The Titanic Speaks

July 21, 2010

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I need to get to sea and soon will. After two years of construction, a hundred thousand people are watching in dry dock on May 31, 1911 as hydraulic triggers release me onto a path greased with 22 tons of tallow and soap that let me glide into the River Lagan. Now my staterooms and restaurants, as elegantly designed as those in the finest hotels on land, can be completed and the big boilers, engines, and smokestacks installed. It takes 10 more months to make everything perfect, and my 46,000 tons, stretching 882 feet long, 92 wide, and 60 high from waterline to boat deck, are ready to become the most exceptional ship on the high seas. Edward J. Smith is my captain, at age 62 a man many distinguished passengers insist on sailing with because of his dignity and charm as well as astute seamanship.

After much worry and ultimate preparation, on April 10, 1912 in Southampton, my maiden voyage is at hand. Captain Smith arrives at 7 a.m., chauffeured from his spacious home nearby. At 9:30 the second and third class passengers file on board. And at 11:30 the Titanic’s orchestra serenades the first class passengers, who include wealthy and sophisticated people named Astor, Guggenheim, Widener, and Straus. Once all 2,228 passengers and crew and their luggage, and the U.S. Mail via the Royal Mail Service, are on board, my mooring lines are slipped and my whistles penetrate miles around, and slowly I turn, not to my ultimate destination but first to Cherbourg and then Queenstown where I take on more passengers and mail. Now, toward New York City, my three steam engines generate 46,000 horsepower and turn giant propellers that move us smoothly at 21 knots per hour.

For people of the utmost means, I offer two parlor suites each featuring a 50-foot private promenade and costing about $100,000 one way. Most of my first class berths, spacious and electrically lit and heated, are only several thousand dollars per passenger, a pittance for providing 337 people access to the world’s first swimming pool on a ship, to a Turkish Bath, a gymnasium equipped with rowing machines and electric horses, a squash court, two barber shops, a smoking room for men, a reading room for ladies, a library, a 10,000 square foot dining room, a Parisian Café with French waiters, the Grand Staircase bordered and centered by elegant wood handrails holding carved gold artifacts and topped by a dome of iron and stained glass, a photographic darkroom, a Marconi wireless radio station, a switchboard for phone calls on board, and a modern infirmary and operating room where two fine physicians preside.

In second class successful businessmen and their wives and children, a total of 285 passengers, pay about $1,500 each to enjoy first rate staterooms with mahogany furniture and natural light throughout the day, an excellent dining area, a library, a reading room, a smoking room, and one elevator.

For as low as $350 my 721 third class passengers, most European immigrants either seeking an American future or returning from vacations in their homelands, are domiciled in small cabins with two bunk beds. They often don’t know each other or speak the same language, and my ceilings in this section are a maze of pipes and support beams, and noise and vibration from my mighty engines is incessant, but these modest passengers are thankful to sleep on real mattresses, rather than the straw beds many liners offer. They also have access to fresh air on the poop deck and to a piano, rare privileges, indeed. And they won’t be inconvenienced I offer but two bathtubs. They bathe once a week, putting each tub in use only 50 times a day. Most of my crew of 885 sleeps in dormitories. Captain Edward J. Smith resides in a suite and is attended by a valet.

I’m proud we spoil our passengers and crew with an astonishing array of food and beverages, highlighted by 75,000 pounds of fresh meat, 40,000 equally pristine eggs, 40 tons of potatoes, a ton of coffee, 800 pounds of tea, 15,000 bottles of ale, 1,000 bottles of wine, and 850 of spirits. We also intercede when our best clients, sober or not, are fleeced at cards, and dutifully display a sign warning that “Suspected Card Sharks” are lurking on our vessel. Likewise, we are discrete in protecting the sensibilities of esteemed passengers, the wealthiest of whom is John Jacob Astor IV. The astute and inventive Colonel Astor, age 47, has divorced his wife, quite a scandal by itself, and further shocked his fellow socialites by marrying a fair lady, Madeleine, only 18 years old. They escaped gossip and rebuke by honeymooning in Europe and Egypt and are joining us only because Mrs. Astor is five months pregnant and wishes to bear her child in the United States. I know she will be thusly blessed.

My first few days at sea proceed famously, and there is no particular worry when Captain Edward J. Smith receives reports of icebergs ahead and revises my course a little to the south. On the night of April 14 he attends a party honoring him for another safe and relaxing voyage, which will culminate two days hence in New York City. He excuses himself early, and marches to tell his two lookouts to be especially vigilant and awaken him if there are any concerns. I feel unsinkable and agree with Captain Smith’s decision to proceed through the dark moonless night at a vigorous 20.5 knots per hour. It is cold but windless, and first class passengers on the Promenade Deck running 500 feet on either side of the ship say they’re thrilled to be alive, gazing at a sea serene as a mirror under glistening stars.

At 11:40 p.m. spotter Frederick Fleet sounds my bell an alarming three times and phones the bridge and shouts, “Iceberg, right ahead.”

