Read an Excerpt
A FANCY-DRESS BALL IN
Sunday, April 14, 1912, dawned bright and clear. There was a feeling of optimism in the air, a sense that anything was possible. The ship seemed to glide over a sea of glass. For first-class passenger Colonel Archibald Gracie, the RMS Titanic was a “floating palace,”1 a high-class hotel that cut through the waters of the Atlantic with a majesty and power he had never experienced before. As he stood on the first-class deck, he noticed that the sea was so level he could barely make out a ripple.
Since Wednesday, when the ship had departed Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York, Gracie had taken advantage of every luxury. After all, this was a liner that had cost $7.5 million to build, a ship that carried 800 bundles of asparagus; one and a quarter tons of fresh green peas; 36,000 oranges and 16,000 lemons; 75,000 pounds of fresh meat; 11,000 pounds of fresh fish; 4,000 pounds of bacon and ham; 7,500 pounds of game and poultry; 1,000 sweetbreads; 40,000 sausages; 40,000 fresh eggs; 6,000 pounds of fresh butter; not to mention the 1,500 bottles of wine, the 20,000 bottles of beer and stout, or the 850 bottles of spirits. For the gentlemen on board there were 8,000 cigars, which they could enjoy while discussing the news of the day.
It’s not surprising then that on that Sunday morning, after a few days of self-indulgence, Colonel Gracie felt he should take a spot of exercise. He rose early, before breakfast, and played a half-hour game of squash with Fred Wright, the professional racket instructor, followed by a swim in the heated saltwater swimming pool. The exercise refreshed his body and his spirit, erasing, for a few moments at least, a slight uneasiness that hung over him. “The pleasure and comfort which all of us enjoyed ... seemed an ominous feature to many of us, including myself,” he said, “who felt it almost too good to last without some terrible retribution inflicted by the hand of an angry omnipotence.”2
Lady Duff Gordon—the London-based couturier known as “Lucile”—remembers how extraordinary it was to see and taste strawberries in April in mid-ocean, while another first-class passenger, Marjorie Newell Robb, was still able to recall in 1981, at the age of ninety-two, the feel of “carpets that you could sink in up to your knees,” the “fine furniture that you could barely move,” and the “very fine panelling and carving.”3 Many second-class passengers spent their time riding between floors in the elevator, which was described as “a great new attraction on the boat.”4 The tang of novelty hung in the air—in fact, one could even smell it. In a letter second-class passenger Marion Wright wrote to her father from the ship on April 11, she said, “It is lovely on the water, except for the smell of new paint, everything is very comfortable on board.”5
For thirteen-year-old Madeleine Mellenger (later Mann) the ship was nothing short of a floating miracle. She was traveling with her mother, Elizabeth Anne, in second class to make a new life for themselves in America. Her father, Claude Alexander Mellenger, a London journalist, had brought the family to the point of ruin through years of what she later described as “his extravagance and high living.” After Mellenger finally deserted them, Elizabeth was forced to take a position as a lady’s maid and traveling companion with the wealthy Colgate family of America. For Madeleine, the Titanic became a symbol of promise, a sign of new beginnings. “I could write forever about Titanic and how it changed my life,” she wrote in a letter nearly sixty years later. “A little while ago I started a ‘Story of my Life’ kind of thing and I had to stop as it was running into dozens of papers and I wondered if I could finish it.”6 That Sunday morning she remembers Charles Jones, the Colgates’ superintendent who did not survive the disaster, knocking on the door of their cabin on E deck and showing them a series of beautiful photographs of the family’s grand estate in Bennington, Vermont. At eleven o’clock the mother and daughter attended the Divine Service, which was held in the first-class dining room.
Captain Edward J. Smith—a distinguished, bearded man whose plan it was to retire after the Titanic’s maiden voyage, following fifty years at sea—led the passengers through the service, which included the “Prayer for Those at Sea” and the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” After the service, Madeleine Mellenger remembers going back to her cabin with her mother in order to get ready for lunch and, as she walked along the wide corridor that ran the length of the ship, seeing a door open. “I saw Captain Smith and his officers coming toward us in full regalia, lots of gold braid, and I knew him, as he looked so much like Edward VII, beard and all,” she said. “I asked, what they were doing and was told they were inspecting the airtight compartments and doors. That was his last inspection.”7
As was customary, Captain Smith and his men would meet at noon each day to take a series of sun measurements. With the use of sextants the officers were able to work out the precise position of the ship and, as a result, chart the distance they had traveled in the course of twenty-four hours. Those passengers who had bet on the ship’s sweepstakes would then meet in the first-class lounge to hear the results—the one who had picked the figure closest to that day’s passage (which came in at 546 miles) could collect a tidy sum.
The sweepstakes was just one of many diversions offered to discerning passengers on what was considered the world’s most sophisticated ship. On board there were Turkish baths, a fully equipped gymnasium, a lending library, a smoking room, a reading and writing room, and a wide range of restaurants. The first-class dining saloon—a magnificent room one hundred and fourteen feet long and ninety-two feet wide—was decorated in a style inspired by English Jacobean houses such as Haddon Hall and Hatfield, “but instead of the somber oak, which the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century builders would have adopted, the walls and ceiling have been painted white.”8 The room had a series of “recession bays,” which in effect formed “a number of separate private dining rooms, where families or friends can dine together practically alone, retired from the busy hum of surrounding conversation.”9
Many first-class passengers also commented on the grandeur of the main staircase, which measured sixty feet high and sixteen feet wide. The walls were covered with oak paneling, which, although simple in character, was “enriched in a few places by exquisite work reminiscent of the days when Grinling Gibbons collaborated with his great contemporary, Wren.” On the top landing stood a clock, flanked by two female figures, “the whole symbolizing Honour and Glory crowning Time.”10
Not only was it the last word in luxury, but the Titanic was also a massive 46,000-ton signifier of technological mastery. With its revolutionary design—the liner possessed a series of watertight doors, which its designers assumed would protect it from virtually every calamity—a writer in Shipbuilder magazine of 1911 proclaimed it “practically unsinkable.”11 By the time passengers boarded the liner, less than a year later, the word “practically” had been erased from the collective consciousness. Sylvia Caldwell, who was traveling in second class with her husband, Albert, and ten-month-old son, Alden, remembers asking a deckhand who was carrying luggage on board whether the vessel really was unsinkable. The man turned to her and said, “God himself could not sink this ship.”12 Captain Smith, in an interview five years before his final voyage aboard the Titanic, stated, “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening. ... Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”13
The ship was enveloped by a sense of safety and security. In fact, the vessel was seen by many passengers to be a symbol of social order. The liner’s passengers were stratified by class—the third class at the bottom of the ship, the second in the middle, the first at the top—and, for the most part, did not mix with one another. Each person was content with his or her place: those in third class knew better than to aspire upward, those in first would not dream of looking down below. These were days when, for the majority, God was still in his heaven and everything was right with the world.
