The 'Unsinkable' Titanic

Originally published in 1986, Reader’s Digest editors drew on dozens of sources to compile and condense this remarkable tale of the White Star liner, RMS Titanic, which sank on 15 April 1912

RD Editors Updated: Jun 9, 2023 13:53:49 IST
The 'Unsinkable' Titanic image: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The largest ship the world had ever known, The Titanic sailed from Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage to New York City on Wednesday, 10 April, 1912. She was built with double bottoms, and her hull was divided into 16 watertight compartments. She was thought to be unsinkable and carried more than 2200 people.

Occupying the first-class suites were many well-known men and women—millionaire John Jacob Astor and his young bride; US President William Howard Taft’s close adviser Archibald W. Butt; former congressman and department store Macy’s chief executive Isidor Straus and J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line. In the crowded cabins of steerage class were more than 700 immigrants heading to the land of promise. 

Sunday the 14th dawned fair and clear. At nine a.m., a message from the steamer Caronia sputtered into the wireless shack: “Captain, Titanic—westbound steamers report bergs, growlers and field ice in 42 degrees N. from 49 degrees to 51 degrees W. Compliments—Barr.” The message was delivered to Captain E. J. Smith, who wired an acknowledgment.

Just before noon, the rasping spark of early wireless spoke again across the water. It was the Baltic, warning the Titanic of ice on the steamer track. The wireless operator sent the message up to the bridge. Captain Smith read it as he was walking on the promenade deck and then handed it to Bruce Ismay without comment.

Ismay read it, stuffed it into his pocket, told two women about the icebergs, and resumed his walk. It was bitter cold on deck that evening, but the night was calm and fine. After dinner, some of the second-class passengers gathered for hymn singing. It was almost 10 p.m. as the group sang the words of the mariner’s hymn: “Oh, hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.” 

On the bridge was First Officer William Murdoch. At least seven wireless warnings about ice had reached the ship; lookouts had been cautioned to be alert. At 22 knots, its speed unslackened, the Titanic ploughed on through the night. 

High in the crow’s nest, lookout Frederick Fleet peered into a dazzling night. There was no moon, but the cloudless sky blazed with stars, and the Atlantic was like polished plate glass. Lookouts were not supplied with binoculars, but at 11:40 p.m. Fleet’s eyes suddenly detected something directly ahead, even darker than the darkness. At first it was small, but every second it grew larger and closer. Fleet quickly banged the crow’s nest bell three times, the warning of the danger ahead. At the same time, he lifted the phone and rang the bridge.

“What did you see?” asked a calm voice at the other end.

“Iceberg right ahead,” replied Fleet.

“Thank you,” acknowledged the voice. Nothing more was said.

On the bridge, Quartermaster Robert Hichens was at the wheel. First Officer Murdoch gave the order: “Hard astarboard!” This meant turning the stern of the ship to starboard and the bow to port. As Murdoch telegraphed the engine room “full astern,” Hichens obeyed the spoken order and threw his full weight to the wheel.

In the crow’s nest, Fleet stood motionless as the silhouette loomed larger and larger. After what seemed an eternity, the Titanic’s bow [forward part] finally swung to port [left, if you stood on board facing the bow] and was beginning to clear the iceberg. Fleet braced himself as the forecastle brushed against the berg and ice tumbled onto the forewell deck.

image-101_060923122806.jpgFirst Officer William Murdoch (far left) and Captain John Smith (far right) of the Titanic. Photo: image: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

A Ripping Sound

At the very bottom of the ship, fireman Frederick Barrett had been hard at work stoking the furnaces in No. 6 boiler room. Foaming green seawater suddenly exploded through the Titanic’s side, about half a metre above the floor plates, shearing the starboard [right, opposite of port] wall for the entire length of No. 6 and slightly into the coal bunker in No. 5. The alarm bell was jangling above the watertight door, which had just begun to descend. Barrett managed to leap through the doorway and into No. 5 boiler room as the door shut. 

Meanwhile, in the first-class dining saloon far above Barrett, four members of the ship’s crew heard a faint grinding jolt that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside the ship. It was not much, but enough to rattle the silverware that was set for breakfast the next morning.

