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On This Day: “Unsinkable” Titanic Lost After Hitting Iceberg

Written By Emily Coakley
Last updated: April 28, 2023

On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage after striking an iceberg, killing more than 1,500 people.

1,500 Drown as Titanic Sinks

The luxury liner Titanic left Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912, for its first trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship, which was part of the White Star Line, was the largest and most luxurious ship of its time. It was considered unsinkable, as it was able to withstand flooding to four of its 16 purportedly watertight compartments.

On the night of April 14, the ship’s crew was warned about ice in the vicinity of its route southeast of Newfoundland, but Capt. Edward J. Smith decided not to slow down. On a dark, moonless night, the crew, which had lost its binoculars, was unable to spot an iceberg in its path until it was too late.

Desperate attempts to steer the ship around the iceberg failed; at 11:40 p.m., the ship’s hull scraped up against the ice, causing six of its compartments to take on water. Ironically, had the crew not turned the ship and instead traveled straight into the iceberg, the ship may have been saved, as fewer compartments would have been damaged, according to the book “Lost Liners.”

At midnight, Capt. Smith ordered his crew to prepare the lifeboats. The Titanic contained only 20 lifeboats with a combined capacity of 1,178 for more than 2,200 passengers. This was due to outdated government safety regulations, which required only 16 lifeboats for a ship of the Titanic’s size.

The evacuation effort was hampered by several factors. Many passengers didn’t initially realize the danger they were in and were reluctant to leave the luxurious ship for a rowboat in the middle of the chilly North Atlantic. Additionally, many third-class passengers were unable to reach the lifeboats due to a maze of passages and locked gates below deck. The first few lifeboats released were not filled, preventing hundreds more from being saved.

Shortly after 2:00 a.m., the bow sunk under water and the stern was raised in the air. The passengers who remained on board desperately tried to climb to the stern or decided to jump overboard and swim for a lifeboat. The ship soon broke into two sections and sank less than three hours after hitting the iceberg.

More than 1,500 passengers drowned, most suffering from hypothermia after just minutes in the 28-degree water. The 705 survivors were rescued at about 4:00 a.m. by the liner Carpathia, which had heard the Titanic’s distress call.

The Myth of an Unsinkable Ship

Sources in this Story

  • Titanic
  • PBS: Lost Liners: Titanic
  • The BBC: Titanic: Sinking the Myths
  • U.S. Senate: The Titanic Disaster Hearings: The Official Transcripts of the 1912 Senate Investigation
  • PBS: NOVA: Titanic’s Lost Sister: An Unsinkable Ship?
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution: 1985 Discovery of Titanic

Within days of the Titanic’s loss, the United States Senate convened a special subcommittee to investigate the sinking. Hearings started April 19 at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and then moved to Washington, D.C.

The Senate Web site recounts that 82 witnesses testified about what went wrong, including, “ice warnings that were ignored, the inadequate number of lifeboats, the ship’s speed, the failure of nearby ships to respond to the Titanic’s distress calls.” Witnesses also described how passengers were treated differently based on their class.

Transcripts of the hearings ran more than 1,100 pages, and Congress ultimately passed laws honoring officers and crew of the Carpathia, as well as establishing a memorial to officers who were lost with the Titanic.

After the Titanic sank, engineers used some of the lessons learned from the tragedy to improve ship safety. Improvements were incorporated into the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic. During World War I, the Britannic was hit by a torpedo or bomb while traveling off the coast of Greece and sank.

The fact is that an unsinkable ship doesn’t exist. Any ship is vulnerable under the right circumstances. But one safety improvement did save lives: the Britannic had enough lifeboats for everyone, which saved the lives of most of the Britannic’s crew.

There was debate in the decades after the tragedy as to whether the Titanic was actually advertised as “unsinkable.”, a site devoted to proving or disproving urban legends and other rumors, quotes Walter Lord, who wrote the book “Titanic.” He said the claim wasn’t something in advertisements or added after the ship was lost. “It was the considered opinion of experts at the time.”

Finding the Titanic

Though the Titanic’s sinking was a famous event broadcast throughout the world, its final resting spot was a mystery for decades until Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the wreck with the help of a French expedition on Sept. 1, 1985. The debris sat on the ocean floor 12,400 feet below the surface.

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