As seventeen-year-old Jack Thayer, an American who had been visiting Europe with his parents, wrote in a privately printed memoir in 1940, “Upon rising in the morning, we looked forward to a normal day of customary business progress. The conservative morning paper seldom had headlines larger than half an inch. Upon reaching the breakfast table, our perusal of the morning paper was slow and deliberate. We did not nervously clutch for it, and rapidly scan the glaring headlines, as we are inclined to do today. Nothing was revealed in the morning, the trend of which was not known the night before. ... There was peace, and the world had an even tenor to its ways.”14
That Sunday in April 1912, Jack could see his future mapped out as plain as the clear, straight line of the distant horizon. After graduating from the Haverford School outside Philadelphia, he would attend Princeton, then travel in Europe, returning home to America to practice private or commercial banking. As he said, “It could be planned. It was planned. It was a certainty.”15
He spent most of the day walking around the deck with his mother, Marian, and his father, John Borland Thayer, who was second vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The family stopped for short conversations with various acquaintances such as Thomas Andrews, the ship’s chief designer; J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line; and Charles M. Hays, the president of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. Like many passengers, Jack noticed that, as the afternoon wore on, the temperature seemed to plummet. “I remember Mr. Ismay showing us a wire regarding the presence of ice and that we would not reach that position until around 9 p.m.,” he said.16
Ismay had been given the wire by Captain Smith just before lunch, during which first-class passengers could choose from filets of brill, egg à l’Argenteuil, grilled mutton chops, or, from the buffet, salmon mayonnaise, potted shrimps, Norwegian anchovies, roast beef, veal and ham pie, corned ox tongue, galantine of chicken, and a selection of cheeses including Gorgonzola, Camembert, and Cheddar. The message had been sent by the Baltic, another White Star Line ship. Transmitted at 11:52 a.m., the message read: “Have had moderate, variable winds and clear, fine weather since leaving. Greek steamer ‘Athenai’ reports passing icebergs and large quantity of field ice today in latitude 41.51 N., longitude 49.52 W.”17
Ismay did not seem unduly worried about the threat of icebergs. When he met Marian Thayer and her friend, Emily Ryerson, later that afternoon, he seemed animated and excited. According to Emily Ryerson’s statement, dated April 18, 1913, after a short, polite conversation about the suitability of their accommodation, Ismay took the Marconigram from his pocket and brandished it with a flourish at the two women. The gesture was motivated, according to Marian Thayer, by a need to show the two socially prominent passengers “who he was.” This sense was reinforced by Mrs. Ryerson, who stated, “Mr. Ismay’s manner was that of one in authority and the owner of the ship and that what he said was law.”18
The icy temperatures forced many passengers to stay inside their cabins; those in first class were fortunate enough to have staterooms complete with heating. Edith Rosenbaum (later Russell), a thirty-three-year-old fashion journalist and buyer, was so cold she remained in bed until four o’clock that afternoon, at which point she decided to dress and take a short walk around the deck. As she stood by the stern she noticed the enormous propellers—they weighed around thirty-eight tons each—that churned up the darkening waters below. “The foam whirled in a great cascade, made blood-red by the rays of a glorious setting sun,” she recalled. “It looked like a crimson carpet stretching from the ship to the horizon.”19
She then returned to her stateroom, A-11, to dress for dinner. In Edith’s mind, clothes were much more than mere garments to warm and protect the body; fashion was both a source of joy and a complex language of individual expression. In addition, fashion was how she made her living—on this trip she had with her a number of trunks packed with exquisite gowns that she had ordered in Paris for clients and businesses in America. Her original plan was to travel on the George Washington, sailing from Cherbourg on April 7, but her editor at Women’s Wear Daily in New York wanted her to file a report on the fashions at the Easter Sunday races in Paris. She had discovered that she could book a passage on the Titanic, leaving Cherbourg on April 10, and she would still arrive in New York on the same day as the George Washington.
As she had stepped on board the train at Saint-Lazare station in Paris, bound for Cherbourg, she noticed a man and a woman rushing toward her, waving. It was Laurent, the head tailor at Paquin, the couturier on the rue de la Paix, together with the head tailoress. Just as the train began to ease itself out of the station they passed over two huge white boxes tied with tapes, carrying heavy lead seals, containing a number of garments that she had ordered, but which she assumed would not be finished in time. The boxes accompanied her on to the Titanic, boxes that, as she later remembered, “were never unpacked and went down with the ship just as they were delivered.” Before the voyage she had tried to insure her collection of clothes, but she was told, in no uncertain terms, that “it was ridiculous to spend money for insurance when traveling on an unsinkable vessel.”20 The opinion—the invincibility of the vessel—was echoed on the tender that had ferried her out from Cherbourg to the Titanic. As they approached what appeared to her like an enormous building, almost a skyscraper, John Jacob Astor IV, the richest passenger on the liner, told her that the ship had cost “ten million dollars to build, and [had] emphasised that she was unsinkable, a miracle of modern shipbuilding.”21
Yet, as she had embarked, something unsettled her—an awful sense that all was not right. The night before she sailed she had visited Madame de Thebes, one of the most famous fortune-tellers in Paris, who had told her she was about to endure a “dreadful experience” during which she would lose her possessions and many, many friends. At the time she had felt highly skeptical, but as she set foot on the boat she was not so sure. Certainly the ship had every luxury one could think of and was, as she wrote to her secretary in Paris in a letter on April 11, as big “as from the corner of the rue de la Paix to near the rue de Rivoli. ... [It has] bedrooms larger than any Paris hotel room, and altogether is a monster. I cannot say I like it, as I feel as though I were in a big hotel, instead of on a cosy ship.”22 She also remembered the words of an Arab fortune-teller who had told her, while reading grains of sand, that she would be in a “very grave sea accident.” She had been so troubled that day that she asked Nicholas Martin, the general manager of the White Star Line’s Paris bureau, whether she could get off the ship. He had informed her that she could disembark, but her luggage would have to stay on board. “My luggage is worth more than I am,” she said. “I had better remain with it.” And so he had arranged for her to have a stateroom where her trunks could be stored.23
In the late afternoon of April 14, first-class passengers were in the process of getting ready for the gala dinner that Sunday evening. The men wore dinner suits, white shirts complete with collar studs and cuff links, while the women sported a dazzling array of dresses. “On these occasions, full dress was always en règle,” noted Colonel Gracie, “and it was a subject both of observation and admiration, that there were so many beautiful women ... aboard the ship.”24 Helen Churchill Candee noted that the prettiest girl in the room wore a “glittering frock of dancing length, with a silver fringe around her dainty white satin feet.”25 Edith Rosenbaum chose to wear a white satin evening gown, together with velvet slippers topped with imitation diamond buckles.
At around 7:30 p.m., Bruce Ismay dined with the ship’s doctor, Dr. William O’Loughlin, in the first-class à la carte restaurant. During the meal, the doctor mentioned that the ship had “turned the corner,” meaning that the liner had reached a certain point in the Atlantic where it started to head directly for New York. Later, this conversation would be analyzed for evidence that Ismay knew about the intricacies of navigation; if that point could be proved then it would demolish his later defense that he had been traveling on board the Titanic as a mere passenger rather than in any official capacity. At dinner, Captain Smith asked Ismay for the Baltic’s Marconigram regarding ice so he could share it with his fellow officers on the bridge.
That evening Ismay was in a boisterous, confident mood, telling Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon that “undoubtedly the ship would establish a record.”26 The liner continued to cut through the dark Atlantic waters at a speed of around 22 knots—the Titanic’s top speed was in the region of 24 knots—while, in contrast, a number of other ships had dropped anchor for the night on account of the dangers of ice. In addition to the message from the Baltic, the Titanic had received a flurry of ice warnings during the course of that Sunday, and while the captain had taken heed of them—he had already plotted a course that took the ship ten miles south of the normal shipping lane so as to avoid drifting ice—it seems as though he too had been intoxicated by the air of hubris that powered the vessel.