Passengers in their cabins felt the jar too. Major Arthur G. Peuchen, starting to undress for the night, thought it was like a heavy wave striking the ship. To Lady Duff Gordon, waking up from the jolt, it seemed “as though somebody had drawn a giant finger along the side of the ship.” Hearing that grinding jar in the first-class smoking room, Spencer V. Silverthorne rushed out onto the deck. With a few other passengers, he was in time to see the iceberg scraping along the starboard side, a little higher than the boat (topmost) deck. As it slid by, they watched chunks of ice breaking and tumbling off into the water. In another moment, it faded into the darkness astern.

The excitement soon disappeared. The Titanic seemed as solid as ever, and it was too cold to stay outside any longer. Slowly, every­one filed back inside.

As the grinding noise died away, Captain Smith rushed onto the bridge from his cabin next to the wheelhouse.

There were a few quick words: “Mr Murdoch, what was that?”

“An iceberg, sir. I hard-a-starboarded and reversed the engines, but she was too close. I couldn’t do any more.”

In the stateroom of the Titanic’s principal designer, Thomas Andrews, the impact was so slight it escaped his notice. A knock on the door drew his attention. A sailor summoned him to the bridge, where the captain told Andrews what had happened. Water in the forepeak … No. 1 hold … No. 2 hold … mail room … boiler room No. 6 … boiler room No. 5.

Water four metres above keel level in the first ten minutes, everywhere except boiler room No. 5. Put together, the facts showed a 90-metre gash, with the first five compartments hopelessly flooded. The conclusion was inescapable. The Titanic was on her way to the ocean floor, some 4,000 metres below. Andrews estimated the ship had but 90 minutes left. At 12:05 a.m.—about 25 minutes after that grinding jar—Captain Smith ordered Chief Officer H. F. Wilde to uncover the lifeboats. The Titanic carried only 16 boats and four canvas collapsibles capable altogether of holding about 1,180 of the 2,200 or so aboard. The captain himself then walked to the wireless shack. “Send the call for assistance,” he ordered.

“What call should I send?” Jack Phillips asked.

“The regulation international call for help. Just that.”

Less than 16 kilometres away, the Californian wireless operator Cyril F. Evans had closed down his set at the scheduled hour of 11:30.

The Light That Failed

The Cunard liner Carpathia, sailing from New York City, was bound for Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. Her extensive passenger accommodations—providentially—were nearly half empty. The Carpathia’s radio operator was H. T. Cottam. Cottam’s heart nearly missed a beat when out of the night came the dread letters of the international distress call: “CQD CQD SOS SOS. Come at once. We have struck a berg. Position 41.46 N., 50.14 W. CQD SOS!”

Cottam raced up to the bridge and breathlessly informed the officer of the watch, who in turn went to the captain’s cabin.

Captain Arthur H. Rostron later wrote: “So incredible seemed the news that, having at once given orders to turn the ship, I got hold of the Marconi operator. ‘Are you sure it is the Titanic?’ I asked him. ‘Quite certain,’ he replied. ‘All right,’ I said then. ‘Tell him we are coming.’ ”

“We are coming as quickly as possible,” Cottam telegraphed, “and expect to be there within four hours.”

“TU OM” [“Thank you, old man”].

After that, Cottam switched off his transmitter. He was careful not to do anything that might interfere with the Titanic’s signals. Presently, however, he overheard her exchanges with the Frankfurt, Mount Temple and other ships—though all this time the Californian, which now lay less than 16 kilometres distant from the sinking liner, remained silent.

image-102_060923122839.jpgThough they changed before the Titanic was built, the plans for it are shown in this 1909 illustration. Photo: Reproduced with permission from Titanic in Photographs (The History Press)

Playing the Game

Aboard the Titanic, the passengers stood calmly on the boat deck—unworried but confused, waiting for the next orders. Each class kept to its own decks—first class in the centre of the ship, second a little aft, third at the very stern or on the well deck near the bow. With uneasy amusement, they eyed how one another looked in life belts.

There had been no boat drill, the passengers had no boat assignments, and the going was slow. Second Officer Charles H. Lightoller, in charge of the port side, stood with one foot in Boat 6 and one on deck. He called for women and children. The response was anything but enthusiastic. Why trade the bright decks of the Titanic for a few dark hours in a rowboat? Even John Jacob Astor ridiculed the idea: “We are safer here than in that little boat.”

When Constance Willard flatly refused to enter the boat, an exasperated officer finally said, “Don’t waste time—let her go if she won’t get in!”

