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The sinking of the Titanic (1912)

by Jay Henry Mowbray

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Loading at the Rail — Inadequate Life-saving Appliances — No Extra Lookout — Searchlights Blinding — Wireless Rivals Not All Aroused — Went to Death in Sleep — Scratch Seamen — Cries of Agony — A Pitiful Story — Senators Ascertain Pertinent Facts — Much Good Accomplished.

  What has been accomplished by the Senatorial inquiry into the loss of the Titanic with sixteen hundred lives?

  For more than a week of the two that have elapsed since the Titanic made a record on her maiden voyage — a record never paralleled in marine history for its horrors, its sacrifice of life and material property — an earnest body of United States Senators has been at work conscientiously striving to uncover the facts, not alone for the purpose of placing the responsibility for what has now become one of the most heartrending chapters of all ocean history, but also in the hope of framing remedial legislation looking to the prevention of its recurrence.

  To attempt to draw conclusions as to the value of the work of a committee which is yet upon the threshold of its task would be presumptuous, but it is not too soon to present and formulate some of the pertinent facts which its researches have established in the light of sworn evidence.

  Any attempt at systematic analysis of the facts deduced from the many thousand of pages of testimony already taken naturally divided itself into two departments:

  Were the Titanic's equipment and her general state of preparedness such as to justify the broad claims made in her behalf before the crisis arose, that she represented the acme of human possibility not only in ocean going comfort and speed but also in safety at sea?

  Were the personnel and discipline of her officers and crew of such a standard that, after the supreme crisis confronted them, they utilized to the best advantage such facilities for the safeguarding and preservation of life as remained at their disposal?

  With ten thousand families on both sides of the Atlantic mourning the untimely death of relatives and friends who went down into the depths from the decks of a brand new ship, widely proclaimed the greatest and the safest that ever ploughed the sea, these are, after all, the most pertinent questions that may be asked by a sorrowing world as it looks to the future rather than the past.


  It has been demonstrated — and frankly conceded by the company's managers and officers in the light of after knowledge — that the Titanic's life-saving appliances were woefully inadequate to the safeguarding of even one-half her complement of passengers and crew. On the day after the disaster was known to the world it was shown that the ship's equipment of lifeboats complied with the requirements of the English Board of Trade, but that those requirements were so obsolete and antiquated that they dated back to 1898 and were drafted to provide for vessels of less than one-quarter the gross tonnage of the mammoth craft of 46,000 tons of displacement.

  The Titanic carried on her boat deck — sometimes referred to as her sun deck — fourteen of the largest regulation size lifeboats, seven on her port side and seven on the starboard. Each of these had a carrying capacity, according to the Board of Trade's established method of computation, of 65.5 persons. Their aggregate capacity when afloat, therefore, was 917. The ship carried, in addition, four of the so-called collapsible boats and two others known as emergency boats — comparatively small craft employed in occasional duty — as when a man falls overboard.

  The combined capacity of these six when afloat was hardly more than sufficient to care for two hundred persons. At the most liberal estimate, therefore, the entire equipment of boats aboard the great White Star liner might have afforded refuge, in the most favorable conditions, to less than 1,200 persons, or not quite half the number actually aboard the ship, on her maiden voyage.

  In stating the lifeboat capacity the term "when afloat" has been used advisedly. One of the points which each of the Titanic's surviving officers has emphasized in evidence is the vast difference between loading with its human freight a boat that has been already placed in the water and loading one "at the rail," from a deck seventy feet above the water, with the subsequent perils of lowering it by means of the tackles sustaining its weight from bow and stern.

  Several of the officers have said that, in lowering loaded boats from the rail of the Titanic's boat deck, they would consider it unwise and even dangerous to fill the boats to more than one-half their rated capacity.

  All the lifeboats that went away from the Titanic were loaded and lowered from the rail. Some of the smaller collapsible and emergency boats did not get away at all until the ship was so low in the water that they were simply pushed overboard, and one of them went over bottom up.


