1912 Seventy-five Years Ago

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Near midnight on the clear, cold evening of April 14, the White Star liner Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The ship was not only the largest and most luxurious afloat; she was also called unsinkable. But two hours and forty minutes later, the Titanic up-ended and sank two miles to the bottom of the ocean, taking fifteen hundred people with her.

The world had never seen such a glorious ship. She stretched the length of four city blocks and rose eleven stories high from keel to funnel top. Everything conceivable had its place aboard: a squash court, a swimming pool, and a gym equipped with mechanical bicycles, horses, and even camels; a Turkish bath, a French sidewalk cafe, and a richly furnished restaurant where rose-colored shades on tabletop lamps cast a benign glow. The finest first-class suite cost nearly fifty thousand of today’s dollars for a transatlantic crossing, but it guaranteed the privacy of one’s very own promenade deck. The news of such luxury titillated high society, and its luminaries quickly secured their places on the Titanic for her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. The Astors, Wideners, and Thayers were aboard; and down in steerage, bunks were filled by more than seven hundred passengers, mostly immigrants heading for what they hoped would be their lucky break in America.

The story of what happened to these people is a familiar one: how the speeding Titanic disregarded repeated warnings of an ice field blocking her path; how passengers couldn’t believe she was sinking and so wasted precious time by refusing to board the lifeboats; how the nearby liner Californian watched the Titanic’s rockets signaling for help but did nothing. Women and children were put aboard lifeboats before men, and the partings that took place on deck between husbands and wives and fathers and children revealed the span of human nature: there were stoic partings, frenzied ones, and then some that never occurred, for certain women preferred to remain with their husbands. But hundreds of women were never given that choice—those in third class. Ninety-four percent of first-and second-class women and children were placed in lifeboats; only forty-two percent of those in third class had such good fortune. In fact, about the same percentage of steerage children as first-class men found their way aboard lifeboats.

But there weren’t enough lifeboats anyway. The Titanic carried eighteen, more than were required by law but far too few for the ship’s 2,201 passengers and crew. Together they could hold only 1,178 people. Partly due to the passengers’ disbelief, and partly because of the moment’s heedless panic, many of the lifeboats were lowered half-empty. In the end, only 705 escaped in the small craft, with room for 473 more. And yet after the Titanic plunged beneath the surface, only one of the lifeboats rowed back to save the drowning, whose cries carried clearly over the water.

For several hours, the boats rocked their shivering cargo beneath the stars. And then, at 4:00 A.M. , the liner Carpathia steamed up after a three-hour race north and quickly took aboard the survivors. Two women from the Titanic sat together in an isolated corner and refused coffee when it was offered: “Go away. We have just seen our husbands drown.”