In the second-class dining room, a group of around one hundred passengers filed into the saloon for the Sunday evening service. Marion Wright, a young woman from Somerset, England, who was traveling to America to marry her sweetheart and start a new life in Oregon, walked to the front of the room and sang “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” and “Nearer My God to Thee.” Before each hymn, Reverend Earnest Carter, who led the service, explained a little about the circumstances surrounding their composition. Lawrence Beesley, a schoolmaster from Dulwich College, recalled that it was curious that so many of the hymns dealt with dangers at sea. Included in the service that night was “Lead, Kindly Light,” which the reverend said had been composed after a shipwreck in the Atlantic, and “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” which features the lines “O hear us when we cry to Thee/For those in peril on the sea.”
Young Jack Thayer seemed entranced by the beauty of the ocean. After dinner, he decided to take a few turns around the deck, with a new acquaintance, Milton C. Long, the son of Judge Charles M. Long of Springfield, Massachusetts. In June 1911, Long had been traveling on the SS Spokane—which was cruising from Seattle to Alaska—when the ship hit an uncharted rock off Seymour Narrows. The majority of passengers had had a lucky escape—all but two of the 160 tourists were accounted for—but perhaps that experience had shaken Long’s belief in the invulnerability of modern shipbuilding; he, for one, had experienced the possibility of death at sea. Yet, as Jack and his new friend looked out at the perfectly still ocean, they assumed that the evening would end as peacefully, and as comfortably, as the previous four nights on board the ship.
“It was a brilliant, starry night,” Jack recalled years later. “There was no moon and I have never seen the stars shine brighter; they appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds. A very light haze, hardly noticeable, hung low over the water. ... I have never seen the sea smoother than it was that night; it was like a millpond, and just as innocent looking. ... It was the kind of night that made one feel glad to be alive.”27
Elizabeth Shutes, a forty-year-old governess, could not sleep because of the biting cold. There was something strange about the air that night, she recalled, an edge to it that unsettled her. The smell of it reminded her of the air inside an ice cave on the Eiger glacier, which she had once visited. She lay in her bed, unable to banish a sense of anxiety that clawed at her consciousness, until finally she got out of her berth and switched on her electric stove. The red glow of the heater cheered her for an instant, before a sense of nervousness returned.
Up on the promenade deck, the mood was rather different. Silent film actress Dorothy Gibson was playing bridge with a party that included her mother, Pauline; Frederick Seward, a prominent marine lawyer from New York; and William Thomson Sloper, a stockbroker from Connecticut. As Dorothy later remembered there was a “great deal of merriment on board” that night.28 The ripple of laughter danced through the air, sounding a top note to the light melodies provided by the ship’s band. The accompanying conversation was as sparkling as the ice-cold champagne that seemed to flow all night. “Inside this floating palace [there was] warmth, lights and music, the flutter of cards, the hum of voices, the gay lilt of a German valse,” noted Lady Duff Gordon—“the unheeding sounds of a small world bent on pleasure.”29
After the gala dinner, Lady Duff Gordon and her husband, Cosmo, retreated to their staterooms on A deck. Across the ship, passengers prepared for bed, changing out of their clothes, whether it be evening dress or more workaday garments, into nightgowns and pajamas. By eleven o’clock, many were either in bed reading or fast asleep, lulled by the steady rhythmic pulsation of the ship’s engines. Jack Thayer, after putting on his pajamas, said goodnight to his parents in the next room. Before climbing into bed, he opened slightly the porthole of his cabin and noticed that the breeze made a “quiet humming whistle” as it entered his room.30 It was, he said, “a fine night for sleeping,” and, what with all the fresh air he had had that day he was tired.
For some members of the crew, however, the day was just beginning. On the boat deck, in the cramped surroundings of the Marconi room, Harold Bride, the twenty-two-year-old junior wireless engineer, heard the sound of his colleague, Jack Phillips, tapping out a series of traffic messages on the wireless system. Without bothering to dress fully, Bride got out of bed and started work. There was an enormous backlog of messages that had to be cleared. Earlier that day the Marconi system had broken down and it had taken the two men seven hours to fix it.
At around eleven o’clock that night, the Marconi operator from the Californian, which was in the near vicinity, sent a message to Phillips that the ship had stopped and was surrounded by ice. Phillips, tired and overworked, was nearly deafened by the blast of noise that came from his equipment. He was also furious that the Californian’s operator hadn’t bothered with the usual etiquette of asking whether it was acceptable to interrupt transmission and Phillips had replied with a curt “Shut up! Shut up! I am busy.” As a result, the message from the Californian never reached the bridge of the Titanic.
In the crow’s nest of the ship, twenty-four-year-old Frederick Fleet stared into the darkness. At ten o’clock that night, he and his fellow “eyes of the ship,” Reginald Lee, had relieved Archie Jewell and George Symons. He had been told to keep a sharp lookout for small icebergs and growlers. The cold bit into him, chilling him to the marrow. As the night wore on, a slight haze settled over the water line, but it was, as he remembered later, “nothing to talk about.”31 Although the ship was equipped with binoculars, the set was not at hand and was later said to have been mislaid; if Fleet had been able to use them it’s highly likely that he would have spotted the iceberg much, much sooner.
At around 11:40 p.m., Fleet saw an object loom out of the night, something “even darker than the darkness,” high above the water line.32 With each moment, the indefinable, unknowable mass seemed to grow bigger. The moment of revelation—when the thing revealed its true identity—would haunt him for the rest of his life. Without a moment’s hesitation, he rang the bell in the crow’s nest three times—a sign that something lay in the path of the ship—and then rang down to the bridge.
“What do you see?” asked an officer.
“Iceberg right ahead,” he replied.33
Fleet had heard about time slowing down, but he had always dismissed it as a romantic notion. Now, for the next half a minute or so, he endured the agony of being a witness to time seemingly stretching out before him. With each second the liner sped toward the iceberg, a dark mass that now towered above the ship; surely, collision was certain. Then, just as it seemed too late, the vessel turned. Fleet watched as pieces of ice cascaded down on to the forecastle and well decks, before the iceberg glided by and disappeared once more into the night. “That was a narrow shave,” said Fleet to Lee, assuming that the ship had suffered minimal damage.34
Around the ship, passengers experienced the collision in a variety of ways, each recalling the moment differently. One described it as though the Titanic had passed over a thousand marbles, while another compared it to the sound of someone tearing an enormous piece of calico. Second-class passenger Sylvia Caldwell was woken up with a start; she later said that the sensation was like “a large dog had a baby kitten in its mouth and was shaking it.”35 Martha Eustis Stephenson, who was lying in her bed in first class, immediately felt something was terribly wrong as the sensation brought back to mind the early morning, almost six years ago to the day, when she had witnessed the city of San Francisco reduced to rubble during an earthquake.
