- Historic Sites
The first and last trip of the “unsinkable” Titanic
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
Now it was 9:40, and in the wireless shack Operator Jack Phillips jotted down a message from the steamer Mesaba: “Ice report in Lat. 42° N to 41° 25′ N; Long. 49° to 50° 30′ W. Saw much heavy pack ice and great number of large icebergs. Also field ice.” Phillips was busy sending passengers’ messages, so he put the Mesaba ’s report aside until he had a free moment to take it to the bridge. He was no navigator, and it never occurred to him that the Titanic was already in the rectangle indicated by the Mesaba ’s message.
Down below the passengers were going to bed—the perfect solution to a cold, dull Sunday night. The concert over, the Minahans went to their stateroom around 9:45. Colonel Gracie, wanting to be in shape for another pre-breakfast squash match, retired about the same time. Major Peuchen’s Canadian friends went down to bed, and he wandered into the smoking room searching for company.
There he found a few people still up. The remnants of the Widener party sat around one table, winding up the evening with a nightcap. Spencer Silverthorne was buried in a leather armchair, still ploughing through The Virginian. Near him Philadelphian Lucien Smith puzzled over a bridge game with three Frenchmen. A little later Lieutenant Steffanson, Hugh Woolner and some of the young set wandered up from the Café Parisien and began playing bridge too.
In the Second-Class smoking room the card players were quieter and less colorful. Charles Wilhelm, foreman of a London glass factory on a trip to visit his father, played whist with three other men. Steward James Witter hovered nearby, still on duty because Chief Steward Latimer had waived the usual White Star rule of no card playing on Sunday.
On the bridge First Officer William Murdoch arrived at 10 to take over Lightoller’s watch. His first words: “It’s pretty cold.”
“Yes, it’s freezing,” answered Lightoller, and he added that the ship might be up around the ice any time now. The temperature was down to 32°, the water an even colder 31°.
In the crow’s-nest Lookouts Jewell and Symons turned over the watch to Lookouts Fleet and Lee. Symons dutifully passed the word along to keep a sharp lookout for small ice and growlers. The new men nodded and took over. Visibility was good. There was no moon, but the sky blazed with stars. The sea was like glass—not a ripple on its slick surface.
At 11 P.M. Wireless Operator Phillips was still busy sending passengers’ messages to Cape Race for relay to New York—arrival times, requests for hotel reservations, instructions to business associates. Suddenly the steamer Californian broke in: “I say, old man, we’re stopped and surrounded by ice.” She was so close her signal almost blasted his ears off. He shot back sharply: “Shut up, shut up. I’m busy. I’m working Cape Race.” Then he asked Cape Race to repeat the last message, explaining he had been jammed. Little wonder, for the Californian was less than twenty miles away.
Quiet settled over the great ship as the clock moved toward midnight. Major Peuchen left the smoking room around 11:20, and only the die-hards remained. Through the long white corridors that led to the staterooms came only the murmur of people talking behind closed cabin doors, stewards chatting in the deck pantries, occasional “good nights.” Down below, the rhythm of the engines sounded faster and surer than ever. Three new boilers had been lighted that morning in preparation for Monday’s speed trials, and the ship was knifing through the sea at about 22 knots.
Topside, all was alert. On the after-bridge, at the very stern of the ship, Quartermaster Rowe noticed what he and his mates called “whiskers ‘round the light”—tiny slivers of ice in the air that gave off a myriad of colors when caught in the glow of the deck lights.
On the bridge First Officer Murdoch studied the night with equal care. At one point he ordered a fore hatch closed—the glow of light interfered with his vision, and he wanted to take no chances.
In the crow’s-nest Lookouts Fleet and Lee also searched the night. There was little conversation; they were keeping an extra-sharp lookout.
At 11:40 Fleet suddenly spied something directly ahead. It was black, about the size of two tables put together. Quickly he banged the crow’s-nest bell three times and rang the bridge on the phone. Three words were enough to explain the trouble: “Iceberg right ahead.”
Thirty-seven seconds later the new Titanic sideswiped the iceberg, ripping a 300-foot gash in her hull, which opened six watertight compartments and instantly doomed the “unsinkable” ship.