A boy never forgets…his first nonfiction book for the school library market. Mine was a 6,000 word little beauty called, When Disaster Strikes: The Tragedy of the Titanic (Rosen Publishing, 2001). Oh, sure, there wasn’t a lot of text to her but what was there was cherce…!

TragedyofTitanicChapter Two: The Maiden Voyage of THE Titanic

At approximately noon on April 10, 1912, the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England on her maiden voyage. She made stops at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown, Ireland to pick up additional passengers before embarking for her final destination, New York City with 2,223 people aboard.

The mood aboard ship was festive, with a passenger list made up of some of the most famous names on the social register. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, the Titanic’s passengers included Charles H. Hays, President of the Grand Trunk Railroad, publisher Henry Sleeper Harper, Broadway producer Henry B. Harris and his wife, steel magnate Arthur Ryerson, the painter Frank Millet, writer Jacques Futrelle, Washington A. Roebling 2nd, the son and grandson of the men who built the Brooklyn Bridge, members of the wealthy Rothschild banking family, and wealthy department store owner Isidor Straus and his wife.

It was only fitting that the Titanic sailed under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith, the senior captain of the White Star Line. After years at sea, this was to be Captain Smith’s final voyage before retirement. No one questioned that this highly regarded and skilled sailor deserved to see the greatest ship ever built through her maiden voyage.

According to Senator William Alden Smith, “For 40 years storms sought in vain to vex him or menace his craft….Each new advancing type of ship built by his company was handed over to him as a reward for faithful services and as an evidence of confidence in his skill. Strong of limb, intent of purpose, pure in character, dauntless as a sailor should be, he walked the deck of his majestic structure as master of her keel.”

As much faith as his employers, passengers and crew had in him, Smith held the same high regard for his new ship. In speaking of the Titanic, Smith was reported in a newspaper account of the day to have told friends Mr. and Mrs. W.P. Willie of Flushing, Long Island that the Titanic marked a high point of safety and comfort in the evolution of ocean travel. He also had complete faith in the Titanic’s seaworthiness, telling the Willies that it was impossible for the great ship to sink.

Other reports quoted Captain Smith as saying that the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, was “…Unsinkable, and Titanic will be the same when she is put in commission. Why, either of these vessels could be cut in halves and each half would remain afloat almost indefinitely. The non-sinkable vessel has been reached in these two wonderful craft. I venture to add that even if the engines and boilers of these vessels were to fall through their bottoms, the vessels would remain afloat.”

Neither the White Star Line or shipbuilders Harland and Wolff ever publicly claimed that the Titanic was unsinkable. Under the right circumstances and with enough damage, any ship could go down. But the press so played up lifesaving devices like automatic watertight doors and bulkheads that the public came to regard the great ship as invulnerable.

Of course, there was no reason to believe that the Titanic would encounter anything on her voyage that might test that belief. For all the publicity, it was a fairly routine Atlantic crossing, made each year by hundreds of ships in all sorts of weather. Captain Smith, the experienced, veteran commander, was himself no stranger to the route that took them through well charted and regularly traveled waters. Their course was west across the Atlantic Ocean from England to the Canadian province of Newfoundland on the east coast of North America, then south to New York in the United States.

In fact, the entire trip up until the fateful hour on the night of April 14 was strictly routine. The weather was clear for virtually the entire voyage, the sea calm, with sunshine all day and bright starlight every night.

As the Titanic steamed across a placid North Atlantic at 21 or 22 knots, the passengers were relaxed, enjoying their voyage and the amenities the ship had to offer. It had been a perfect voyage, justifying White Star’s pride in the new queen of their line.

But the “unsinkable” Titanic was about to meet her fate.



 Resting somewhere on the ocean floor off Newfoundland, the Titanic was to rise to the status of legend. Over the years following the disaster, countless books, fact, fiction and wild speculation alike, would be written about the great ship. Films, television programs, even a Broadway play, would continue to feed the public’s fascination with her. The Titanic grew from a symbol of the Gilded Age in which she sailed to a chapter of history.

But before that happened, the failure of the Titanic would serve as a warning for what might go wrong on so large a ship. Clearly the way these giant steamships were constructed and operated needed to be examined and many changes made.

The Senate Inquiry pinpointed several key causes of the accident and the massive loss of life that followed. Not the least of these was that the Titanic’s failure to carry enough lifeboats for the safety of her passengers. It was recommended that a statute be passed requiring all ships entering U.S. ports to provide enough lifeboats for every one on board. (A step the White Star Line had already taken on all its ships.)

It then noted that the Titanic had not held adequate lifeboat drills before sailing, and that neither crew nor passengers had been given lifeboat assignments. Under new regulations, crews were required to perform lifeboat drills at least twice a month. Passengers were also to be drilled and lifeboat assignments posted.

Wireless radio was then still a relatively new addition to ships, but it was there largely as a convenience for passengers. Radios were not required and those that did have them didn’t keep them switched on all the time. After the Titanic, ships were required to be equipped with a wireless manned 24-hours a day by operators.

In light of the Californian having ignored as fireworks the emergency rockets the Titanic had fired off throughout the night, Congress also passed legislation that made it a crime to fire “rockets or candles on the high sea for any other purpose than as a signal of distress.”

