Read an Excerpt
"Another Belfast Trip"
High in the crow's-nest of the New White Star Liner Titanic, Lookout Frederick Fleet peered into a dazzling night. It was calm, clear and bitterly cold. There was no moon, but the cloudless sky blazed with stars. The Atlantic was like polished plate glass; people later said they had never seen it so smooth.
This was the fifth night of the Titanic's maiden voyage to New York, and it was already clear that she was not only the largest but also the most glamorous ship in the world. Even the passengers' dogs were glamorous. John Jacob Astor had along his Airedale Kitty. Henry Sleeper Harper, of the publishing family, had his prize Pekingese Sun Yat-sen. Robert W. Daniel, the Philadelphia banker, was bringing back a champion French bulldog just purchased in Britain. Clarence Moore of Washington also had been dog-shopping, but the 50 pairs of English foxhounds he bought for the Loudoun Hunt weren't making the trip.
That was all another world to Frederick Fleet. He was one of six lookouts carried by the Titanic, and the lookouts didn't worry about passenger problems. They were the "eyes of the ship," and on this particular night Fleet had been warned to watch especially for icebergs.
So far, so good. On duty at 10 o'clock ... a few words about the ice problem with Lookout Reginald Lee, who shared the same watch ... a few more words about the cold ... but mostly just silence, as the two men stared into the darkness.
Now the watch was almost over, and still there was nothing unusual. Just the night, the stars, the biting cold, the wind that whistled through the rigging as the Titanic raced across the calm, black sea at 22 1/2 knots. It was almost 11:40 P.M. on Sunday, the 14th of April, 1912.
Suddenly Fleet saw something directly ahead, even darker than the darkness. At first it was small (about the size, he thought, of two tables put together), but every second it grew larger and closer. Quickly Fleet banged the crow's-nest bell three times, the warning of 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 with curiously detached courtesy. Nothing more was said.
For the next 37 seconds, Fleet and Lee stood quietly side by side, watching the ice draw nearer. Now they were almost on top of it, and still the ship didn't turn. The berg towered wet and glistening far above the forecastle deck, and both men braced themselves for a crash. Then, miraculously, the bow began to swing to port. At the last second the stem shot into the clear, and the ice glided swiftly by along the starboard side. It looked to Fleet like a very close shave.
At this moment Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe was standing watch on the after bridge. For him too, it had been an uneventful night--just the sea, the stars, the biting cold. As he paced the deck, he noticed what he and his mates called "Whiskers 'round the Light"--tiny splinters of ice in the air, fine as dust, that gave off myriads of bright colors whenever caught in the glow of the deck lights.
Then suddenly he felt a curious motion break the steady rhythm of the engines. It was a little like coming alongside a dock wall rather heavily. He glanced forward--and stared again. A windjammer, sails set, seemed to be passing along the starboard side. Then he realized it was an iceberg, towering perhaps 100 feet above the water. The next instant it was gone, drifting astern into the dark.
Meanwhile, down below in the First Class dining saloon on D Deck, four other members of the Titanic's crew were sitting around one of the tables. The last diner had long since departed, and now the big white Jacobean room was empty except for this single group. They were dining-saloon stewards, indulging in the time-honored pastime of all stewards off duty--they were gossiping about their passengers.
Then, as they sat there talking, a faint grinding jar seemed to come from somewhere deep inside the ship. It was not much, but enough to break the conversation and rattle the silver that was set for breakfast next morning.
Steward James Johnson felt he knew just what it was. He recognized the kind of shudder a ship gives when she drops a propeller blade, and he knew this sort of mishap meant a trip back to the Harland & Wolff Shipyard at Belfast--with plenty of free time to enjoy the hospitality of the port. Somebody near him agreed and sang out cheerfully, "Another Belfast trip!"
In the galley just to the stern, Chief Night Baker Walter Belford was making rolls for the following day. (The honor of baking fancy pastry was reserved for the day shift.) When the jolt came, it impressed Belford more strongly than Steward Johnson--perhaps because a pan of new rolls clattered off the top of the oven and scattered about the floor.