Governess Elizabeth Shutes, who had been made so anxious by the curious smell of the cold, described it as a “queer quivering” that seemed to run under her feet, the whole length of the ship. A moment later, her employer Edith Graham knocked on her cabin and announced that she had just seen an iceberg pass by. Although everything was then “sepulchrally still,” Elizabeth remembers watching her charge, nineteen-year-old Margaret Graham, trying to eat a sandwich; her hand shook so badly that the “bread kept parting company from the chicken.”36
Up on A deck, Dorothy Gibson felt a “slight jar,” but the movement seemed so insignificant that she, and her group, continued to laugh and converse for a full fifteen minutes before she noticed that the stewards and officers had started to behave with “considerable nervousness.” She then said goodnight to her party and stepped out on deck, with the intention of having a brief stroll. As she came out of the saloon she noticed that “the great ship was leaning heavily on one side.” As she walked, she saw “passengers engaged in card playing and other forms of divertissement.” The night was beautiful, the moon “shining brilliantly and the stars twinkled without being obscured by a single cloud.” Yet, in the ocean, there were “icebergs around us and the water seemed filled with the shattered remains of others.”37
Jack Thayer remembered the moment that occurred just as he was going to bed. He seemed to sway ever so slightly and then he heard the engines stop—it was this “sudden quiet” that he found more startling and disturbing. All was silent except for the breeze whistling through the half-open port window. A moment later, he heard the distant noise of running feet and muffled voices, followed by the sound of the engines starting up again. But there was something odd about the timbre that emanated from deep within the ship, as if the engines functioned not “with the bright vibration of which we were accustomed,” but as though they were tired.38 Curious, he quickly threw on his heavy overcoat and put on his slippers, and after calling out to his parents to tell them that he was going up on deck to “see the fun,” he left his cabin to find out what had happened to the ship. His father said he would follow shortly.39
Renee Harris, who was married to a successful Broadway producer, was playing double Canfield with her husband in her cabin. Earlier that day, she had taken a tumble down a flight of stairs and had suffered a compound fracture of the elbow. Despite the pain, and the trauma of having her arm set, she had made an appearance at dinner that night, but had left early to return to her cabin. She had heard the talk of ice and had thought to herself how strange it was that the ship should sail at such a speed. “The door of the clothes closet had been left open and I noticed my clothes swinging to a marked degree,” she remembered, “so I said, ‘We’re going awfully fast to have my dresses sway like that—much too fast among icebergs,’ when at that very moment the ship stopped.” Her husband said that he and Jacques Futrelle, who had the room opposite, would go out and see what all the fuss was about, and so he asked May Futrelle to sit with Renee in his absence. “It is not an ordinary event to have a ship suddenly stop in the middle of the ocean so I was alarmed,” she said.40
Laura Mabel Francatelli—“Franks,” Lady Duff Gordon’s secretary—was getting into bed in her cabin on E deck when she felt an almighty crash. “The collision shook me, as well as everything else in my room.” She put on her dressing gown and opened her door to see several people standing in the corridor, all wearing “night attire.” Two gentlemen approached and told her that although they had hit an iceberg there was no reason to be concerned and that she ought to return to bed.41
Some passengers claimed to have seen the iceberg itself. Edith Rosenbaum had finished writing a batch of letters in the drawing room, when she returned to her cabin to get ready for bed. Just as she was about to turn on the electric light in her cabin she felt a “very slight jar, then a second, a little stronger, and a third, accompanied by a heavy shock, strong enough to make me cling to my bed-post.” She noticed the floor seemed to list and that the ship had come to a dead stop. As she opened her porthole and looked out she saw a “huge white mass, like a mountain” drift by.42 Virginia Clark, from California, had just climbed into bed when she felt a sudden jolt. As she looked through the window, instead of seeing the blackness of the ocean and the sky, she saw a “perfectly white background,” which she assumed was “a tremendous ship with its white bow at the window.” Anxious to discover more, she stood on her bath to look out of the porthole, but saw nothing but the night, “which shows the rapidity with which the ship must have passed the huge white thing after it was hit.”43
According to quartermaster George Rowe—who was stationed on the poop deck, the raised deck at the stern of the ship—the iceberg was in the region of one hundred feet tall. Just before the collision he noticed that the light seemed to take on an extraordinary quality, as if the air was full of minute ice particles, “like myriads of coloured lights,” a phenomenon that sailors called “whiskers round the light.” At 11:40 p.m. he felt the ship shudder, a movement that he compared to the sensation of buffing up against a dock wall. At first sight he thought that the large object that passed by was a wind-jammer, a type of sailing ship, but as it came closer he realized it was an enormous iceberg. Despite this, at the time he “did not think the collision was serious.”44
In fact, many passengers took advantage of the drama to have a bit of fun. Some scooped up chunks of ice into their hands and proceeded to have snowball fights, while one passenger in the second-class smoking room asked a friend whether he could fetch him some ice to top up his highball. In general, the whole thing, as Edith Rosenbaum observed, was regarded as a great joke; she recalled throwing snowballs with an acquaintance on board, twenty-seven-year-old Robert Williams Daniel.
Even the chairman of the White Star Line did not think the ship was in danger at first. Ismay was asleep in his cabin when he felt a jarring movement. Assuming that the liner had dropped a propeller, he pulled on a pair of trousers over his pajamas and threw on an overcoat and went straight to the bridge to speak to the captain. Smith told him the ship had struck ice. Was she seriously damaged, Ismay asked. “I’m afraid she is,” Smith replied. Before Ismay had arrived on the bridge the captain had checked the commutator, a piece of equipment “like a clock to tell you how the ship is listing.45 The device showed Smith that the liner was already listing two degrees down by the bow and five degrees to starboard. On seeing this, Captain Smith was heard to say to himself, “Oh, my God.”
Smith, together with Thomas Andrews—the managing director of Harland and Wolff, the Belfast-based company that had built the Titanic—began their descent into the bowels of the ship to inspect the damage. With each discovery the prognosis worsened. The cargo hold at the front of the ship was flooded; the mail room was deep in water; the freezing-cold sea was seeping into boiler room number five, and boiler room number six was already fourteen feet under water; even the racket court where Colonel Gracie had played a game of squash earlier that morning was filling with water. Back on the bridge, Andrews calculated that the iceberg had ripped a three-hundred-foot hole, or series of holes, along the starboard side of the ship. Although the crew closed the liner’s water-tight doors, five of the ship’s compartments had been damaged, meaning that seawater started to weigh down the vessel, allowing yet more water to flow over the top of the bulkheads. If only four of the compartments had been flooded, Titanic would have survived. But, as Andrews realized, “she could not float with all of her first five compartments full.”46
The Titanic would not last the night.
Laura Mabel Francatelli realized something was seriously wrong when she overheard a man in her corridor tell a passenger that the hold, luggage, and mail had “gone.” She dressed quickly and opened her door to find water running down her corridor. When she reached the cabin of her employer, Lady Duff Gordon, she found “Madame” wearing two dressing gowns for warmth and Sir Cosmo in the process of getting dressed. A minute or so later a member of the crew knocked on the door to tell them that the captain had issued an order for all passengers to wear their life preservers. “The next instant they were putting one on Madame, and I,” the secretary wrote to a friend. “Oh, Marion, that was a sickening moment, I felt myself go like marble, but Madame and I prayed together, for God to look after us, and keep us safe, if it was his will.” Sir Cosmo accompanied his wife and “Franks” to the top deck, which was already full of people. “I looked over the side of the boat and tried to penetrate the blackness,” she remembered, “and noticed the water was not such a long distance away from us, as we had always remarked at what a height it [the ship] was. I said to Sir Cosmo, ‘I believe we are sinking.’ He said, ‘Nonsense, come away,’ and then we walked more to the bow of the boat.”47
Among the crowd was Dorothy Gibson, who observed Thomas Andrews “run to and fro with a face of greenish paleness.”48 Mary Sloan, a stewardess from Belfast, recalls the look of horror in Andrews’s eyes that night; although the chief designer was trying to control his emotions and his fear, it was possible to discern from his demeanor the fate of the ship. “I read in his face all I wanted to know,” she said.49 Andrews told Jack Thayer and his father that the ship would not last more than an hour. The two men returned to their staterooms to find Marian Thayer and her maid dressed. Jack hurried into his clothes—“a warm greenish tweed suit and vest with another mohair vest underneath my coat”—and tied a life preserver, which he described as a kind of large, thick cork vest, around him, before putting on his overcoat. The family rushed to the lounge on A deck, which had become crowded with people. There, Jack saw his new friend, Milton Long, who asked if he could join the Thayers. “There was a great deal of noise,” said Jack. “The band was playing lively tunes without apparently receiving much attention from the worried ... audience.”50
When Edith Rosenbaum was told to put on her life jacket and leave her cabin she didn’t have time to get fully dressed. She was still wearing her evening dress—a style which the women of the day called “potato sacks” or “hobble skirts”—her velvet slippers and thin silk stockings. She donned a fur coat, fur scarf, and a knitted wool cap and, before locking her trunks, rushed up to the lounge. “Shall I ever forget my last look into my stateroom?” she wrote years later. “The soft pink light of a table lamp, the pink down quilt, the warm radiator casting a soft glow, everything so cosy, so comfortable. How I hated to leave it.”