Many other changes resulted, including the structural requirements for ocean-going passenger steamers. New ships would feature watertight skins and watertight compartments, bulkheads and decks, designed in light of what had been learned from the failure of the Titanic’s design.

Beginning in 1912, the U.S. Navy assigned two of its ships to patrol the “ice limits,” the area of the North Atlantic south of the iceberg zone. In 1914, thirteen nations involved in North Atlantic shipping banded together and formed the International Ice Patrol.

The function of both of these services was to be on the watch for and provide information to mariners on any ice that might drift from the northern ice fields into the regularly traveled shipping lanes. The IIP is still in existence, maintained in the U.S. by the Coast Guard, patrolling the waters around the Grand Banks of Newfoundland by ship and aircraft. According to the IIP, there has not been a collision between a ship and an iceberg since the service has been in existence.

Of course, the true extent of the damage done to the Titanic remained a mystery that many believed would never be solved. The exact location of the ship was unknown and it was, at any rate, resting more than two miles below the surface. While many searched for the lost ship, few believed it would ever be found.

However, on Sunday, September 1, 1985, a joint French-American scientific expedition led by Dr. Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, did just that: a little more than 73 years after the Titanic sank, the great ship was found. Utilizing sonar, imaging devices, unmanned submersible crafts, and underwater cameras, Ballard and his team systematically searched the vicinity where the Titanic was believed to have gone down.

For several reasons, pinpointing the ship’s exact location when she went down was no easy task. In 1912, ships navigated at night by the stars, a practical but imprecise method of navigation as compared with today’s satellite aided navigation. That, combined with not knowing the ship’s exact speed to compute the distance traveled, gave the expedition a wide area to search. When she was eventually located, the Titanic was two and one half miles to the south and 15 1/2 miles to the east of her last reported position.

What Dr. Ballard and his associates found answered many of the mysteries surrounding the fate of the Titanic. Her last minutes had been violent and destructive ones. Modern-day computer stress analysis based on the condition of the ship shows that she was tearing apart, her water-filled bow pulling away from the stern. The ship was also bending in the middle from the staggering weight of the water flooding into her. When she finally sank, she was most likely in one piece, but just barely. Eventually, underwater and out of sight of witnesses, the two halves broke apart.

They eventually settled on the ocean floor, some 12,500 feet below. They landed less than 2000 feet apart, with a field of debris (everything from broken pieces of the hull to cabin furniture to cutlery) stretched between them.

It had long been believed that the iceberg had ripped a 300-foot long gash in the hull. But investigation of the wreckage showed that rather than creating a single, huge gash, the collision caused a series of small tears in the hull as it scraped along the ice. Some of these rips were no more than an inch wide but they occurred where the plates of the hull had been riveted together.

Samples of steel from the hull brought up from the wreck of the Titanic underwent metallurgical analysis. The results, published in the Journal of Metals, showed the steel was contaminated with high levels of sulfur, oxygen and phosphorus, making it vulnerable to fracturing under impact. “It is apparent,” the report stated, “that the steel used for the hull was not suited for service at low temperatures. The seawater temperature at the time of the collision was -2 degrees C (28 degrees F).”

In other words, the icy waters of the North Atlantic had made the ship’s hull brittle. When the frozen steel slammed against the iceberg, it shattered, rivets holding the steel plates to the ship popping, allowing the plates to pull apart. Even the rivets themselves are now believed to have been defective, at least by modern standards. Those few that have been recovered and examined (out of some three million used in her construction) show them to have been contaminated with slag, which would have weakened them.

But, the Journal of Metals study doesn’t assign any blame to the shipbuilders for using this unsuitable steel. It concludes, “The steel used in constructing the Titanic was probably the best plain carbon ship plate available in the period of 1909 to 1911, but it would not be acceptable at the present time for any construction purposes and particularly not for ship construction.”

The best steel available at the time. But not up to the demands placed on it by the designers of the Titanic. She was created to be the biggest, most luxurious ship ever conceived. The White Star Line knew that so grand a ship could be built and spared no expense to do so in a time when science and technology were expected to perform miracles. They believed that if it could be done, it should be done.

But as Senator Smith observed “…Overconfidence seems to have dulled the faculties usually so alert.” Their desire to make the biggest and best was well ahead of the available technology–in this case, the quality of the steel available to make this dream ship a reality. No one believed they were using anything but the finest steel money could buy. But as good as it was, it wasn’t good enough for the job it had been called upon to do.

And, of course, it would be years until the devices that now make travel by sea so much safer would be developed and put in use. Modern passenger liners–not to mention military and commercial ships–are equipped with radar, sonar and satellite positioning technology. The captain can see at a glance what is around him, beneath him, and approaching him from a distance. His exact position, accurate to within inches in the middle of a vast ocean, is logged by satellites orbiting high above the Earth. Radar will warn him of an iceberg long before he will ever be able to see it with his own eye. Real-time weather maps from satellites show him exactly what conditions he’s sailing into.

None of this equipment guarantees there will never be another accident at sea. But they do make the likelihood of one of the same magnitude far more unlikely by placing every available resource for safety in the captain’s hands.

As for the Titanic, she will remain where she was found, 12,500 feet below the ocean’s surface, a monument to man’s achievements and a memorial to our failures.

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