As the great ship Titanic made her way from Queenstown to New York City, she steamed through the North Atlantic. Nearing the Grand Banks, she had to skirt a dangerous area called Iceberg Alley.
On the evening of April 14, 1912, Titanic’s wireless operators (Jack Phillips and Harold Bride) received ice warnings from ships in the area. Some of the messages had been given to the bridge, for the captain to review. Others had not.
One warning, from the Mesaba, came in at 9:40 p.m. It was not marked "MSG" (short for Masters' Service Gram) which would have required Captain Smith to see it - and sign off on it. Historians think it likely Smith never saw the message.
Freezing cold, in Titanic’s crow’s nest, the lookout crew kept watch. The beautiful sunset was a distant memory as Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee neared the end of their watch. It was difficult to see the horizon, or much of anything else, on this moonless, windless Sunday night. The seas were completely calm, eliminating any chance to see water breaking at the base of any icebergs. Without binoculars, which the crew could not find, the lookouts had to rely on their own unaided eyesight.
Suddenly, Fleet thought he saw "a black mass." Knowing it had to be an iceberg, he instantly rang the bell three times (warning of “ice straight ahead”) and telephoned the bridge.
William Murdoch, then chief officer on the bridge, immediately ordered the helmsman, Robert Hitchens, to turn the wheel “Hard astarboard.” At 11:40 p.m., about thirty seconds after Fleet first saw the iceberg, Titanic struck it with her starboard bow. Scientists, assessing the situation years later, believe Murdoch could have saved the ship had he not given the order to turn it.
Within five to ten minutes after striking the berg, the ship had a starboard list of 5 degrees.
By midnight, Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews (Titanic’s designer) knew the ship would sink. Five forward compartments had flooded. She could stay afloat with four flooded compartments, but not with five. And although Titanic had more lifeboats than current laws required, there weren’t enough for everyone.
It wasn’t just the lack of lifeboats that adversely impacted so many passengers, however. The crew did not realize that davits, holding the boats in place, were strong enough to bear the weight of a fully loaded vessel. Had the crew conducted a drill, or had they known the facts, they could have saved more lives. Instead, many lifeboats were lowered to the sea with lots of open spaces.
Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m. Captain Smith went down with the ship. It is estimated that an additional 1,491 lives were lost.
In this story about the event, examine witness testimony from the Wreck Inquiry (in Britain) and the Senate Hearings (in America). Discover a photo of what experts believe is the actual iceberg Titanic struck. See drawings (created by surviving crew members), life jackets (which saved some, but not all, passengers) and pictures (of rescue ships, rescued people and recovered bodies). Meet Titanic herself (in life and death), learn how icebergs are formed (and why they are oft-encountered in the North Atlantic) and find out why the great ship was traveling so fast at the time of the fatal encounter.
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