It was a little after 2.18am ship’s time when RMS Titanic’s back broke. The stricken liner had been sinking for two-and-a-half hours when her stern suddenly lifted clear of the ocean. Some 1,500 passengers and crew still trapped on board rose with it. But Titanic’s hull could not survive this extraordinary strain.
As the deck reached an angle of around 45°, the hull sheared in two at its weakest point with a terrible metallic shriek. For a moment or two the keel may have held the ship fast. Then the submerged front of the Titanic tore free. Briefly the stern steadied, before the weight of the engines made it rear up violently. For a minute or two it bobbed in the Atlantic like a cork. Then it pirouetted and plunged those still clinging to its railings into -2°C waters. A ship celebrated as the largest moving object ever made by man had been brutally cut down to size.
Iceberg, right ahead
The writer Walter Lord, who reignited popular interest in the Titanic with his 1955 bestseller A Night to Remember, characterised the disaster as an ‘unsinkable subject’. Yet a century after the loss of the Titanic, it is easy to believe that the topic is exhausted. We know why, when and where the ship foundered. We know how misplaced confidence in her safety features saw her dubbed ‘unsinkable’, or at least ‘practically unsinkable’. Above all we know how a fatal combination of hubris and outdated legislation led to the Titanic charging headlong into an ice field, on a moonless night, with only enough lifeboats for half those on board. All of this is documented by survivor testimony, and official British and US inquiries. What more could there be to know? Yet recent survey has revealed that there is still much we could learn from the wreck.
The moment that the Titanic slipped back from the realm of history into archaeology brought proof that the accepted narrative was flawed. On the morning of 1 September 1985, the grainy image of a boiler lying at a depth of almost two-and-a-half miles below sea level appeared on the monitor of the remote-control exploration device Argo. The Titanic had been found. She lay 13 miles from the coordinates given in her increasingly frantic distress signals. Now an expedition led by Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel discovered one of the few slivers of luck that April morning had been that the course of the ship Carpathia, steaming to the rescue, led her by chance to the drifting lifeboats.
Ballard and Michel’s other big discovery awaited careful analysis of the Argo photographs. Operating in pitch-black depths, it was only once the mosaic of images was painstakingly pieced together that it became clear the bow and stern sections of the ship lay 1,970 feet apart, and facing in opposite directions. Until then it was assumed Titanic had sunk intact. That was the finding of the two inquiries, with the scream of tearing metal explained as the sound of boilers exploding as they were engulfed by freezing seawater. Those survivors who claimed the ship had broken up were ignored. One, Jack Thayer, even had a sketch drawn on the day of the tragedy. Based on what he saw, it showed the severed stern turning on its axis, a detail now known to be true.
With the vessel cracked open and upended, the contents of the stern spilled out, emptying into the ocean. The heaviest portions of the ship – the bow, stern and boilers – would have fallen fastest. Capable of dropping at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour, they could have impacted within 6 minutes of leaving the surface. Over the next few hours, lighter wreckage and artefacts rained down, like the contents of a snow globe. This settled to form a dispersed debris field concentrated around the stern section. Here Ballard and Michel found an astonishing assortment of objects that still lay as they had fallen almost three quarters of a century earlier. They ranged from replica Classical statues and stained-glass windows to buckets and porcelain toilets; most poignant were the pairs of boots where bodies had dissolved in the salt water.
With discovery came controversy, as the debris field soon attracted attention. The company now known as RMS Titanic Inc secured salvage rights to the vessel. Between 1987 and 2004 they raised 5,500 artefacts from the site, ranging in size from a hairpin to a 17-ton section of hull. While the company argues that this is the only way to preserve objects that would otherwise degrade on the ocean bed, it is noticeable that many of the recovered items are luxury objects. The collection is currently up for auction as a single lot in New York, with an estimated price tag of £121 million.