On her way to the lounge, she walked past the open door of a friend who had recently bought a dog in France. She heard the animal whining and so walked into the cabin and stroked it, tucking it under the bed cover, before closing the door. She then met her bedroom steward Wareham, and asked him whether he would return to her cabin to fetch her lucky mascot—a toy musical pig that played the popular song “La Maxixe.” Although fellow passengers who overheard the exchange looked at her with distaste—how could she think of such a trifle when the boat was sinking?—the toy had special meaning for her. In August 1911, Edith had been seriously injured in a car accident on the so-called hill of death between Deauville and Paris. Her friend at the wheel, a German gun manufacturer named Ludwig Loewe, had been killed instantly as the car plowed headlong into a tree; she only survived because she had been tossed from the vehicle and landed on a tire. “My mother, having heard that the pig was considered a symbol of good luck in France, and feeling that good luck was just what I needed, presented me with this toy pig, the size of a big kitten and covered with white fur and black spots,” she said later.51
Although Edith heard the order for all women and children to go to the boat deck, she ignored the command, choosing instead to settle down in a cozy armchair in the lounge. She still could not comprehend the seriousness of the problem and assumed it would be safer to stay on board the ship than take the risk of getting into one of the lifeboats. She watched as some people lined up to get back their valuables and observed a regiment of bakers in their white uniforms deliver loaves of bread to the lifeboats. “I remember saying with a laugh to someone standing by me that this looked like the carnival parade at Nice.”52 Writer Helen Churchill Candee used a similar but darker analogy to describe that night—with its strange mixture of passengers, some in nightclothes, some in evening dress, some in a combination of the two—as “a fancy-dress ball in Dante’s Hell.”53
It was as if the normal rules that underpinned the world had been broken, and the law of gravity itself undermined. Water was flowing down corridors, swirling up staircases and over the water-tight compartments; with each minute the ocean invaded the ship, weighing it down farther. As a result the liner was tilting and listing, making it ever more difficult for people to move around. Lawrence Beesley, the schoolmaster from Dulwich College, remembers the sensation of trying to walk down a staircase. It was, he said, a “curious sense of something out of balance and of not being able to put one’s feet down in the right place.”54
At 12:45 a.m. the first distress rocket was fired, its sparks briefly lighting up the night sky. At the same time, officers on the starboard side of the ship prepared to launch the first lifeboat—lifeboat number seven. Dorothy Gibson and her mother, Pauline, clung to each other as they were jostled by a large crowd of people, “but that mattered not,” she said, “so long as I found that I was being pushed nearer the lifeboats that were being lowered.”55 After the Gibsons had been helped into the boat by their bridge companions, William Thomson Sloper and Frederick Seward, Dorothy insisted that the two men join her. She held on to Sloper’s hand until the officer in charge relented. Joining them in this boat were Dickinson Bishop and his wife, a honeymoon couple from Dowagiac, Michigan (unknown to her at the time, nineteen-year-old Helen was pregnant—she had either conceived on her honeymoon or while on board the Titanic), and Robert Williams Daniel, who had thrown snowballs with Edith Rosenbaum only an hour earlier. In all, there were twenty-eight passengers in this lifeboat; apart from three crew members, all of them were from first class. The lifeboat had a capacity to hold sixty-five.
Madeleine Astor—the eighteen-year-old newly married wife of John Jacob Astor—was offered a chance to get into the lifeboat, but she refused. She was five months pregnant—she had conceived on her honeymoon—and climbing into a lifeboat suspended seventy-five feet above the dark ocean seemed like too great a risk to take. She would rather stay on the ship with her husband, she said.
At this time—just over an hour after the iceberg collision—there was still little sense of confusion or panic. Karl Behr, a twenty-six-year-old lawyer and former champion lawn tennis player, recalls Bruce Ismay coming up to his party and telling them that they should get into a lifeboat. “No one ... was anxious to obey,” he said, as “...we all still felt that nothing so far warranted such a risk; to our minds the idea of the Titanic sinking was preposterous.” A few moments later, Ismay approached Behr’s group again and, with more emphasis, ordered them to get into a boat. At this point, after a short discussion, they relented and Sallie Monypeny Beckwith took the lead and directed her family—her husband, Richard Beck-with, and daughter from her first marriage, Helen—toward lifeboat number five. For months, Behr—a runner-up in the men’s doubles championship at Wimbledon in 1907—had been pursuing Helen, a friend of his sister. Although Mrs. Beckwith had tried to keep the couple apart—she had even gone so far as to take her daughter to Europe to try and separate them—Behr was having none of it. After following Helen halfway across the world—and inventing a business trip in Europe—he wasn’t about to part from her now.
As she approached lifeboat number five, which was surrounded by around twenty crew members, Mrs. Beckwith heard Ismay calling out for more passengers. She walked up to Ismay and asked him quietly whether each member of her party, men included, could get into the lifeboat. “Of course, Madam,” Ismay replied, “all passengers, men and women, go in these boats.” The statement was not quite true, however, as three men—Captain Edward Gifford Crosby, Frank Warren, and Engelhart Ostby—were already standing on the deck and waving goodbye to their wives and daughters. The three men would lose their lives that night.
Just as the crew started to lower lifeboat five, Dr. Henry William Frauenthal—distressed at being parted from his wife, Clara, or perhaps finding himself unable to live and die by an Edwardian code of honor—jumped down into the boat, together with his brother, Isaac, and two other men. As he landed, Frauenthal—a heavily overweight man who was wearing two life jackets—hit first- class passenger Annie May Stengel. The impact of the fall broke two of her ribs and rendered her unconscious. Someone shouted out, “Throw that man out of the boat,” but it was too late, and the boat continued to be lowered.
Apart from this incident, perfect discipline seemed to prevail, remembered Behr, as each of the passengers assumed that it was simply a case that they would spend an hour or so in the lifeboat before returning to the Titanic. Lifeboat number five, which left the ship at 12:55 a.m., carried around forty people—again, apart from a handful of crew members, all of them came from first class.