There was music to lull them too. Bandmaster Wallace Henry Hartley had assembled his men, and the band was playing ragtime music. At 12:45 a.m., a blinding flash seared the night as the first rocket shot up from the starboard side of the bridge. There was no more joking or lingering. In fact, there was hardly time to say goodbye. 

“It’s all right, little girl,” called Dan Marvin to his new bride. “You go and I’ll stay awhile.” He blew her a kiss as she entered the boat. “Be brave, no matter what happens,” Dr W. T. Minahan told his wife as he stepped back with the other men. But Mrs Isidor Straus refused to go. “I’ve always stayed with my husband; where you go, I go,” she said. Time was clearly running out.

Soon the sea slopped over the Titanic’s forward well deck and rippled around the cranes, the hatches, and the foot of the mast. The nerve-racking rockets stopped, but the slant of the deck was steeper, and there was an ugly list to port.

A little group of millionaires stood quietly apart from the rest of the passengers on the boat deck; there were John Jacob Astor, George B. Widener, John B. Thayer and a few others. Benjamin Guggenheim and his male secretary had changed back into evening dress. Declared Guggenheim, “We are prepared to go down like gentlemen.” He gave his steward—in case he survived—a message for his wife. “Tell her I played the game out straight and to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.”

The poor Irish boys and girls from steerage were down on their knees, praying. An English priest, Father Thomas Byles, was moving to and fro among the passengers, hearing confessions and giving absolution. Every moment the black water was drawing nearer and nearer. At 2:15 a.m., as the crewmen were tugging at the last two collapsible boats, the bridge dipped under, and the sea rolled aft along the boat deck. At this moment, the ragtime ended, and strains of the hymn “Autumn” flowed across the deck and drifted into the still night far over the water.

“She’s Gone”

Second Officer Lightoller later wrote: “There was only one thing to do, and I [decided I] might just as well do it and get it over, so, turning to the fore part of the bridge, I took a header. Striking the water was like a thousand knives being driven into one’s body, and no wonder, for the temperature of the water was minus two degrees C.

“I suddenly found myself drawn to an air shaft by the sudden rush of the surface water now pouring down. I was held flat and firmly up against a grating on this opening with the full and clear knowledge that if this light wire carried away, there was a sheer drop of close to 30 metres, right to the bottom of the ship. Although worth, it was impossible to get away, for as fast as I pushed myself off, I was irresistibly dragged back, every instant expecting the wire to go, and to find myself shot down into the bowels of the ship. I was still struggling and fighting when suddenly a terrific blast of hot air came up the shaft and blew me right away and up to the surface.”

Lightoller survived by joining some 30 others on an overturned collapsible boat before transferring to a lifeboat. Passenger Lawrence Beesley described the great ship’s last moments as seen from Boat No. 7, a kilometre and a half away: “We gazed awestruck as she tilted slowly up, revolving apparently about a centre of gravity just astern of amidships, until she attained a vertically upright position; and there she remained—motionless!” 

In the maelstrom of ropes, deck chairs, planking, and wildly swirling water, nobody knew what happened to most of the people. From the boats, they could be seen clinging like swarms of bees to deckhouses, winches and ventilators.

The famous and the unknown tumbled together in a writhing heap as the bow plunged deeper and the stern rose higher. Then a steady roar thundered across the water as everything movable broke loose—29 boilers … 15,000 bottles of ale and stout beer … 30 cases of golf clubs and tennis racquets … huge anchor chains … tonnes of coal … 30,000 fresh eggs … five grand pianos.

The structure supporting the first funnel collapsed. The mammoth smokestack seemed to lift off like a missile—its steel hawsers tearing the planking out of the decks—before it toppled on the people in the water.

The ship’s innards were now giving way. Crushed between the pressure of the sea and the gargantuan tonnage of the foundering liner, the celebrated watertight bulkheads crumpled with “big booms.” The Titanic’s stern steadily lifted, and suddenly her lights snapped off. They came on again with a searing flash and then went out forever.

Two minutes passed, the noise stopped, and the Titanic settled back slightly at the stern. Then slowly she began sliding under at a steep slant. As she glided down, the ship seemed to pick up speed. When the sea closed over the flagstaff on her stern, there was a gulp.

“She’s gone; that’s the last of her,” someone sighed to lookout Reginald Lee in Boat 13. The starlight revealed a scene of utter horror. The sea all around was covered with a mass of tangled wreckage and the struggling forms of many hundreds of men, women, and children—slowly, inexorably freezing to death in ice-cold water. A sheet of thin, grey vapour hung like a pall a few metres above the surface.

