengers struggled to find their way through the maze of corridors to reach the upper decks or were trapped behind partitions that segregated steerage from other passengers.
According to Irish survivor Margaret Murphey, gates were locked, keeping third-class passengers below. She was saved when James Farrell, also a steerage passenger, yelled: “Great God, man! Open the gate and let the girls through.”3
While the third-class passengers faced mostly futile efforts for survival below, first- and second-class passengers faced their own trauma above as husbands and fathers were separated from loved ones. One of the most touching love stories of the Titanic is that of an elderly first-class couple, Isidor and Rosalie Straus. Rosalie refused to go to safety without her husband. “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go,” she said. Most accounts have them sitting hand in hand on deck as the Titanic went down.
Another touching story is of Bristol preacher Bob Bateman. His sister-in-law was quoted as saying: “Brother forced me into the last boat, saying he would follow me later. . . . [He] threw his overcoat over my shoulders as the boat was being lowered away [and said], ‘Good-bye, God bless you!’ ”4
Bateman is said to then have gathered about fifty men on deck to pray and is credited with requesting that the band play “Nearer, My God to Thee” as water covered the deck. The heroism of the band playing until the end is well documented, though there are conflicting reports about this final song.
Around 2:00 a.m., the last lifeboat was launched. At 2:18 a.m. the Titanic heaved out of the water, the stern vertical. Some eyewitnesses say it hung in the air at a 45-degree angle; others believe it was 90 degrees. Then the RMS Titanic’s lights blinked and went out as she broke in half and disappeared, sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic.
No one disagrees about the horror that followed as the sound of 1,500 voices crying out for help filled dark night. The great volume of desperate cry quieted, little by little. Within forty minutes all was silent.
Of special note during this dreadful time is the story of evangelist John Harper. When the Titanic went down, he swam from person to person asking, “Is your soul saved?” It is said that he led many to salvation before the frigid waters took his life.5
In the end, 76 percent of the crew perished, along with 75 percent of third-class passengers, 58 percent of second-class passengers, and 40 percent of first-class passengers. Though the lifeboats weren’t full, many feared getting too close to the sinking Titanic or being overturned by desperate swimmers and didn’t attempt rescue of the drowning. Those who tried had little success, finding mostly frozen bodies.
The survivors grieving in the lifeboats spent a harrowing night scanning the black waters for signs of a rescue ship. When the sun rose, Titanic’s survivors discovered that they were in an ice field, and their rescue ship, RMS Carpathia, awaited them just beyond its borders. The survivors rowed toward safety. The first lifeboat reached the Carpathia at 4:10 a.m. and the last a full four hours later.
On the evening of April 18, the Carpathia delivered survivors to Pier 54 in New York City. Charles Vale writes: “Good and bad deed were done that night and morning; but the good outvalued the bad immeasurably and when . . . the few cowards [are] dismissed, and the uncouth or selfish weighed and found wanting, there remains the grand total of brave and steadfast men and women whose names must be enrolled imperishably in any record of world-heroism.”6
1. RMS stands for “Royal Mail Ship,” a prefix used by all sailing vessels that were contracted to carry British Royal Mail. See www.titanicinternational.org.
2. Loss of the S. S. Titanic by Lawrence Beesley: www.titanic-titanic.com/loss_of_the_ss_titanic_1.shtml.
4. Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/robert-james-bateman.html and www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/2094682389.
5. John Harper’s story was told in The Titanic’s Last Hero produced by Moody Press, 1997. To view an online video, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUUwazTjw8Y&feature=player_embedded.
6. The Truth About the Titanic: A Survivor’s Story by Colonel Archibald Gracie, www.archive.org/stream/truthabouttitan00gracgoog#page/n6/mode/2up.
Homeschooling mom of four, Paula Moldenhauer longs to be close enough to Jesus to breathe His fragrance. For more about her historical novel, Titanic: Legacy of Betrayal, co-authored with award-winning novelist, Kathleen E Kovach, visit www.titaniclegacyofbetrayal.com. Learn more about RMS Titanic on Titanic Tuesdays at www.gracereign.blogspot.com.
Copyright, 2012. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, April 2012. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.