The passengers in their cabins felt the jar too, and tried to connect it with something familiar. Marguerite Frolicher, a young Swiss girl accompanying her father on a business trip, woke up with a start. Half-asleep, she could think only of the little white lake ferries at Zurich making a sloppy landing. Softly she said to herself, "Isn't it funny ... we're landing!"
Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen, starting to undress for the night, thought it was like a heavy wave striking the ship. Mrs. J. Stuart White was sitting on the edge of her bed, just reaching to turn out the light, when the ship seemed to roll over "a thousand marbles." To Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon, waking up from the jolt, it seemed "as though somebody had drawn a giant finger along the side of the ship." Mrs. John Jacob Astor thought it was some mishap in the kitchen.
It seemed stronger to some than to others. Mrs. Albert Caldwell pictured a large dog that had a baby kitten in its mouth and was shaking it. Mrs. Walter B. Stephenson recalled the first ominous jolt when she was in the San Francisco earthquake--then decided this wasn't that bad. Mrs. E. D. Appleton felt hardly any shock at all, but she noticed an unpleasant ripping sound ... like someone tearing a long, long strip of calico.
The jar meant more to J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line, who in a festive mood was going along for the ride on the Titanic's first trip. Ismay woke up with a start in his deluxe suite on B Deck--he felt sure the ship had struck something, but he didn't know what.
Some of the passengers already knew the answer. Mr. and Mrs. George A. Harder, a young honeymoon couple down in cabin E-50, were still awake when they heard a dull thump. Then they felt the ship quiver, and there was "a sort of rumbling, scraping noise" along the ship's side. Mr. Harder hopped out of bed and ran to the porthole. As he looked through the glass, he saw a wall of ice glide by.
The same thing happened to James B. McGough, a Gimbels buyer from Philadelphia, except his experience was somewhat more disturbing. His porthole was open, and as the berg brushed by, chunks of ice fell into the cabin.
Like Mr. McGough, most of the Titanic's passengers were in bed when the jar came. On this quiet, cold Sunday night a snug bunk seemed about the best place to be. But a few shipboard die-hards were still up. As usual, most were in the First Class smoking room on A Deck.
And as usual, it was a very mixed group. Around one table sat Archie Butt, President Taft's military aide; Clarence Moore, the traveling Master of Hounds; Harry Widener, son of the Philadelphia streetcar magnate; and William Carter, another Main Liner. They were winding up a small dinner given by Widener's father in honor of Captain Edward J. Smith, the ship's commander. The Captain had left early, the ladies had been packed off to bed, and now the men were enjoying a final cigar before turning in too. The conversation wandered from politics to Clarence Moore's adventures in West Virginia, the time he helped interview the old feuding mountaineer Anse Hatfield.
Buried in a nearby leather armchair, Spencer V. Silverthorne, a young buyer for Nugent's department store in St. Louis, browsed through a new best-seller, The Virginian. Not far off, Lucien P. Smith (still another Philadelphian) struggled gamely through the linguistic problems of a bridge game with three Frenchmen.
At another table the ship's young set was enjoying a somewhat noisier game of bridge. Normally the young set preferred the livelier Cafe Parisien, just below on B Deck, and at first tonight was no exception. But it grew so cold that around 11:30 the girls went off to bed, and the men strolled up to the smoking room for a nightcap. Most of the group stuck to highballs; Hugh Woolner, son of the English sculptor, took a hot whisky and water; Lieutenant Hokan Bjornstrom Steffanson, a young Swedish military attache on his way to Washington, chose a hot lemonade.
Somebody produced a deck of cards, and as they sat playing and laughing, suddenly there came that grinding jar. Not much of a shock, but enough to give a man a start--Mr. Silverthorne still sits up with a jolt when he tells it. In an instant the smoking-room steward and Mr. Silverthorne were on their feet ... through the aft door ... past the Palm Court ... and out onto the deck. They were just in time to see the iceberg scraping along the starboard side, a little higher than the Boat 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.