“Nearly all the men saved with their parties were in these first few boats, all this before the lack of organization and realization of danger was felt,” said Behr. “This was after explained by the fact, then unknown to us, that the Captain had ordered all passengers to A deck, the one below, while we were on the top boat deck on the side which had been struck, the star-board.”56
Over on the port side of the ship, Charles Herbert Lightoller—the ship’s second officer—was busy preparing lifeboat six. He called out for women and children, and slowly they came forward. He saw a young English couple—Tyrell and Julia Cavendish—looking dazed and confused. She was wearing nothing but her husband’s overcoat, a wrap, and a pair of thin shoes. The couple looked at each other for a brief moment, before Lightoller gently took hold of Julia’s hand and directed her toward the boat. When she looked back her husband had disappeared into the crowd; she never saw him again.
Helen Churchill Candee was the next passenger to secure a place in the boat. Candee—a fifty-three-year-old American writer—had been traveling in Europe when she had heard that her son, Harold, had been injured in an airplane accident. On board the Titanic, she had attracted the attentions of a number of men, some of whom had appointed themselves as her protector. Candee was an independent woman—a divorcée, she had written the bestselling guide How Women May Earn a Living. She was not, however, immune to the joys of romance, and it seems that on the ship she had dallied with the affections of two men—Hugh Woolner, a forty-five-year-old London investor, and Edward Austin Kent, a fifty-eight-year-old architect from New York. In her account of the disaster published in the magazine Collier’s Weekly, Candee refers to herself and her unnamed companion as “the Two.” As she was walking up the grand staircase, she bumped into Kent, and gave him an ivory cameo of her mother and a small gold flask, engraved with the Churchill crest. The items were later found on his body when it was recovered from the sea and brought to Halifax, Canada.
Boarding the lifeboat proved difficult for Candee. As she climbed into it, she lost her footing, and landed on the oars lying lengthwise in the boat, hurting her ankle. Yet she did not make a fuss and kept the painful injury to herself.
Lightoller then spotted Margaret “Molly” Brown—a first-class passenger who later became the subject of a musical and Hollywood film—who looked as though she was about to walk away from lifeboat six, toward the starboard side of the ship. He grabbed hold of her with the words “You are going, too,” and physically maneuvered her into the lifeboat. By the time Lightoller had managed to direct around two dozen women—plus two crew members, quartermaster Robert Hitchens and Frederick Fleet, the lookout who had first spotted the iceberg—into the boat he ordered it to be lowered. As it began its uncertain descent, Hitchens called up to say that he could not handle the lifeboat with only one other man. Lightoller called out for a crew member to step forward, but as he got no reply, a middle-aged man, Major Arthur Peuchen, a Canadian manufacturer of chemicals, announced that although he was no seaman, he was a yachtsman. “If you’re sailor enough to get out on those falls and get down into the boat, go ahead,” said Lightoller. Peuchen hesitated for a moment, before jumping out a distance of some ten feet, grasping the ropes and sliding down into the boat. In his cabin, he had left behind a tin box containing $100,000 worth of stocks and $200,000 in bonds, choosing instead to take only a good-luck pin and three oranges.
Those in third class, however, did not have the luxury of being able to choose what to take with them; in fact, they would be lucky if they escaped from the ship with their lives. Eighteen-year-old Gus Cohen, an unemployed printer who was emigrating from England to America in search of work, went to bed at 10:30 p.m. that Sunday night. He shared his cabin with six other Englishmen; he would be the only one to survive the disaster.
At 11:40 p.m. Gus had been awoken by a crash, but assumed, like many others, that it was a minor problem in the boiler room, and so he went back to sleep. Even later, when he was woken by the master-at-arms and told to put on a lifebelt, he didn’t worry. He walked up to the third-class deck, where he saw great lumps of ice, and realized that the ship had struck an iceberg. He heard the call for women and children to take their places in the lifeboats and saw a number of people praying and holding rosaries. He thought to himself, “I will pray when I am rescued.” People seemed to be in a daze, as if trapped in some odd sort of dream. He worked out that if he stayed on the third-class deck he would almost certainly die. “I could see that the first-class passengers were looked after first,” he remembered. “I tried to get to the first-class deck, but was barred by sailors from going there.” Finally, through a circuitous route, he did manage to find a way up to the first-class deck, but by then, he said, “things were hopeless”; he knew that he would not be allowed into a lifeboat. He would have to do something. For the moment, however, he didn’t know what.57
Those third-class passengers who occupied cabins at the front of the ship felt the full impact of the collision. Bertha Mulvihill, who was sharing her room with Margaret Daly, was nearly thrown from her berth. Eugene Daly—Margaret’s cousin, and a friend of the Mulvihill family from Athlone, Ireland—was also woken by the crash. He went to the girls’ quarters to check on them and found them “awake and confused.” He then returned to his cabin and put on his life jacket. When he stepped into the corridor, however, he discovered that he was the only passenger wearing a life preserver and immediately became the butt of jokes. Daly grabbed his thick black overcoat, with its astrakhan fur collar—a garment he later credited with saving his life—and urged his cousin and friend to get dressed. Margaret pulled on a coat over her nightgown and went out into the corridor. When she heard the call for all passengers to put on life jackets she went back inside and retrieved a life preserver.
The three friends then started to climb upward, finally reaching the deck above. But almost as soon as they arrived, Margaret realized she had left a number of precious keepsakes in her cabin. She wanted to go back and retrieve them, and although Eugene tried to stop her, she was adamant. Margaret, however, was in for a shock: her cabin was now under five feet of water and the expedition left her legs soaking wet.
On rejoining her friends Margaret had to wait for what seemed an eternity as the group was “held below deck for the longest time.” According to Bertha, “Every time we went up a stair they were locked.”58 Finally, Eugene managed to find an open route toward the lifeboats on the upper deck. The other problem, according to Eugene, was that many women in third class believed the reassurances of the stewards that the ship could not sink. “Most of the women believed these statements,” said Daly, “until it was too late. That is why so many of the women in the steerage [third class] were drowned. When they finally realized that the ship was sinking they tried to reach the boats, but could not get through the crowd of other frightened passengers.”59
As the water continued to gush in, the crew knew that time was running out and so they worked quickly to launch the boats. With each moment, the situation proved more desperate. Titanic was carrying 2,228 people, yet her sixteen lifeboats (plus four Engle-hardt collapsibles) provided enough space for only 1,178. Loss of life would be inevitable.