Burial at Sea

Meanwhile, the Carpathia was making its way towards the Titanic. “Icebergs loomed up and fell astern,” wrote Carpathia’s Captain Rostron. “We never slackened, though sometimes we altered course to avoid them. As soon as there was a chance that we were in view, we started sending up rockets at intervals of about a quarter of an hour. 

“There was no sign of the Titanic herself. By now—it was about 3:35am—we were almost up to the position. I saw a green light just ahead of us, low down. I knew that must be a boat. I brought the vessel alongside, and the passengers started climbing aboard. They were in the charge of an officer. I asked that he should come to me as soon as he was on board.”

Without preliminaries, Rostron burst out excitedly, “Where is the Titanic?”

“Gone!” replied Fourth Officer Joseph G. Boxhall. “She sank at 2:20am.”

“Were many people left on board when she sank?”

“Hundreds! Perhaps a thousand or more!” Boxhall’s voice broke with emotion. “My God, sir, they’ve gone down with her!”

“Daylight was just setting in,” Rostron wrote, “and what a sight that new day revealed. Everywhere were icebergs. And amid the tragic splendour of them as they lay in the first shafts of the rising sun, boats of the lost ship floated.”

At 8:30, the last of the lifeboats and the collapsibles to arrive made fast and began to unload.

The Californian (which all night long had failed to react to the Titanic’s distress) had got under way at 6am, steering for the position where she had earlier been informed the Titanic had sent out her distress call. Shortly after 8am, steaming cautiously through the ice, she was near enough to the Carpathia for semaphore signalling. The Californian inquired what had happened; the reply came that the Titanic had sunk. Later the Californian received a wireless message from Captain Rostron: “I am taking the survivors to New York. Please stay in the vicinity and pick up any bodies.”

Before heading back, Rostron sent for the Reverend Anderson, a clergyman aboard, and the people from the Titanic and Carpathia assembled in the main lounge to pay their respects to the dead. While they murmured their prayers, the Carpathia steamed slowly over the Titanic’s grave. There were few traces of the great ship. And at 8:50, Rostron felt sure there couldn’t possibly be another survivor. He rang “full speed ahead” and turned his ship for New York. According to the captain of the Californian, no bodies could be found, and after an hour or so he resumed his voyage. There were in fact hundreds of corpses, drifting to and fro on the face of the waters. They may not have been seen because they were caught up in an immense ice mass moving in a northeasterly direction, and ships dared not venture near it. Later, those bodies were dispersed, possibly as a result of the ice breaking up in the Gulf Stream.

A week after the sinking, the cable ship MacKay-Bennett found 306 of them. When first sighted, they had seemed like a great flock of gulls on the water, bobbing gently in the swell. They were all floating in an upright position as if treading water, most of them in a great cluster surrounded by debris from the ship.

All day, crewmen worked at dragging the sodden bodies onto the deck. Those victims without identification were prepared for a proper burial at sea. By 8pm that Sunday, the first burials began. MacKay-Bennett engineer Fred Hamilton kept a diary: “The tolling of the bell summoned all hands to the forecastle, where 30 bodies are to be committed to the deep, each carefully weighted and sewed in canvas. The crescent moon is shedding a faint light on us as the ship lies wallowing in the great rollers. The funeral service is conducted by the Reverend Canon Hind; for nearly an hour the words ‘For as much as it hath pleased ... we therefore commit his body to the deep’ are repeated, and at each interval comes, splash! as the weighted body plunges into the sea, there to sink to a depth of about two miles [three kilometres]. 

“Splash, splash, splash.”

Final Resting Place

“Like an enormous black finger pointing at the sky,” as one survivor described her, the Titanic had heaved herself upright at 2:18am. She hovered “in this amazing attitude” for moments—some said for several minutes—and took a sudden plunge forward as everything from dynamos to cabin furniture broke loose and fell towards the bow. Then she corkscrewed slightly to port; her submerged forecastle began to shudder, and the ocean surged into A and B decks. Before the Titanic’s lights went out for good, she appeared “like an enormous glowworm”—even the lamps in the underwater sections of the ship continued to burn, flooding the water around the bow with a green radiance.