Others in the smoking room were pouring out now. As Hugh Woolner reached the deck, he heard a man call out, "We hit an iceberg--there it is!"
Woolner squinted into the night. About 150 yards astern he made out a mountain of ice standing black against the starlit sky. Then it vanished into the dark.
The excitement, too, soon, disappeared. The Titanic seemed as solid as ever, and it was too bitterly cold to stay outside any longer. Slowly the group filed back, Woolner picked up his hand, and the bridge game went on. The last man inside thought, as he slammed the deck door, that the engines were stopping.
He was right. Up on the bridge First Officer William M. Murdoch had just pulled the engine-room telegraph handle all the way to "Stop." Murdoch was in charge of the bridge this watch, and it was his problem, once Fleet phoned the warning. A tense minute had passed since then--orders to Quartermaster Hitchens to turn the wheel hard a-starboard ... a yank on the engine-room telegraph for "Full-Speed Astern" ... a hard push on the button closing the watertight doors ... and finally those 37 seconds of breathless waiting.
Now the waiting was over, and it was all so clearly too late. 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, and I was going to hard-a-port around it, but she was too close. I couldn't do any more."
"Close the emergency doors."
"The doors are already closed."
They were closed, all right. Down in boiler room No. 6, Fireman Fred Barrett had been talking to Assistant Second Engineer James Hesketh when the warning bell sounded and the light flashed red above the watertight door leading to the stern. A quick shout of warning--an ear-splitting crash--and the whole starboard side of the ship seemed to give way. The sea cascaded in, swirling about the pipes and valves, and the two men leaped through the door as it slammed down behind them.
Barrett found things almost as bad where he was now, in boiler room No. 5. The gash ran into No. 5 about two feet beyond the closed compartment door, and a fat jet of sea water was spouting through the hole. Nearby, Trimmer George Cavell Was digging himself out of an avalanche of coal that had poured out of a bunker with the impact. Another stoker mournfully studied an overturned bowl of soup that had been warming on a piece of machinery.
It was dry in the other boiler rooms farther aft, but the scene was pretty much the same--men picking themselves up, calling back and forth, asking what had happened. It was hard to figure out. Until now the Titanic had been a picnic. Being a new ship on her maiden voyage, everything was clean. She was, as Fireman George Kemish still recalls, "a good job ... not what we were accustomed to in old ships, slogging our guts out and nearly roasted by the heat."
All the firemen had to do was keep the furnaces full. No need to work the fires with slice bars, pricker bars, and rakes. So on this Sunday night the men were taking it easy--sitting around on buckets and the trimmers' iron wheelbarrows, shooting the breeze, waiting for the 12-to-4 watch to come on.
Then came that thud ... the grinding, tearing sound ... the telegraphs ringing wildly ... the watertight doors crashing down. Most of the men couldn't imagine what it was--the story spread that the Titanic had gone aground just off the Banks of Newfoundland. Many of them still thought so, even after a trimmer came running down from above shouting, "Blimey! We've struck an iceberg!"
About ten miles away Third Officer Charles Victor Groves stood on the bridge of the Leyland Liner Californian bound from London to Boston. A plodding 6000-tonner, she had room for 47 passengers, but none were being carried just now. On this Sunday night she had been stopped since 10:30 P.M., completely blocked by drifting ice.
At about 11:10 Groves noticed the lights of another ship, racing up from the east on the starboard side. As the newcomer rapidly overhauled the motionless Californian, a blaze of deck lights showed she was a large passenger liner. Around 11:30 he knocked on the Venetian door of the chart room and told Captain Stanley Lord about it. Lord suggested contacting the new arrival by Morse lamp, and Groves prepared to do this.
Then, at about 11:40, he saw the big ship suddenly stop and put out most of her lights. This didn't surprise Groves very much. He had spent some time in the Far East trade, where they usually put deck lights out at midnight to encourage the passengers to turn in. It never occurred to him that perhaps the lights were still on ... that they only seemed to go out because she was no longer broadside but had veered sharply to port.