  Harold G. Lowe, the fifth officer, commanded a boat which carried fifty-eight persons aboard. This, so far as is known, is the largest number of passengers carried in any of the lifeboats. Mr. Lowe testified that as his craft was lowered away from the davits he feared momentarily that, as a result of the tremendous strain upon her structure, she would buckle amidships and break before she reached the sustaining surface of the water, dropping all into the sea. "Had one more person leaped aboard her amidships as she was going down past the other decks," he said, "it might well have proved to be the last straw."

  Mr. Lowe feared this might happen, as he saw steerage passengers "glaring at the boat" as it was lowered past the decks whereon they stood. It was for that reason, he explained to the investigating committee, that he discharged his revolver three times into the air as he and his boatload were dropping past the three lower decks. His purpose, he said, was to show that he was armed and to prevent any effort to overload the craft beyond a point which he already considered perilous.

  C.H. Lightoller, second officer and ranking surviving officer of the Titanic, expressed the opinion that, in filling lifeboats from the Titanic's boat deck, "at the rail," it was involving serious risk to load them to more than half their rated capacity for filling while afloat. H.G. Boxhall, fourth officer, expressed a like view, but added that in an extreme emergency one man might take more chances than another.

  In view of these expert opinions, it will be seen that, when it came to loading the Titanic's passengers into lifeboats "from the rail," the actual life-saving capacity of her available equipment was far less than the one thousand or eleven hundred that might have been carefully packed away into boats already resting safely on the surface of a calm sea.


  And this consideration naturally suggests the query, Why were the Titanic's lifeboats all loaded "from the rail" of the topmost deck, at a point fully seventy feet above the sea? Why were they not lowered empty, or with only the necessary officers or crew aboard, and then filled with their quota of passengers, either from some lower deck, or else after they had reached the sustaining surface of the water?

  It is evident that course was contemplated. Three of the surviving officers have testified that the available force of seamen was depleted after the ship struck, because a detail of men had been sent below to open up the gangway doors, for the purpose of embarking the passengers into the lifeboats from those outlets. There is nothing in evidence as yet to show that this purpose was ever accomplished, or to reveal the fate of the men sent to do the work.

  Whether the men were unable or incompetent to force open the gangway doors, from which the lowered boats might easily have been filled, as the sea was as smooth as a mill pond; whether these outlets were jammed as a result of collision with the berg, or stuck because the ship's mechanisms were new, has not been revealed and may never be known.

  Certain it is that all the lifeboats were loaded "from the rail," and their safe capacity was thereby reduced one-half in the judgment of the officers to whom their command was entrusted.

  The inadequacy of the Titanic's lifeboat appliances is not disputed. Steamship companies are already vying with one another to correct in this respect the admitted shortcomings of the past. The sole excuse offered is that collision bulkheads, watertight compartments and other like devices have been regarded until now as making the marvelous vessels of the present day "their own best lifeboats." The Titanic and many of her sister ships of the ocean fleets have been called "unsinkable." They were generally believed to be so, and it is only since this greatest of disasters has shattered many illusions that marine engineers have confessed ruefully that the unsinkable ship has never yet been launched.


  Since the day of the watertight compartment and of the wireless telegraph sea perils have been so minimized that in the most extreme of likely emergencies the function of the lifeboat had come to be regarded as that of an ocean ferry capable of transferring passengers safely and leisurely from an imperilled vessel to another standing by and co-operating in the task.

  That was all the lifeboat had to do when the Republic sank. That was all they had to do years ago, when the Missouri, under Captain Hamilton Murrell's expert management, took off a thousand persons from a foundering ship without the loss of a single life. So it had come to be believed that the lifeboats would never be called upon to do more than that, and least of all in the case of the Titanic, latest and most superb of all the vessels built by man since the world began.

