Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Titanic's Incident - What happened on that night?

Sunday Night 11:35 PM - April 14, 1912 - 400 miles off the Grand Banks, New Foundland 

High up in the crows nest of the forward mast that supported the wireless antenna, lookouts Fredrick Fleet and Reginald Lee strained their eyes in the darkness for any unwanted ice that may be in the path of the great liner. The air was cold and the crisp and the North Atlantic breeze enhanced by the mighty liner's near flank speed stung the faces of the two men. The sky was brilliantly speckled with more stars than the mind could comprehend, the water as calm and still as a pond; unusually calm for the North Atlantic in April. 

 “It was a dark night as well, with no moonlight... And the lookouts had no binoculars; the only pair was left back at Southampton.” Lookout Reginald Fleet. (Testimony at US Senate Inquiry investigation of "The Wreck of the steamship Titanic.")

Due to a mix up in a last minute shift of officer's assignments and positions, the lookout crew was without binoculars. High-tech equipment such as infrared technology, sonar, global positioning systems, and radar were still many years away from invention. Peering straight ahead into the darkness, Fleet squinted to see if he could identify the large dark mass that was quickly growing in size as the liner made way ahead. "My God!" he said, while reaching over to grab the pull cord on the ships bell mounted on the mast, Fleet gave it the traditional 3 rings indicating an object sighted. He grabbed the crows nest phone to hear the voice of the ship's 6th officer below in the bridge. "What did you see?" asked the anxious voice

"Iceberg right ahead!," was Fleet's reply. The officer quickly acknowledged with a "Thank you," and the phone was hung up. "Iceberg right ahead!" was repeated again in the bridge. The first officer quickly looked out of the ship's bridge windows. Seeing the berg looming off the bow, he turned and shouted "hard astarboard" to the quartermaster tending the ships wheel in the wheelhouse. At the same time the office reached over to the ship's telegrapg and rang in the order "all stop" and then "all reverse full". The quartermaster now had the ship's wheel spun over as far as it would go. The men in the bridge were peering forward to see if the helm would respond in time. 

The first officer felt a slight feeling of relief as it became obvious that the ship was going to avoid a head-on collision with the mammoth iceberg. The ship's bow was coming around ever so slowly, but a hit was inevitable. Just as it looked like the giant liner was going to escape unscathed, a slight shuddering and vibration was felt in the bridge as the ship sideswiped the berg on her starboard side. One passenger later compared the feeling of the impact to the ship as that of "rolling over a million marbles." Literally tons of ice began to fall onto the ship's forward area and in to the forward well deck as the berg quickly passed by. 

Most of the ship's passengers were unaware of anything occurring. A few card players and those enjoying a late nightcap felt the slight jar and came out on to the boat deck in time to see the berg vanishing astern into the darkness. As a precaution, Titanic's First Officer William Murdoch now reached over and activated the electric switch that would lower the ship's watertight doors in the bulkheads that divided the ship.

Titanic's Captain, Edward J. Smith, had been napping in the chart room after leaving the orders: "If it becomes at all doubtful let me know at once." He was now on the bridge. Looking at his first officer he asked "What have we struck?" "An iceberg, sir ", was the reply.

Captain Smith summoned the ship's carpenter Thomas Andrews, one of Titanic's designers from Harland & Wolff Shipbuilders. Andrews was traveling on Titanic's maiden voyage to work out any "bugs" that might occur  with the new liner. Both men were asked to conduct a visual inspection to access the ship's damage and report back.

Titanic's Captain, Edward J. (EJ) Smith

Twenty minutes later, Captain Smith was all too aware of the fate of his ship, and equally aware of the fact that Titanic's lifeboat accommodations were far fewer than the number of passengers and crew on board. Smith would now for the first time in nearly 40 years at sea, give the orders to abandon ship. He expressed to his officers the necessity of calmness and order in the evacuation. His orders were to see that the crew informed everyone on board and to report to the boat deck with their lifebelts on. The order was given to swing out the boats.