Between 12:45 a.m. and 1:10 a.m., six lifeboats were lowered that contained only first-class passengers, with accompanying crew members. One lifeboat, the one carrying Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon, launched at 1:10 a.m., contained only five passengers (all from first class), together with seven crew members. It was designed to hold forty people. Laura Mabel Francatelli—Lady Duff Gordon’s secretary—was one of the passengers in this lifeboat. “Presently an officer started to swing off a little boat called the ‘Emergency’ boat, quite an ordinary little rowing boat,” she wrote in a letter to a friend a few weeks later. “He saw us and ordered us in, they were then firing the last rockets beside us, we had to be nearly thrown up into this boat, two other American gentlemen jumped in, and seven stokers, they started to lower us, we had not gone a few yards when our little boat got caught up by a wire rope on my side and in a few minutes we should all have been hurled into the sea, had it not been for that brave officer still up on deck. He shouted cut it with a knife, but nobody had one, and we were all in black darkness, hanging in midair, he shouted mind your heads, and threw a piece of heavy iron which shook our boat, and so set it free, we then went rapidly down to the water.”60
Despite the marked tilt and list of the ship, many passengers were still reluctant to get into the boats. Edith Rosenbaum was one of them. When, at around 1:20 a.m., Bruce Ismay spotted her, he shouted, “What are you doing on this ship? I thought all women and children had left! If there are any more women and children on this ship, let them step forward and come over to this stairway immediately.” Ismay then, according to Edith, practically threw her down a narrow iron stairway to the deck below. There, two crew members grabbed hold of her and tried to throw her into one of the waiting lifeboats. She became frightened and in the struggle lost her velvet slippers. Her legs went rigid and she refused to move. “Don’t push me!” she screamed. One turned on her, spitting out the words “If you don’t want to go, stay!” She looked about in the gutter of the deck for her slippers, and finally found them, minus an imitation diamond buckle.61
As she studied the remaining lifeboats, all hanging at a height of a seven-story building above the sea, she couldn’t imagine ever being able to climb into one. One insurmountable problem was her skirt; at the bottom, near her feet, it was less than a yard wide. She was, she said, “a prisoner in my own skirt.”62 She could only just walk in it, never mind jump, and so springing from the deck, across a wide gap, and into the nearest lifeboat, seemed to her “a feat that only an acrobat could perform.”63 Just then, one of the sailors spotted that she was cradling something in her arms. Thinking it was a baby, he wrenched it from her and threw it into the lifeboat. Edith froze in fear.
Watching the scene unfold was the painter Philip E. Mock, who, in a soft, gentle voice, asked her whether he could assist her. If she raised her leg and put her foot on his knee, and her arm around his neck, he could lift her up to the rail, from where she would be able to jump into the lifeboat. She nodded her assent, and a moment later she found herself flying through the dark night. There, at the bottom of the lifeboat in which she landed, she found her lucky mascot, her pig, with its little legs broken and nose chipped, but its musical ability intact.
“Looking up from the lifeboat, the Titanic seemed the biggest thing in the world ...” she said. “As we drew away, everything was calm and still, with the reflection of the lights on the water, passengers leaning over the rails. ... Nothing to predict the horror of the next few minutes.”64
Second-class passenger Charlotte Collyer also refused, at first, a place in one of the lifeboats. She was traveling from Southampton with her husband, Harvey, and her daughter, Marjorie, eight, to Idaho, where they planned to establish a fruit farm. As she stood on deck, contemplating the dark sea, one image from that night would not leave her: the sight of a stoker with all five fingers of one hand missing. “Blood was running from the stumps and blood was splattered over his face and over his clothes,” she said. “The red marks showed very clearly against the coal dust with which he was covered.” The stoker told her in no uncertain terms that the ship would sink. “At this moment I got my first grip of fear—awful sickening fear,” she said. “That poor man with his bleeding hand and his speckled face brought up a picture of smashed engines and mangled human bodies.”65
Despite this, she refused to leave her husband, ignoring the repeated calls of “Women and children first.” However, at just before 1:30 a.m., she was standing on the port side of the ship with her family, when a sailor, responsible for filling boat fourteen, spotted her daughter. He caught up Marjorie in his arms and threw her into the boat. “You too!” the sailor then yelled at Charlotte. “You’re a woman, take a seat in that boat or it will be too late.” She clung desperately to her husband, but the couple were wrenched apart by two crew members. “Go, Lotty, for God’s sake be brave and go!” said her husband. “I’ll get a seat in another boat.” As she landed in the boat, she bruised her shoulder, but stumbled to her feet to see her husband turn and walk away into the mass of people on the deck.
Just as lifeboat fourteen was about to be lowered away, a young boy, “a pink-cheeked lad,” jumped in and crawled under one of the wooden seats. Charlotte and another female passenger covered the boy with their skirts, but the crew member in charge, Fifth Officer Lowe, had spotted him. The boat was almost full to capacity and he was afraid that taking on any more people would destabilize it; that, and from Lowe’s point of view, the last-minute stowaway was more of a man than a boy. Furious, Lowe dragged the adolescent to his feet and thrust his revolver in his face. “I give you just ten seconds to get on to that ship before I blow your brains out,”66 he said. Marjorie pulled Lowe’s jacket and begged him not to shoot. The boy started to plead with him, maintaining he wouldn’t take up very much room. Lowe then lowered his revolver and told him to be a man. Defeated by the heavy code of Edwardian behavior, the youngster finally climbed back on deck, where he lay down and wept.
Panic was now in the air. Panic and the acrid smell of fear. A male passenger—described as “Italian” by Charlotte Collyer—hurled himself into their lifeboat, falling upon a young child with such force that he injured her. Lowe also ejected this man from the lifeboat, pushing him back onto the ship where he fell into the hands of a mob of second-class men who started to beat him senseless. Before lowering the lifeboat away, Lowe fired his revolver into the air—three warning shots that echoed through the night. It was the sound of desperation.
Bruce Ismay had spent the last one and a half hours working to fill and lower the lifeboats on the starboard side of the ship. In doing so he had helped to save the lives of dozens of passengers, including Dorothy and Pauline Gibson and honeymoon couple Dickinson and Helen Bishop in boat seven; Karl Behr, his sweetheart Helen Monypeny Newsom, and her mother in boat five; governess Elizabeth Shutes and her charge, Margaret Graham, together with her mother in boat three; May Futrelle, the wife of novelist Jacques Futrelle, and Marion Wright in boat nine; and, in boat eleven, Edith Rosenbaum, together with ten-month-old baby Philip Aks, who had become separated from his mother, third-class passenger, Leah.
By 1:40 a.m. all the lifeboats on the starboard side of the ship—except for collapsible C—had left the Titanic. As the bow of the liner sank farther into the ocean, tons of water continued to gush into the front section of the ship. Around collapsible C, an ugly fight broke out as mostly male third-class passengers and a number of stewards tried to jump into the boat. A purser shot his revolver into the air as a warning and some kind of order was restored. Ismay, together with Officer William Murdoch, then helped women and children—including Emily Goldsmith and her nine-year-old son, Frank—into the boat. When the men were satisfied that there were no more women and children nearby, Ismay, together with fellow first-class passenger William Carter, climbed into the collapsible. That small, seemingly innocent step toward survival would have enormous repercussions for Ismay in the months, and years, to come.
Jack Thayer, who was standing nearby, later claimed that Ismay pushed his way into the lifeboat. The seventeen-year-old interpreted Ismay’s gesture as one of determined aggression, the triumph of savage instinct over breeding and behavior, morals, and manners. “It was really every man for himself,” said Thayer.67
Thayer and his friend Milton Long debated whether or not to try and fight for a place in one of the last remaining lifeboats, as they could see the ship slowly sinking by its head. Amid all the confusion—the shouting, the panic, the gunshots, the sudden storming of the lifeboats by hysterical mobs—he doubted whether the last few vessels would be safely and successfully launched. Another option was to jump into the sea—he saw a number of dark figures pitch themselves into the water from the back of the ship—but he was worried that the impact of hitting the surface would stun him. “Three times I made up my mind to jump out and slide down the davit,” he recalled, “and try to make the boats that were lying off from the ship, but each time Long got hold of me and told me to wait a while.”68
Unknown to Jack, his mother, Marian, had managed to secure a place in lifeboat number four, which left the ship at 1:55 a.m. With her were first-class passengers Emily Ryerson, Virginia Clark, Florence Cumings, Madeleine Astor, and Eleanor Widener—all six women would lose their husbands that night (Eleanor Widener, her twenty-seven-year-old son, too). After seeing his wife into the lifeboat, John Jacob Astor asked if he could accompany her as she was pregnant. Lightoller replied he could not, as it was a boat for women and children only. “The sea is calm,” Astor said quietly to his wife. “You’ll be all right. ... I’ll meet you in the morning.”69
Renee Harris witnessed this scene, before Astor, whom she called “an unsung hero,” joined her and her husband, Henry, on deck. As the group walked toward the port side of the ship, Captain Smith spotted her. “Why aren’t you in a boat?” he said, angrily. “How can your husband save himself and you too, with a broken arm?” She told the captain she didn’t want to leave her husband. “You get into that boat, it is the last one,” said Smith. “And lose no time—give your husband a chance.”70
At the port side of the ship Renee saw collapsible D. Around it stood a ring of sailors, guarding it against the sudden rush of the mob. Renee tried to persuade Ida Straus—the wife of Isidor Straus, the co-owner of Macy’s department store—to get into the boat with her, but she refused to be parted from her husband. Isidor said, “We’ve been together many years so when we must go, we’ll go together. You are young—you have your whole life ahead of you. You go and may God go with you.” At that moment, Harry lifted Renee in his arms and threw her toward a sailor, who pushed her into the collapsible. At 2:05 a.m. it was launched from the ship, the last boat to be lowered from the Titanic.71
The ship would stay afloat for only fifteen minutes more. There were still around 1,500 people on board.