  So deep rooted was this conviction in the minds of seagoing men that when Senator Smith, of Michigan, chairman of the investigating committee, asked one of the surviving officers: "What was the purpose of the Titanic carrying her fourteen full-size lifeboats?" he naively replied: "To comply, I suppose, with the regulations of the London Board of Trade."

  There has been no evidence to indicate that the Titanic lacked the proper number of life jackets, or life belts-one for every person aboard the ship — and it has not been proven that these life belts were not new and of proper quality and strength. Major Peuchen, of Toronto, one of the surviving passengers, however, in the course of his testimony, made two significant comments. He said that when the Carpathia, on the morning after the disaster, steamed through a lot of the Titanic's floating wreckage, he was surprised to note great quantities of broken bits of cork, such as are used in life preservers. He was astonished also that he did not see a larger number of floating bodies.

  "I have always supposed," said Major Peuchen, who is an experienced yachtsman, "that a life preserver in good condition would sustain a dead body as well as a live one."


  It has been demonstrated by ample evidence that at the time the Titanic hit the iceberg she was steaming at the undiminished speed of twenty- one knots an hour into a zone littered with icebergs and floating ice fields, warning of which her officers had received hours before by wireless from several other ships, including the Amerika, of the Hamburg-American Line. When day broke on Monday, according to Mr. Lane, at least twenty icebergs surrounded the Carpathia, the largest of which was 150 feet high. They were within a six-mile radius.

  In the chart room, tucked into the corner of a frame above the table where the navigating officers of the Titanic did their mathematical work, was a written memorandum of the latitude and longitude wherein two large icebergs had been reported directly in the track. Mr. Boxhall had worked out this position under Captain Smith's instructions. Mr. Lightoller, the second officer, was familiar with it, and when his watch ended at 10 o'clock Sunday night and he surrendered the post on the bridge to the first officer, Mr. Murdock, the remark was made that they would probably "be getting up into the ice during Mr. Murdock's watch."

  Despite all this the Titanic was rushing on, driving at railroad speed toward the port of New York and "a record for a maiden voyage."

  It was a cloudless and starlit night with no sea running. No extra lookout was posted in the "ship's eyes," the most advanced position on the vessel's deck. Up in the crow's nest Fleet and both experienced lookouts, were keeping a sharp watch forward. They had been duly warned of ice by the pair of lookouts whom they had relieved.


  But the men in the crow's nest had to depend entirely upon the vision of the naked eye. They had no glass to aid them. Fleet had occupied a similar post of responsibility four years on the Oceanic without mishap. His testimony before the committee was that he never before had been without the aid of a glass. He had a pair of binoculars when the ship made her trial trip from Belfast, but they had been mislaid, and when the Titanic steamed out from Southampton he asked Mr. Lightoller for another pair and was told that there was no glass for him. Fleet's warning was too late to prevent the impact. His testimony was that with a glass he would have reported the berg in time to have prevented the ship striking it.

  When Quartermaster Hitchens came on watch at 10 o'clock the weather had grown so cold that he, experienced seaman that he was, immediately thought of icebergs, though it was no part of his duty to look out for them. The thermometer showed thirty- one degrees, and the first orders he received were to notify the ship's carpenter to look to his fresh-water supply because of the freezing weather, and to turn on the steam-heating apparatus in the officers' quarters.

  Still no extra lookout was placed and the men in the crow's nest were straining their tired eyes ahead without the help of a lens.

  Captain Arthur Rostrom, of the Carpathia, testified that when he was rushing his ship to the aid of the stricken Titanic, taking unusual chances because he knew lives were at stake he p1aced a double watch on duty.

  Each of the surviving officers, when he was questioned as to the Titanic's speed at a time when the proximity of dangerous ice was definitely reported and clearly indicated by the drop in temperature, said that it was "not customary" to slacken speed at such times, provided the weather was clear. The custom is, they said, "to go ahead and depend upon the lookouts in the crow's nest and the watch on the bridge to 'pick up' the ice in time to avoid hitting it."