Now, at 12:05 A.M., only 30 minutes since the berg was initially sighted, lifeboats were being uncovered, and ship was beginning to take a noticeable dip forward. The squash courts, 32 feet above the level of the ship's keel, were awash. Passengers (mostly first class, being closest to the boat deck) were beginning to appear on deck, many having just slipped a coat on over their night clothes and not realizing the seriousness of the situation. 
Titanic's small band, under the leadership of Wallace Hartley, came out on to the boat deck and began playing a medley of cheerful ragtime turnes to keep spirits up. 

Lifeboats were now lowering, the first few but half full. Passengers were hesitant to climb in, thinking the whole procedure was unnecessary. People were saying
"This ship can't possibly sink, It's supposed to be unsinkable" This dreadful fact was becoming more apparent however as time passed. A deafening roar was present as coal stokers were drawing out the fires and relieving pressure from the boilers to prevent an explosion from the cold seawater rushing in from the bowels of the ship. The hiss of distress rockets being fired way up into the darkness overhead amused the children as their parents were trying to get them aboard lifeboats.

Titanic's bow section was now completely underwater and her stern was beginning to rise. More people from below had now worked their way out on to the boat deck, but there were very few lifeboats remaining. The last few boats had been filled to capacity. "Women and Children first" was the general rule. Some of the men had quietly stepped aside, a few had jumped down to the life boats as they were lowering. Some were already diving into the water from the deck. Overall there was no panic; not yet.

Titanic fires distress rockets in hope that a nearby ship will render assistance.

Titanic was now assuming a horrible list. It had become evident to all on board that the ship was indeed going to sink. Captain Smith personally went to the wireless shack and instructed operators Bride and Phillips to send out the distress call, and gave the ship's position. The Cunard ship, Carpathia was 58 miles away, but still 4 hours out. She signaled that she was en route, but Captain Smith knew Titanicwould be gone before she arrived.

Items within the ship could be heard crashing through walls toward the sinking bow, as Titanic made her final "headstand". The boilers were tearing from their beds and smashing through bulkheads. One survivor later compared the sound to distant  thunder rumbling. People were struggling to climb to the back of the ship as it began to rise in a vain attempt to seek a higher area away from the swirling water. Suddenly, a giant wave washed over the deck as water filled the last remaining compartments, sweeping many overboard. 

Slowly, the mammoth liner now began her final dive in an almost perpendicular position. Her lights flickered a couple of times, then went out for good as the stern disappeared from the surface. Screams and moans could be heard from those struggling in the frigid water. Some passengers in the lifeboats wanted to return to retrieve these poor souls but were quickly told by others that they would surely be swamped if they tried. Amazingly, some of the very same women that protested to officers on the boat deck about their husbands not being allowed to board, were the very same that protested returning to rescue those in the water. The yells quickly faded out one by one as the victims lost consciousness and succumbed to their fate. Two boats, one boat under the command of surviving 5th officer Harold Lowe did manage to pick up a few from the water after transferring passengers from one lifeboat to two other boats. Another boat, under the charge of Seaman Perkis, managed to pick up three victims from the frigid water.

A few hours later the remaining passengers in the lifeboats spotted green colored rockets going up in the distance. It was the 
Carpathia, she was signaling that she was near. Of approximately 2,227 passengers on board Titanic, only 705 survived.

(Left) Titanic Departed Southampton from this dock

Fredrick Fleet, Titanic Lookout. First to spot the iceberg.

After the Titanic disaster, Fleet worked for a short time (June-August, 1912) on the Olympic as a seaman. Unfortunately, the White Star Line looked at formerTitanic crew members working on other WSL vessels as both an embarrassment to the company and as a  "bad omen" in the eyes of the passengers. He sailed with the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Co. working various positions and left the sea in 1936. He worked as a shipbuilder for Harland and Wolff's Southampton shipyard during World War II after which he became a night watchman once again, for the Union-Castle Line. In his later years, he sold newspapers on a street corner in Southampton.

After a series of personal problems; the recent loss of his wife, eviction from his home by his brother-in-law, Fredrick Fleet, the first man on Titanic to spot the iceberg and warn the bridge, hung himself on a clothes line in his backyard in 1965.


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