Titanic: The Unfinished Voyage

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The Unfinished Voyage

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"And the band played on ..." is a phrase inextricably linked to one of the most well-known maritime disasters of all time: the sinking of the Titanic.

On the freezing, still night of April 14, 1912, the 46,000-ton British luxury liner Titanic was on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. About 95 miles south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, she met her premature and tragic death.

She had steamed all day at a speed of upwards of 20 knots, covering 546 miles in the previous 24 hours. The temperature had dropped rapidly through the course of the evening, but the weather was fair and the sea calm. There was a relaxed party atmosphere on board as more than 2,200 passengers and crew enjoyed the amenities on the most luxurious ship afloat.

No rigid, organized routine was enforced, and the passengers came and went as they pleased. The liner had everything you could possibly imagine; no expense had been spared in the construction of lavish staterooms, sumptuous dining rooms and luxurious smoking rooms. She had libraries, a swimming pool, a Turkish bath, a gymnasium, a squash court, even an eight-piece orchestra-comforts to satiate all the desires of her passengers.

One thing, however, was lacking. There were not enough lifeboats. In fact, she had only 20, which was enough for fewer than half the passengers. The builders and owner were so confident in the Titanic's construction and safety features that they considered additional lifeboats unnecessary, and regulations at the time required no more. After all, with 16 watertight compartments, the most luxurious and largest ship afloat was unsinkable. Or was she?

Warnings received and ignored

Earlier in the afternoon of that fateful day, radio messages about ice in the area had been received from other nearby ships. As the passengers sipped their afternoon tea and ate toast, warnings were received from the Caronia, Baltic, Amerika, Californian and Mesaba. But Titanic captain Edward J. Smith-one of the White Star Line's most experienced and respected captains, with 38 years' service and on his final voyage before a much-anticipated retirement -saw no need to slow down. As darkness fell, however, the crew did maintain a careful lookout. It was a cloudless, calm night. The air was chilly, and the sea temperature was close to freezing.

The Californian, stationary about 10 miles away, radioed at around 11 o'clock that more ice was in the area. But the Titanic's radio operator, Jack Phillips, was frantically relaying radio messages from the passengers to the relay station at Cape Race in Newfoundland. He sharply told the Californian not to interrupt, that he had many more messages to send and already knew of the ice. So the Californian ceased contact without relaying the position of the approaching iceberg, and Mr. Phillips did not inform the captain.

At 11:40 first-class passengers still awake in their opulent staterooms felt a faint shudder, a kind of jarring as though they had hit something. One passenger later described it as "someone drawing a giant finger along the side of the ship." There was no major jolt, nothing dramatic to show cause for concern. Whatever it was, most passengers concluded it must not have been important.

Shortly afterward, the familiar hum and vibration of the engines and the ship moving through the water ceased. The massive liner had stopped. It was the silence that attracted the most attention.

A number of passengers went outside to see what had happened. They were assured all was well. Stewards explained that they had struck a little ice, but that there was nothing to worry about. Before long some of the passengers noticed that the ship seemed to be listing ever so slightly, but they quickly dismissed the thought as unimportant.

A terrifying realization

Up on the ship's bridge Capt. Smith; Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line; and Thomas Andrews, the ship's builder, stood in disbelief as the full horror of what had happened sank in. The situation was dire. The Titanic had collided with an iceberg. From first sighting to impact had been only a little more than 30 seconds. The floating mountain of ice had caught the liner a glancing blow on the right side of its underbelly, about 12 feet above the keel, buckling the hull's steel plates and opening a 300-foot gash in the first five watertight compartments. The compartments were rapidly filling with water and beginning to pull the ship down at the bow.

The Titanic could not stay afloat for long-no more than two hours, according to the estimate. The unsinkable ship was sinking, fatally punctured, the wound in her side open to the icy ocean water rushing in.

Just after midnight, as below decks crewmen fought furiously to keep the ship afloat, water surged into the mailroom. At 12:05 the order was heard to uncover the lifeboats. There had been no lifeboat drill, no practice, no warnings, no preparation. After all, this was the steamship that could not sink.

There was little noise-no bells, no sirens, no general alarms. The first-class stewards simply went from cabin to cabin politely but firmly asking first-class passengers to go up on deck and don life belts. At first there was joking, passengers voicing both amusement and disbelief-a complete lack of comprehension of the gravity of their plight. One passenger joked with the ship's squash professional that he had better cancel his booking for the morning. What he didn't know was that the water was already up to the squash court's ceiling.