Jack Thayer had already gone through the motions of saying goodbye to Milton Long, the new acquaintance who by now felt like one of his closest, oldest friends. He had thought of all the good times he had had in his short life, and had reflected on future pleasures he would not experience. He looked at himself, he said, as though from some far-off place, unable to understand the strangeness of what was happening around him. Yet, amid all of this—the sweet memories of life, the love for his family, the overwhelming sense of self-pity—part of him was able to detach itself from the horror of the situation and analyze how to maximize his chances of survival. “We still had a chance,” he said, “if only we could keep away from the crowd and the suction of the sinking ship.”72
Second Officer Charles Lightoller also knew he had to resist the urge to climb toward the rising stern of the ship. Crowds of people, terrified by the approaching mass of water that weighed down the front of the liner, had started to push backward. If he joined them, “it would only be postponing the plunge, and prolonging the agony—even lessening one’s already slim chances, by becoming one of a crowd.”73 He had done everything he could to help the passengers and soon he would have to battle for his own survival—alone. “It came home to me very clearly how fatal it would be to get amongst those hundreds and hundreds of people who would shortly be struggling for their lives in that deadly cold water.”74
On deck, Lightoller heard the captain giving his last command. “Men, you have done your full duty,” he said. “You can do no more. ... Now it’s every man for himself. You look out for yourselves. I release you. That’s the way of it at this kind of time. Every man for himself.”
Harold Bride, the junior wireless officer, looked out of the Marconi room to see the boat deck completely awash with water. His colleague Phillips continued to send a frenzied dispatch of SOS messages, even after the captain had released him from his duties, even after the sea had started to seep into the cabin. As Phillips worked, Bride hurriedly packed a bag for him, but as he did so he noticed a stoker steal into the cabin and quietly try to slip the life jacket from his colleague’s back. The sight infuriated Bride to such an extent that he, together with Phillips, started to attack him. “I suddenly felt a passion not to let that man die a decent sailor’s death,” he said. “I wished he might have stretched rope or walked a plank. I did my duty. I hope I finished him. I don’t know. We left him on the cabin floor of the wireless room, and he was not moving.”75
There was not much time left now, only a matter of minutes. The water was all-consuming, taking possession of the front of the ship, swallowing the bridge, destroying everything in its path. It pushed the crowd farther toward the stern. The instinct to survive was strong, even to the very end. “We were a mass of hopeless, dazed humanity,” observed Jack Thayer, “attempting, as the Almighty and Nature made us, to keep our final breath until the last possible moment.”76
Lightoller was not about to wait and let his destiny be decided for him. He looked at the sea and dived in. Hitting the freezing water was like being stabbed by a thousand knives, he said. For a moment, he felt he was slipping away, before he forced himself back to consciousness. He saw the frame of the lookout cage poking out of the water—this was normally situated a hundred feet above the ocean—and was tempted to swim toward it before he realized that it would be foolish to try and hold on to anything that was part of the ship. He started to swim away from the Titanic as fast as he could.
On the ship, Jack Thayer contemplated the night. The lights on the Titanic were still blazing, but the noise of the exhaust steam pumping out from the liner’s funnels had stopped. One could hear the discordant sounds of panic and praying, mixed with the strains of the ship’s band in the background. Then, almost without warning, the Titanic jolted forward at an angle that Thayer estimated was around fifteen degrees. From somewhere deep within the ship came the sound of stifled roars and muffled explosions. “It was like standing under a steel railway bridge while an express train passes overhead,” said Thayer, “mingled with the noise of a pressed steel factory and wholesale breakage of china.”77
Thayer and Long shook hands and wished each other luck. Jack hurriedly took off his heavy overcoat, while Long climbed over the starboard rail and dived into the sea, which was now only twelve or fifteen feet below them. Jack followed, ten seconds later. “I am afraid that the few seconds elapsing between our going,” said Jack, “meant the difference between being sucked into the deck below, as I believe he was, or pushed out by the back wash. I was pushed out and then sucked down.”78
The shock of the icy water took the breath out of his lungs. Down he went into the darkened ocean, spinning in all directions. When he surfaced again his lungs felt as if they were about to burst. But he was alive.
Now the ship was sinking fast. The weight of the water pulled everything on and in the ship—boilers, china, children, clothes, wine bottles, pianos, pot plants—toward the bow. The remaining passengers clung desperately to whatever they could get hold of—rails, pillars, staircases, one another—yet many were swept away by wave after wave of encroaching freezing water. Rhoda Abbott, a thirty-five-year-old third-class passenger, desperately tried to hold on to her two sons, Rossmore, seventeen, and Eugene, thirteen, as she was swept from the deck. But in the swirling maelstrom she lost her grip. She never saw them again.
As water dragged down the front part of the ship, the liner began to split apart. The noise of the internal wrenchings echoed over the ocean, as boilers exploded, thundering down to the bottom of the ocean, and funnels began to topple. One witness out at sea in a lifeboat likened the noise to “an immense heap of gravel being tipped from a hopper.”79 As the sea sucked down the bow, the stern began to rise into the sky, higher and higher until it reached a fully perpendicular angle. “All the passengers were sticking like flies to the stern,” said George Rheims, who jumped overboard at the end and witnessed the sinking from the water.80 Jack Thayer described the panicked, terrified crowd as a cluster of “swarming bees.”81
The stern of the ship, still fully lit, looked like a lone New York skyscraper; an image Charlotte Collyer later described as having a “terrible beauty.”82 It paused there, as if contemplating its fate, before it began its final journey down to the ocean floor. From lifeboat eleven, Edith Rosenbaum listened with horror to the dying cry of the Titanic.
“Just before the ship went down, there came a huge roar from her, as though from one’s throat,” she said. The men in her boat—in an effort to try to protect the women from the awful screams of the dying—asked all the women to cheer. “Saying that what we heard were shouts of joy indicating that all aboard had cleared the ship and were saved,” she recalled. “And everyone in our boat did actually cheer three times. This, of course, was surely a device to distract us from the awful sound as the ship went down, and it did at least serve that purpose. Somehow or other we were still quite incapable of realising the full extent of the tragedy in which we were participants.”83