  Mr. Lowe, the fifth officer, who was crossing the Atlantic for the first time in his life, most of his fourteen years' experience at sea having been in the southern and eastern oceans, yawned wearily in the face of the examiner as he admitted that he had never heard that icebergs were common off the Banks of Newfoundland and that the fact would not have interested him if he had. He did not know that the Titanic was following what is known as "the southern track," and when he was asked ventured the guess that she was on the northerly one.


  Questions framed by Senator Smith several times have suggested that the use of a searchlight might have saved the Titanic. War ships of all nations make the searchlight a part of their regular equipment, as is well known. The Titanic's surviving officers agreed that it has not been commonly used by vessels of the merchant marine. Some of them conceded that in the conditions surrounding the Titanic its use on a clear night might have revealed the iceberg in time to have saved the ship. Major Peuchen, of Toronto, said emphatically that it would have done so.

  Mr. Lightoller, however, pointed out that, while the searchlight is often a useful device for those who stand behind it, its rays invariably blind those upon whom they are trained. Should the use of searchlights become general upon merchant vessels, he thought, it would be a matter for careful consideration, experiment and regulation.

  The Senatorial inquiry has indicated that the single lifeboat drill upon the Titanic had been a rather perfunctory performance; there had been neither a boat drill nor a fire drill from, the time the great ship left Southampton until she struck the iceberg. While she lay in harbor before starting on her maiden voyage, and with her port side against the company pier, two of her lifeboats had been lowered away from her starboard side, manned by a junior or a warrant officer and a crew of four men each, who rowed them around a few minutes and then returned to the ship.

  There had also been an inspection in the home port to see whether the lifeboats contained all the gear specified by the Board of Trade regulations and Officer Boxhall testified that they did. Yet, when the emergency came, many of the boats were found to contain no lights, while others lacked extra oars, biscuits and other specified requisites.


  The Titanic's loss has completely exploded the fallacy that watertight compartments, of which the big ship had fifteen in her main divisions, can save a vessel from foundering after having sustained a raking blow, tearing and ripping out her plates from thirty feet aft of the bow almost to midships.

  Mr. Lightoller expressed the belief under oath that the starboard side of the Titanic had been pierced through compartments 1, 2, 3 and probably 4, numbering from the collision bulkhead toward the midship section. The testimony of Quartermaster Hitchens showed that the vessel filled so fast that when the captain looked at the commutator five minutes after the ship struck, the Titanic showed a list of five degrees to starboard. Rushing water drove the clerks out of the mail room before they could save their letter bags.

  One reform that is likely to take shape early as a result of the Senatorial investigation is a more thorough regulation of wireless telegraphy both in shore stations and on ships at sea. Interference by irresponsible operators will probably be checked by governmental action, and the whole subject may come up for uniform international regulation in the Berlin conference.

  It is conceded that on all ships the receiving apparatus of the wireless instruments should be manned at all hours of the day and night, just as are the ship's bridge and the engine rooms. The Senate inquiry has showed that had the death call of the Titanic gone five minutes later it would never have reached the Carpathia, whose one wireless operator was about to retire for the night when he heard the signal that took the Cunarder to the rescue of the seven hundred who survived.

  There has been shown, too, grave need of some cure for the jealousies and rivalries between competing systems of wireless. To the Frankfurt, which was one of the nearest, if not the nearest, of several ships to the sinking Titanic, her operator sent the curt message, "Shut up!" From the Californian the operator refused to take a message, which proved to be an ice warning, because "he was busy with his accounts." With the sanction of high officers of their company wireless operators have suppressed vital public information for the purpose of commercializing their exclusive knowledge for personal profit.

  So much for the Titanic's boasted equipment — or the lack of it. There remains to be summarized the evidence adduced as to the personnel and discipline, as these were indicated by what occurred after the ship confronted the direst of all emergencies.

  The Titanic was expected to make a record on her maiden voyage. She made one unapproached in ocean annals; one which, it is hoped, may long stand unparalleled.


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