Then she settled back to an angle of about 70 degrees and began slowly sliding into the sea. Muffled thunder sounded deep beneath the surface, and “she went down with an awful grating, like a boat running off a shingly beach.” She disappeared from view at 2:20am. Within 15 seconds, the Titanic was 15 metres under the surface and accelerating.

There was desperate life, still, among the more than 1000 souls remaining aboard. But only the few that somehow got to the surface had more than a moment’s hope. After another several seconds, the Titanic passed through the 30-metre level.

Somewhat deeper, there were implosions as the heavy steel bulkheads crumpled like tinfoil. The remaining buoyancy of the ship was sharply reduced. Her speed picked up to perhaps 20 knots. A few minutes after total submersion, the inclination of the Titanic relented a bit from the steep angle at which she had slipped beneath the pond-smooth surface. Her giant boilers, which had crashed down through all the ship’s bulkheads and punched holes in the side of the bow, had gone on ahead, advance scouts seeking the ocean floor. 

Levelled out in a flatter angle, the great ship now “kited” as it made its way through the icy depths, oscillating back and forth as she descended, somewhat in the manner of a leaf floating to earth.

Around 1000 metres, she entered a zone never penetrated by sunlight. At that depth, where the ocean bears down at 114 kilos per square centimetre, no human life is possible. The stern, which had endured unimaginable stress when it rose towards the sky, had already pulled away. More cargo broke loose—cranes, the engine-room telegraph, chamber pots, serving platters, bottles of claret and champagne from the ship’s wine cellar near the stern. Then, at about 2400 metres, the Titanic thrust her bow into the benthic current, a vast, subsurface, slow-moving river. 

The ship had been sinking for seven minutes now, and the ocean floor was still several hundred metres below. She entered a hilly landscape of river valleys, tributary streams, and outcroppings. Her stern had been floating free of the forward section and had partially disintegrated, scattering derricks, propellers, and even personal effects from the crew’s quarters. Bursting open, too, were the individual refrigerators, aft on G Deck, to disgorge their contents: fish, vegetables, ice cream, beef, poultry, cheese, fruit, and flowers. 

Finally the Titanic slammed down. It will never be known which of the two sections, bow or stern, hit the brownish seafloor first. They kicked up huge clouds of sediment, which mingled with great clods of the ship’s boiler coal. The bow section came to rest on its keel, with only a slight list to port. The stern, some 300 metres away, disintegrated further upon impact. Unseen, the sediment drifted down as a ghostly snow.

Now the fractured hulk would be a permanent tomb for the mighty and the lowly; for the ship’s captain and most of his crew, for musicians, clergymen, and millionaires, and for teachers, bricklayers, carpenters, nurses, farmers, dishwashers. There, at about 4000 metres, people from some 20 nations lay in 3-degree C water under a pressure of 448 kilos per square centimetre. The time was close to 2:30am, Monday, April 15, 1912. The Titanic’s maiden voyage had lasted four days, 17 hours, and 30 minutes.


An edited excerpt from the Reader's Digest April 1986 edition. Check out more fascinating reads from the Reader's Digest archives here

Sources: Hanson W. Baldwin, Harper’s Magazine, 1934; A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord (Henry Holt & Co.); The Titanic—End of a Dream, by Wyn Craig Wade (Penguin); Beyond Reach: The Search for the Titanic, by William Hoffman (Beaufort Books, 1982); Harold Bride, New York Times, 1912; Titanic and Other Ships, by Charles H. Lightoller (Oxford City Press); The Truth about the Titanic, by Archibald Gracie (M. Kennerley, 1913); The Maiden Voyage, by Geoffrey Marcus (Viking); Home from the Sea, by Sir Arthur H. Rostron (Macmillan); The Loss of the Titanic, by Lawrence Beesley (Houghton Mifflin); The Californian and the Titanic, by Peter Padfield (1965); A Matter of Risk, by Roy D. Varner and Wayne R. Collier (Random House, Inc.); Rod Redman, Sea Classics magazine, 1985; Mark Potts, Chicago Tribune, 1980; Kathleen Maxa, Washington Post, 1981; John Noble Wilford, New York Times, 1980; Paul R. Ryan and Anne Rabushka, Oceanus magazine, 1985; Robert D. Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel, November 1985; Stefi Weisburd, Science News, 1985; Chris Davis, Popular Mechanics, 1985; Audrey C. Woods, Associated Press, 1985; Raise the Titanic, by Clive Cussler (Viking).

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