Like any famous site, the wreck has attracted visitors. Some 400 people have travelled to the Titanic in submersibles over the last quarter century. While that may seem insignificant alongside the million visitors Stonehenge hosted in 2010, it still takes a toll. Damage including collapsed railings, the steady deterioration of the wireless room roof, and even the loss of the crow’s nest from which Frederick Fleet sighted the iceberg has been blamed on collisions with subs. Ballast from these visiting vessels has joined the wreckage in the debris field, while beer cans and other modern rubbish drifts down from the surface.
Such visits have established that the interior of the bow section of the ship is astonishingly well preserved. Despite its violent impact with the ocean floor and a century underwater, glass chandeliers still dangle from the ceiling of the Grand Stairway, plates are stacked in dressers and, in places, even cloth survives. The intact sacks of mail the Titanic was ferrying to New York can be glimpsed through a gash in the hull. But does any of this matter? Is interest in the Titanic really archaeology or just a morbid fascination with a mass grave that should be left in peace? A key date here is 15 April 2012. As well as the centenary of the disaster, it is when the wreck becomes recognised by UNESCO as underwater heritage. The Titanic will be eligible for World Heritage Site status, and recent work at the wreck reflects this.
God himself could not sink this ship
Icebergs should not have drifted so far south in spring, but Titanic had been warned. She received at least seven messages on 14 April reporting ice ahead. The last, from the Californian, arrived at 11pm. Only a few miles ahead, the ship announced: ‘We are stopped and surrounded by ice.’ Titanic’s wireless operator, busy transmitting private passenger signals, snapped back ‘DDD’, meaning ‘shut up’.
At 11.40pm, lookout Frederick Fleet saw a dark shape block out the stars. He rang the bell three times and phoned the bridge, reporting: ‘Iceberg right ahead.’ For the next 37 seconds, Fleet watched the Titanic hurtle towards a wall of ice at 30 miles an hour. Then the ship turned, seemingly skirting the iceberg at the last minute. There was no violent collision, just a scraping sound as several tonnes of ice were dislodged on deck. One passenger asked a waiter to fetch some for his cocktail, but this carnival atmosphere did not last long. An inspection by Captain Smith found that the ship was taking water in five of her 16 watertight compartments. The damage was fatal.
At 12.15am, Titanic’s wireless operator transmitted the first distress signal. By 12.30am, the lifeboats were being loaded. Despite space for 65, the first lifeboat away only had 28 people on board. Incredulous passengers, shielded from the truth by crewmembers desperate to avoid a panic, were loath to swap their liner for a rowboat. And anyway, another ship was visible only 5-10 miles distant. Once its crew was raised, everyone would be saved. But the vessel was not responding to wireless calls or the morse lamp. At 12.45am, the Titanic started firing distress rockets.
Nearby, the night-watch on the ship Californian wondered what the rockets meant. But their wireless operator had gone to bed, and attempts to hail the strange liner with a morse lamp failed. They woke their captain, who simply told them to keep trying. Despite a ringside seat for the unfolding tragedy, the Californian did nothing. Instead it was left to the Carpathia, 45 miles away, to race for three-and-a-half hours through the night. By the time she arrived, there were only 711 people left to save.
Study of the Titanic is not just about the anatomy of a maritime disaster. Celebrated as a floating Edwardian palace, now as then the ship’s opulence is its defining feature. But the comparison is misleading, for what palace would hold over 700 occupants of such poverty they were segregated from the rest lest they spread disease? Called ‘third class’ on the Titanic – no more than a politically correct name for steerage – their numbers were greater than the other passenger categories combined.
Yet third-class ticketholders did not board to toast the dawn of a new era of luxury travel. They were migrants, crossing the Atlantic in search of a better life. A feature of the period, the departure of an emigrant would be marked with a ‘living wake’ by relatives who despaired of ever seeing them again. Any vessel carrying more than 50 of them, such as the Titanic, had to meet the criteria of an emigrant ship. These included measures to ensure that third class could not mix with the other passengers. The presence of such migrants created a diversity more in keeping with a town, as did the numbers involved. Carrying around 2,200 people, the Titanic was licensed to transport 3,547. Seen this way, she is not just a wrecked luxury liner, but a product of one of the greatest migrations in human history.
