April 14, 1912, 375 miles south of Newfoundland, on board the RMS Titanic. At 11:40PM lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg immediately ahead and alerted the bridge. First Officer William Murdoch quickly ordered the ship to be steered around the obstacle and the engines to be stopped.
It was too late.
The vessel suffered a glancing blow that buckled her right side and opened five of her sixteen compartments to the sea. Although not ripped in one continuous tear, the impact snapped off or popped open many iron rivets creating narrow gaps through which water flooded. There were an estimated 2,224 passengers and crew members on board. The Titanic was carrying only enough life boats for 1,178 people.
The ship began to flood immediately, with water pouring in at an estimated rate of 7 long tons per second, fifteen times faster than what could be pumped out. Because the ship’s boilers were still full of hot high-pressure steam there was a substantial risk that they would explode if they came into contact with the cold seawater flooding the boiler rooms. The stokers and firemen were ordered to reduce the fires and vent the boilers, sending great quantities of steam up the funnel venting pipes. They were waist-deep in freezing water by the time they finished their work.
Each bulkhead could be sealed by watertight doors. The engine rooms and boiler rooms on the top deck had vertically closing doors that could be controlled remotely from the bridge, lowered automatically by a float if water was present, or closed manually by the crew.These took about 30 seconds to close; warning bells and alternate escape routes were provided so that the crew would not be trapped by the doors.
The Titanic had suffered damage to the forepeak tank, the three forward holds and No. 6 boiler room, a total of five compartments. The ship had been designed to stay afloat with four of her forward compartments flooded but no more, and the crew soon realized that the ship would sink. Within 45 minutes of the collision, at least 13,500 long tons of water had entered the ship.
Alarm bells were ringing, a commotion of surging human energy was heard. Crew members shot distress flares and took to the Marconi Wireless transmission device that had been installed on board. Jack Phillips, one of the ship’s wireless operators began frantically sending distress signals. Operators at the Marconi Station at Cape Race received the news almost immediately after the collision, as did two other liners The Parisian and the Virginian, who were unfortunately twelve hours away.
The only nearby ship to receive the call was the RMS Carpathia, and that happened by a fluke. The Carpathia’s operator, Harold Cottam, had finished his work for the evening, but had returned to his wireless room to verify a time check with another ship. Had he not been there, no one nearby would have heard a distress signal until morning. This was a consequence of not having a loudspeaker, worker shifts, or a distress alarm for a sleeping operator. The Carpathia was 58 miles from the Titanic and when it arrived at the scene three and a half hours after hearing the distress call, it could only rescue those who had managed to get into the life boats. The nearest ship, The California, was less than twenty miles from The Titanic when the accident occurred, But the California’s only wireless operator was asleep when the titanic broadcast its distress calls. Another ship, The freight steamer Lena was within 30 miles of the titanic, but not equipped with wireless telegraphy.
By 01:20, the seriousness of the situation was now apparent every passenger above decks, who began saying their goodbyes, with husbands escorting their wives and children to the lifeboats. Distress flares were fired every few minutes to attract the attention of any ships nearby and the radio operators repeatedly sent the distress signal CQD. Radio operator Harold Bride suggested to his colleague Jack Phillips that he should use the new SOS signal, as it "may be your last chance to send it”.
By 01:30AM on the morning of April 15th, The Titanic's downward angle in the water was increasing. The dire situation was reflected in the tone of the messages sent from the ship by Marconi operator Jack Phillips:
01:25 - ”We are putting the women off in the boats"
01:35 - ”Engine room getting flooded"
01:45… "Engine room full up to boilers.”
This was Titanic's last intelligible signal, sent as the ship's electrical system began to fail; subsequent messages were jumbled and broken. The two radio operators nonetheless continued sending out distress messages almost to the very end.
John Jacob Astor IV was a passenger on the ship. At 01:55AM he saw his wife Madeline off to safety, but even though 20 of the 60 seats aboard were unoccupied, he was refused entry to the life boat, a sign of the chaos and disorder as seats were being saved for women and children.
The last lifeboat to be launched left at 02:05 with 27 people aboard. At this point, the sea had reached the boat deck and the forecastle was deep underwater. Veteran captain Edward Smith carried out a final tour of the deck, telling the radio operators and other crew members: "Now it's every man for himself.”
At about 02:15, Titanic's angle in the water began to increase rapidly as water poured into previously unflooded parts of the ship through deck hatches. Her suddenly increasing angle caused what one survivor called a "giant wave" to wash along the ship from the forward end of the boat deck, sweeping many people into the sea.Marconi junior operator Harold Bride managed to escape at the last possible moment trapped under a life boat, but safe from the sweeping wave.
Eyewitnesses saw the Titanic's stern rising high into the air as the ship tilted down in the water. Many survivors described a great noise. One passenger, Lawrence Beesley, described it “partly a groan, partly a rattle, and partly a smash, and it was not a sudden roar as an explosion would be: it went on successively for some seconds, possibly fifteen to twenty.”
After another minute, the ship's lights flickered once and then permanently went out, plunging Titanic into darkness.
Another passenger, Jack Thayer recalled seeing "groups of the fifteen hundred people still aboard, clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly as the great after part of the ship, two hundred fifty feet of it, rose into the sky.” Shortly after the lights went out the vessel tore in two, rotating on the surface. The Titanic disappeared from view at 02:20AM on the morning of April 15th, 2 hours and 40 minutes after striking the iceberg.
Jack Thayer reported “with the deadened noise of the bursting of her last few gallant bulkheads, she slid quietly away from us into the sea.” Those in the lifeboats were horrified to hear the sound of what Lawrence Beesley called "every possible emotion of human fear, despair, agony, fierce resentment and blind anger mingled. – I am certain of those – with notes of infinite surprise, as though each one were saying, 'How is it possible that this awful thing is happening to me? That I should be caught in this death trap?
Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, a British fashion designer who was a passenger on the ship recalled, “the very last cry was that of a man who had been calling loudly: 'My God! My God!' He cried in a dull, hopeless way. For an entire hour there had been an awful chorus of shrieks, gradually dying into a hopeless moan, until this last cry that I speak of. Then all was silent.”
More than 1,500 people died this night, including poor cabin boys and girls, and the richest man in America, John Jacob Astor IV. Like the democratic nature of wireless telegraphy, death came equally for the Titanic’s Passengers.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the US government passed The Radio Act of 1912, which mandated that all radio stations in the United States be licensed by the federal government, as well as mandating that seagoing vessels continuously monitor distress frequencies. No longer would amateur operators be able to freely transmit wireless telegraphy.
It represented a watershed moment. The point after which all individual exploration of wireless would diminish and corporate management and exploitation, in close collaboration with the government, would increase.