First Officer Murdoch orders “hard-a-starboard,” meaning turn quickly to the left. We evade the visible iceberg but below the surface sharp ice scratches and rips its way down 300 feet of my hull and opens six watertight compartments to saltwater assault. High up, first class passengers are unworried by the sound if they hear it at all. Those nearest the damage are alarmed. Captain Smith appears in full uniform and summons Thomas Andrews, the man who designed me. A little after midnight on April 15 Andrews examines the damaged areas and reports I can float with two watertight compartments flooded and can even survive four, but six means “sinking is a mathematical certainty.”

I accept that. I’m going down. But like Captain Edward J. Smith and designer Thomas Andrews, I work to save people. My duty is to try to stay afloat as my pumps expel some of the invasive water. Andrews dashes from stateroom to stateroom, pounding on doors and urging people to put on lifebelts and hasten to get in lifeboats Smith, after a shock-induced delay, orders that lifeboats be readied for women and children. Some are less than half full when lowered into the sea. And this certifiably pains Smith and Andrews, who know there are only enough lifeboats, even when fully loaded, for about half the people on board. I don’t judge either man harshly on that count. They didn’t make the 1894 law that set minimum lifeboat standards for ships when the largest was 13,000 tons. I’m more than three times that heavy and suppose they should’ve lobbied for updated standards. Perhaps it is guilt that intensifies their bravery.

Many on board are selfless. The eight-member band assembles, as Captain Smith requests, and plays to soothe the passengers. John Jacob Astor IV kisses his pregnant wife, Madeleine, before helping her board a lifeboat and asking a crewman if he can accompany her but is turned back because of the women-and-children-first rule of sea rescue. Astor gallantly steps back and lifts an immigrant lad and sets him into the boat next to his wife. A couple of crewmen finally dash down to third class and unlock those poor passengers. I certainly disapprove of United States immigration laws mandating that third class passengers be blocked and officially barricaded from the rest of the ship. On ordinary voyages this merely prevents them from using the more expensive facilities and disturbing wealthy guests. In the very early morning of April 15, 1912, however, many passengers from steerage have already lost opportunities for seating in scarce lifeboats, which they at any rate have never seen and don’t really know about.

Ultimately, about a quarter of them are led to safety, the same lamentable percentage as my crew. Approximately 40% of second class passengers find seats, and 60% from first class. A total of 706 passengers are potentially safe. At 2:20 a.m. I break in half and go down bow first and then stern, and those not in lifeboats are in 28-degree saltwater. In order to understand how they feel, one sticks a hand into a chest full of ice and water. Within seconds the hand will hurt like hell and be removed. After doing so, one imagines being immersed in the icy Atlantic as body and mind race to shut down first. Early this morning more than 1,500 people die in the cold water, most from hypothermia.

Wireless operator Jack Phillips is one of those dead in the water. He lived his final two hours unconcerned with his safety, and perhaps that is also because of guilt. Twice on the evening of April 14, at 9:30 p.m. and 10:55 p.m., Phillips ignored warnings, the last from the nearby California that it had stopped for the night in a maze of icebergs and ice fields, and we should do the same. “Shut up, shut up, I’m busy,” responded the Marconi employee more determined to transmit gossipy civilian messages than forward warnings of catastrophe to my officers.

I wonder what Captain Edward J. Smith would have done. He’d been urged by management to get me to New York as soon as possible. And in 1911 while captaining the Olympic, his previous super ship, as well as upon my departure, he’d watched smaller ships be sucked into our sides. Should he have known this would happen? Did other seaman really know or just rebuke him after the incidents? And what does suction have to do with icebergs? I don’t know. I’m two and a half miles under the Atlantic, still split in two pieces several hundred yards apart and in the middle of a debris field of fine artifacts and personal possessions from the grandest ship of all time.

* * *

Editorial Notes: The Titanic’s 706 survivors were rescued that morning, April 15, and taken to New York City by the Carpathia, which had received the distress signal four hours earlier and sailed full speed.

Government hearings in the United States and England followed the tragedy, and safety laws were greatly enhanced. All ships were required to carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board. Ships were also required to be equipped with searchlights and to take routes further to the south. A special radio frequency was established exclusively for ships at sea. In 1914 an International Ice Patrol was formed. Since then there have been no deaths in monitored areas due to collisions with icebergs.

The remains of Captain Edward J. Smith were never found.

The body of John Jacob Astor IV was recovered 10 days after the Titanic sunk. His young wife, Madeleine, survived and in precisely four months bore Astor’s son. She later forfeited her inheritance by remarrying, had two more boys, divorced, and at age 40 married an Italian boxer and actor 16 years her junior. They divorced five years later. She died at age 46 of a heart ailment.

All eight members of the Titanic’s bold band perished.

All dollar amounts in this article represent today’s currency.

Sources – Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas; Jim’s Titanic Website; Wikipedia: Titanic, Alfred J. Smith, John Jacob Astor IV, Thomas Andrews, and Jack Phillips.

George Thomas Clark

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