The Titanic’s loss came at the peak of a 400-year mass movement from the Old World to the New. Little more than a dribble at first, the arrival of steam triggered an explosion in the numbers heading west. No longer dependent on a favourable wind, ships could sail to regular timetables. By 1891, when the US immigration centre opened on Ellis Island, New York, the journey time had been cut from six weeks to just one. The new federal facility was capable of processing 7,000 immigrants a day. Over the course of 1907 it received a million. Yet despite their importance to the national identity of the USA, the poverty of these huddled masses leaves them comparatively poorly known. This is doubly true of the third-class passengers on board the Titanic.
Women and children first
It is an essential part of the tragedy’s mythology that the men sacrificed themselves so the women and children could escape. While this gallantry allowed 97% of first-class women to survive, over half of the third-class women and children perished. Yet some lifeboats left the Titanic unfilled because there were no women or children to be found. So where were the third-class passengers while the ship foundered? As only three of their number gave evidence at the US inquiry, and none at the UK one, it is impossible to know for certain. But some indications are chilling.
Routine measures to segregate passengers on an emigrant ship would have kept third class away from the boat deck where the lifeboats were being loaded. The sole surviving steerage steward reported keeping men below decks until at least 1.15am. Some got out, and one officer opened fire with a revolver to keep back Italians he dismissed as ‘wild beasts’. But according to a witness it was only in the Titanic’s final minutes that a mass of third-class passengers poured up from below decks. By then the lifeboats were gone, leaving 84% of steerage men to die. In many cases we know little more about them than their first and last names. But the most recent research at the wreck site reveals that far more could be known.
An expedition in 2010 carried out the first detailed mapping survey of the site. Never attempted at such a depth before, it revealed that wreckage from the Titanic is strewn over ten square miles, a larger area than previously realised. Undertaken using a combination of unmanned underwater autonomous vehicles equipped with SONAR, and a tethered robot remote-controlled along miles of fibre-optic cable, the survey took several weeks and cost $4 million. Paid for by RMS Titanic Inc, and processed by the advanced imaging and visualisation lab at Woods Hole, the result has been mapped onto an electronic site grid, and revolutionised knowledge of the wreck.
The mile-and-a-half square area where the bow, stern and concentrated debris field lie was planned to even greater detail, allowing everything from the size of a tea-saucer upwards to be assigned an artefact or feature number. James Delgado, chief scientist on the expedition, had previously visited the Titanic on a submersible. While deeply moved by the experience, he likened manned survey to ‘driving around central London, in the dark, in a powercut, in a rainstorm, with only a torch for light’. Now, rather than peering through 20 feet of water to catch glimpses of corroding metal, the survey allows us to see the entire wreck site with daylight clarity.
One of the many discoveries to come from the survey is that the third-class emigrants were travelling with bags, and that those bags remain intact on the seabed. If it is decided that the Titanic is an archaeological site as well as a mass grave, and if the emphasis on which objects to raise shifts from the pretty and spectacular to those that can answer serious research questions, the contents could provide a unique glimpse of the realities of life for those seeking a fresh start in the New World. Perhaps that would be the finest memorial of all.
Further reading: Robert Ballard (2008) Robert Ballard’s Titanic ISBN 978-1844256655 Rod Green (2011) Building the Titanic ISBN 978-1847327451 Walter Lord (1955) A Night to Remember ISBN 978-0805077643 Greg Ward (2012) The Rough Guide to the Titanic ISBN 978-1405386999
Dr James Delgado is Director of Maritime Heritage in the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
ALL IMAGES: NOAA/Office of Ocean Exploration, US Library of Congress, unless otherwise stated