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Reports & Essays: History - American History

"AND""OR"

The Titanic - History of a Disaster
On April 14,1912 a great ship called the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. That night there were many warnings of icebergs from other ships. There seems to be a conflict on whether or not the warnings reached the bridge. We may never know the answer to this question. The greatest tragedy of all may be that there were not enough lifeboats for everyone on board. According to Walter Lord, author of The Night Lives On, the Titanic could have been saved in the very beginning of the crisis when the iceberg was first reported to the bridge. If First Officer Murdoch had steamed right at the iceberg instead of trying to avoid it, he might have saved the ship. The author feels there would have been a loud crash and anyone within the first one hundred feet would have been killed, but the ship would have remained afloat(82). This view was entirely speculation and we will never really know if this would have happened. In contrast, Geoffrey Marcus, author of The Maiden Voyage, suggests that the bridge did not receive warning of the ice from the very beginning. One of the messages received was from the Masaba warning the Titanic of a mass of ice lying straight ahead. According to Marcus, the message never reached the bridge, but instead was shoved under a paper-weight (126). At 10:30 p.m. that evening, a ship going the opposite direction of the Titanic was sighted. This ship, the Rappahannock, had emerged from an ice field and had sustained damage to its rudder. The vessel signaled the Titanic about the ice and the Titanic replied that the message was received (Marcus 127). At 11 p.m. another ice report was received. This one was from the Californian. This liner had passed through the same ice field that the Rappahannock had reported to the Titanic. Like all the other warnings, this warning never reached the bridge though it was known to both of the Titanic's wireless operators (Marcus 128). By the time the bridge realized the ship was about to hit an iceberg, it was too late. Quartermaster Hitchens tried to turn the wheel hard to the starboard. Twenty seconds later, he had an order for full speed astern but the iceberg was too close. The starboard side hit the iceberg, bringing a block of ice onto the deck (Pellegrino 21). After the collision occurred, there was only one thing open for Captain Smith to do. It was almost midnight and he gave the order to take to the lifeboats (Lord, Lives On 82). This decision brought Captain Smith face-to-face with the fact that there were 2,201 people on board and enough lifeboats for only 1,178 people (Lord, Lives On 83). The Captain was going to have to make a choice as to who would be the first allowed on the lifeboats. Around 12:30 a.m. the bridge informed the crew that only women and children would be loaded on the lifeboats (Eaton,Haas,152). By 1:30 a.m., there was panic among some of the passengers. One example was on the port side of the boat. A group of passengers threatened to jump into a boat full of passengers. To scare them, one of the officers fired three shots on the ship's side. The warning proved to be successful. Nobody was injured and the passengers calmed down (Eaton and Haas 154). At the last moments with only forty seven available spaces on the last lifeboat, the crew instructed everyone to form a circle around the boat. Women and children were the only people permitted to pass through the circle. A little while after the last lifeboat left, the stern lifted clear out of the water with more than 1500 people still on board (Eaton and Haas 157-161). The climatic moment came at 2:20 a.m. The Titanic stood perpendicular to the water. As people in the lifeboats looked on, they noticed the ship stayed perpendicular for a minute and then disappeared to the bottom of the ocean (Lord, Lives on 137). Captain Rostron of the ship Carpathia determined the distance to the Titanic and quickly calculated the course to answer the Titanic's distress call (Eaton and Haas 177). Once the Carpathia reached the lifeboats, it did not take long to load the passengers on board. It was 4:45 a.m. when the last lifeboat was loaded on board. The survivors peered around the Promenade Deck, searching for family members lost (Lord, To Remember 152-53). Why wasn't their enough lifeboats for everyone? The Titanic came under a regulating board that made laws for vessels over 10,000 tons. In 1894 only twenty lifeboats were needed. This number was never changed when the size of ships increased, and because of this, over a thousand lives were lost (Lord, Lives On 84). Another problem with the lifeboats was that there was no consistency in loading them. To Officer Lightoller, women and children first meant no men were allowed to board. In many cases this meant many lifeboats were not filled to