Today marks the 108th anniversary of the sinking of The Titanic on its maiden voyage from Southampton, via Cherbourg and Cobh, to New York. Of the 2,300 passengers and crew on board, approximately 1,500 lost their lives, with crew members and those with third class tickets much more likely to have died than those travelling in first and second class accommodation.
The Titanic was one of three new liners that had been commissioned simultaneously by the White Star Line for construction at Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard. White Star and Cunard were the main operators competing for business on the lucrative UK to North America ocean routes, and whereas Cunard had sought competitive advantage through speed (their 1907 ships Lusitania and Mauretania had each set new records for the passage to New York in the years leading up to Titanic‘s launch), White Star had chosen to opt for luxury in its new ships. Everything about the design for Titanic was on an extraordinary scale. It was 269 metres long and 28 metres wide, and weighed in at over 52,000 tons when fully laden. Such was the draft of the ship, that it was delayed leaving Southampton when Titanic effectively ‘sucked’ another ship docked nearby off it’s moorings and into the path of the giant liner.
At the time of its design and construction, the commonly held view was that Titanic unsinkable by virtue of its multi-compartment structure. The ship was divided into 16 sections, each of which was capable of being sealed off from the bridge. The theory was that a hole in up to four sections of the hull could be effectively sealed off and the integrity of the ship would be maintained.
The voyage across the Atlantic was relatively untroubled. Conditions were calm and the ship made good speed. On the evening of 14th April, messages came in to the radio room warning of ice fields ahead. At least one other liner in the area, The Californian, had taken the decision to halt progress having become surrounded by icebergs. Titanic‘s First Officer was at the helm at the time, and although warnings were passed to the bridge from the radio room, he was not informed of The Californian captain’s decision. Titanic ploughed on at 22 knots straight into the path of the ice. It was at 11.40pm that the watch look-outs in the crow’s nest first spotted an iceberg and immediately sounded the alarm on the bridge. First Officer Murdoch gave the order for the ship to steer hard to starboard, and at the same time put the engines into reverse. The evasive manoeuvre came too late, and Titanic scraped along the side of the ice, causing five small tears in the hull, allowing sea water to rush into the front five sections of the ship.
It was clear from an early stage that the ship would be unable to survive the damage; and Captain Edward Smith (who had by now been summonsed to the bridge) gave the order to the radio room to begin broadcasting distress signals. The Californian was the closest vessel to Titanic but having halted until the ice had cleared around it, it’s radio room had closed down for the night and nobody picked up the distress messages. It was left to another vessel, The Carpathia, to change course and head to Titanic‘s aid, but she was over three hours’ away. Tragically, by the time Carpathia arrived on the scene, the vast majority of those who died had already perished in the freezing waters of the north Atlantic.
Ensuing investigation inquiries in the US and the UK found that a number of factors had contributed to the large number of casualties. There were only approximately 1,200 places available in lifeboats for the 2,300 people on board Titanic. Compounding the lack of overall capacity, there had been no lifeboat drill undertaken following the ship’s departure from Southampton, the crew members were unfamiliar with both the process for lowering the lifeboats, and the capacity that the winching gear could support. As a result, many of the lifeboats were launched far below their total capacity. The much higher death rate amongst third class passengers and crew members was attributed to the failure of the Captain to sound a general alarm once the decision to evacuate the ship had been taken. Crew and third class passengers were largely accommodated on lower decks and by the time they became aware that they needed to leave the ship, the distance to the lifeboats, the complicated layout of exit routes, and disruption to electrical lighting systems on lower decks, meant that many people were simply unable to get to the evacuation point before the ship went down.
The inquiries also looked at the claims that Titanic‘s design made the ship unsinkable. They concluded that the glancing nature of the blow against the iceberg had caused a number of tears in the steel hull that would probably have responded better had the ship simply hit it straight on. The damage suggested that the steel used in the hull had been poor standard, and that failures of rivots holding the steel plates together was also indicative of poor quality materials and/or assembly.
The sinking of Titanic was a dreadful tragedy. Thankfully, over the ensuing 108 years, we have become much better at anticipating approaching hazards, taking appropriate mitigating actions, and ensuring that we can adequately protect everybody from immediate and foreseeable danger. At least, I wish that was the case. Given current covid-19 death rates in the UK, I suspect that even when we can see the hazard approaching, we still tend to plough blindly on in the hope that all will be well.