Second officer Lightoller was placed in charge of loading the lifeboats on the port side. He rigidly insisted that only women and children could embark. On the starboard side, things were a little less strict. Everywhere was polite confusion. After all, they had never done this before.

Striking up the band

It was now that the band struck up, playing ragtime. Perhaps it would keep people calmer and happier. Some children started to cry. A chilling anguish crept into the eyes of many a parent, husband and wife as they began to realize a fear more powerful than any they had ever known.

Up on the ship's bridge, frantic efforts were made to reach the Californian. But that vessel's radio operator was asleep and had turned his radio off. Meanwhile, the band played on-even louder now-and the deck began to slant a little more.

Women and children were loaded progressively into the lifeboats. Tearful farewells were made with the realization that husbands, fathers and brothers might be seen no more. Some brave wives elected to stay by their husbands' sides on the ship.

By now it was 12:45, more than an hour after the collision with the iceberg. An explosion of distress rockets flew high into the air, lighting up the night sky over the nightmarish scene. This would continue for the next hour. Ten miles away crew members on the Californian observed what they thought were continuing festivities on a much-celebrated maiden voyage. It never dawned on them that the Titanic was sinking, and that what they saw was in reality a desperate plea for help from a ship in her final throes.

And all the while the band played, as the deck continued to tilt even farther. Mr. Lightoller was setting the lifeboats adrift with their precious cargo of women and children. But many were well short of full. On the starboard side, some men were luckier and a few were taken on the boats, including Bruce Ismay.

The minutes ticked away. By now the deck was tilting precariously; and still, the band played on.

Desperate cries for help

For the two hours until she sank, many radio messages were sent and received as the Titanic desperately signaled for help. A few ships responded, including the Frankfurt, Mount Temple, Virginian, Baltic and Birma. But the Californian -the only vessel within range-remained oblivious to the Titanic's plight. The Carpathia, 58 miles away, responded at 12:25 and promised to come as quickly as she could. Even the Olympic-the Titanic's sister ship, 500 miles away-replied to the distress calls.

By 1:15 few passengers yet understood their peril and how swiftly the mighty Titanic was filling with water. It was inconceivable that the unsinkable ship, the largest vessel afloat, was really sinking.

At 1:40 the crew on the bridge fired the last of the rockets, and the last remaining lifeboats filled. By 1:55 the last one was lowered to safety. In all, 705 people were to survive by means of these lifeboats. That left more than 1,500 people still aboard with nowhere to go.

And the band, which had played on and on, finally finished its last piece. The closing strains seemed to hang like ice particles in the frigid air. It was a sound that would haunt the survivors for the remainder of their lives.

The mighty Titanic, now filled with water at the bow, began to tilt alarmingly, and the stern soon rose high in the air, exposing the massive propellers to the night sky and icy air. Some people jumped for it and swam toward the lifeboats. Most never made it.

Death of a great vessel

Survivors in the lifeboats witnessed the vivid and catastrophic end to the once-mighty steamship. The lights, which had remained on thanks to the diligence of the engineers, now blinked before disappearing for good. A hideous, unimaginable roar thundered from the ship as furniture, chandeliers, pictures, glassware and crystal came loose and shattered, a din mixed with the anguished cries of the doomed.

A massive funnel broke off and plummeted into the sea in a shower of sparks. Then came a roar as no other, which some later said was the breaking back of the immense vessel as the ship was torn asunder. At precisely 2:20 a.m., two hours and 40 minutes after she had struck the iceberg, the gigantic ocean liner died, sliding quickly into the blackness of the deep and plunging to her final resting place some 12,500 feet below. The survivors gasped and sobbed in disbelief.

The final drama unfolded as desperate survivors waited and hoped for rescue. Many who had jumped from the ship in its dying moments were still alive, struggling in the icy water. Those on the boats could hear them thrashing and milling around, the dark, still air ringing with their cries for help. But, apart from one lifeboat that saved just three lives, the other boats never went back to help; their occupants were too fearful for their own lives.

One by one the desperate cries grew muffled, until a haunting silence descended on the scene. All those not in the lifeboats had succumbed to hypothermia and exhaustion.

The Carpathia steamed at full speed and reached the spot by 4 a.m. Shocked at the realization that the mighty Titanic was gone, they began to take on board the hapless, freezing survivors. Over the next few days some 325 bodies were recovered; the rest had joined the ship in her watery grave.

The Titanic lay undisturbed on the ocean floor until 1985, when a research team using remote-controlled submersible craft found her resting place. A fascinated world was then reintroduced to a tragedy that need never have happened. GN