maximum capacity. Officer Murdoch put men on the lifeboats when there were no women around. Therefore, a man's life or death, depended on what side of the ship he was standing on (Lord, Lives on 116). On a luxury ship, lifeboats for everyone would mean less room for games and sports on the upper decks. Passengers would have had to give up play areas for lifeboats (Lord, Lives On 85). White Star line tragically sacrificed safety for luxury. The question remains whether or not first and second class passengers received preference on the lifeboats. The White Star line claims there was no distinction between the three classes of passengers, however, only 25 percent of third class passengers were saved compared to 53 percent of first and second class passengers. The White Star line explained that third class passengers were more reluctant to leave the ship and they did not want to part from their belongings. The surviving crew of the Titanic also claimed that there was no discrimination. Yet at the British Inquiry of the accident, not a single third class passenger was called as a witness (Lord, Lives On 93-94). One aspect of the tragedy that the White Star line can be proud of is the fact that the Titanic was spared a panic. The crew did not try to go on lifeboats ahead of the passengers as they did when the French liner La Bourgogne went down in 1898. Most of the passenger remained calm and the crew did their duty ( Lord, Lives On 127). One of the most intriguing mysteries of the tragedy was surrounding the ship's band. It is believed the band played right to the end. Where or what they played remains a great mystery, as eyewitness accounts vary greatly (Lord, Lives On 135). Five days after the Titanic sank, the Bremen was on its way to New York. The passengers saw victims of the Titanic in the ocean." We saw the body of one woman dressed only in her night dress, and clasping a baby to her breast," one the passengers recalled. Another passenger of with her arms tightly clasped around a shaggy dog... We saw the bodies of three men in a group, all clinging to a chair. Floating by just beyond them were the bodies of a dozen men, all wearing life belts and clinging desperately together as though in their last struggle for life. (Ward 180) The aftermath of the disaster changed the way people thought about the sea and ships. If one lesson was learned, it was that there needs to be enough lifeboats for everyone on a ship. Luxuries should always come second to a passengers safety. Since the time of this disaster, every ship has enough lifeboats for everyone on board and also performs mandatory lifeboat drills. Walter Lord, the author of A Night to Remember, remarked that: The Titanic has come to stand for a world of tranquillity and civility that we have somehow lost... In 1912, people had confidence. Now nobody is sure of anything and the more uncertain we become , the more we long for a happier era when we felt we knew the answers. (170) In 1985, Dr. Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts set out to find the Titanic. That summer, he went aboard the U.S. Navy research ship Knorr. The ship used its sonar equipment to explore eighty percent of the ocean floor where the Titanic was believed to be. On September 1, after studying the video screens, Dr. Ballard discovered where the Titanic was lying. On a second expedition made in July of 1986, Ballard brought his small vessel called the Alvin to the site. His findings were as follows: Contrary to a long-held belief, the Titanic had not been sliced open by the iceberg. Instead, the researchers found that the ship's starboard bow plates had buckled under the impact of the collision, thereby opening up the ship to the sea. Another major discovery was that the stern of the Titanic had wrenched itself away from the rest of the ship in its descent to the bottom. (Ward 186) The last survivor of the Titanic recently died in her home in Massachusetts. With her death, many of the unanswered questions of the Titanic may have also died. Hopefully, a tragedy like this will never have to happen again. As stated before, ships are now expected to have enough lifeboats for everyone on board. Ships also route their lanes farther to the south during iceberg season. Hopefully, in some small, way this will make a difference if such an accident at sea should ever occur again. --- Work Cited Eaton, John P., and Charles A. Haas. Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. PP 152-184. Pellegrino, Charles. Her Name Titanic. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1988. PP 20-21. Marcus, Geoffrey. The Maiden Voyage. New York: The Viking Press, 1969. PP 35-128. Lord, Walter. A Night To Remember. Mattituck: American House, 1955. PP 152-170. Ward, Kaari, ed. Great Disasters. Pleasantville: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1989. PP 180-87.

 



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