July 24, 1915 Shipwreck in Chicago

Woodrow Wilson’s administration passed strict lifeboat legislation in the wake of the RMS Titanic disaster. Ironically, that weight is probably what doomed the already top-heavy Eastland, to disaster.

The SS Eastland was a passenger steamship based in Chicago, used for tours of the inland waterways and Great Lakes areas around the city.  Eastland’s design was top heavy and made her subject to listing, a problem that plagued the ship from her christening in 1903. Embarking passengers would crowd along the rail to wave goodbye, several times having to be herded across the decks to reduce the list. Once, she even started to take on water at the main gangplank.SS_Eastland

Special passenger restrictions were imposed on Eastland, which seemed to help until 1914, when Woodrow Wilson’s administration passed strict lifeboat legislation in the wake of the RMS Titanic disaster.

The ironic part is that the weight of additional lifeboats is probably what doomed the already top-heavy Eastland to disaster.

It was July 24, 1915, when Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and the Petoskey, were chartered to take Western Electric employees to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Eastland was docked on the south bank of the Chicago River, between Clark and LaSalle, near the site of the present day Merchandise Mart. Passengers began boarding around 6:30am.  By 7:10 the ship had reached its full capacity of 2,572 passengers.

chi-eastland12side-19991029

A number of passengers went below decks to get out of the chill, but hundreds stayed out on the upper decks, excited about the day ahead. The port side list away from the dock, had set in early in the boarding process, and crew members began to pump water into the starboard ballast tanks to stabilize the ship.  Something interesting must have happened on the river at 7:28, causing a number of passengers to rush to the port side rail.

Novelist Jack Woodford witnessed what happened next, describing it in his autobiography: “And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy”.  Hundreds were trapped below decks, others were crushed under heavy bookcases, pianos and tables.

Another vessel, the Kenosha, pulled alongside almost immediately.  Several passengers were able to jump directly onto her decks, others were rescued at the wharf, only 20′ away.  Hundreds were beyond saving.

Eastland_PostcardTemporary morgues were set up in area buildings for the identification of the dead; including what is now the sound stage for The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Studios, and the location of the Chicago Hard Rock Cafe.

Then-20-year-old George Halas was scheduled to be on the Eastland, but he was late and showed up after the capsize. 844 passengers and four crew members lost their lives in the disaster, but Eastland herself would have a second life. She was raised from the bottom, converted to a gun boat, and stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Reserve, re-christened USS Wilmette.

Wilmette saw no combat service in WWI, though she was given the task of sinking UC-97, a German U-Boat surrendered to the US after WWI. Wilmette’s guns were manned by Gunner’s Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in WWI, and Gunner’s Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo of the war.

Wilmette would serve once again as a training ship in WWII, and sold for scrap on Halloween day, 1946.

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July 15, 1864 Great Shohola Train Wreck

When the main switch was opened, only four miles of track stood between two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.

The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout prison in Maryland, to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York.

Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags, giving the second train right of way, but #171 was running late.  First delayed while guards located missing prisoners, then there was that interminable wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.

shohola station
Shohola station

Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola, Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags.  His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed. Kent may have been drunk that day, but nobody’s certain. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City.  Kent gave the all clear at 2:45.  The main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.

Only four miles of track stood between two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.

King and Fullers Cut
King and Fuller’s Cut, Shohola, Pennsylvania

The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a pass blasted out of solid rock and named after its prime engineering contractors.  This section of track followed a blind curve with only 50’ visibility.  Engineer Samuel Hoitt was at the throttle of #237.  Hoitt would survive, having just enough time to jump before the moment of impact.  One man in the lead car on #171 was thrown clear.  He too would live.  There would be no other survivors among the 37 men on that car.

Historian Joseph C. Boyd described what followed on the 100th anniversary of the wreck: “[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken. The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. Witnesses saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”

shohola4
“Jupiter 1864 train engine, typical of the type of engine used during the Civil War Era”. Tip of the hat to http://www.civilwaralbum.com/misc11/shohola1.htm, for this image.

Pinned by cordwood against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. Frank Evans, one of the guards, remembered: “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”

Evans describes the scene. “I hurried forward. On a curve in a deep cut we had met a heavily-laden coal train, traveling nearly as fast as we were. The trains had come together with that deadly crash. The two locomotives were raised high in air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling. The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end. The engineer and fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried. Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!. The front car of our train was jammed into a space of less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. Several cars in the rear of those were also heaped together…Taken all in all, that wreck was a scene of horror such as few, even in the thick of battle, are ever doomed to be a witness of.”

Estimates of Confederate dead are surprisingly inexact.  Most sources indicate 51 killed on the spot or dying within the first 24 hours. Other sources put their number as high as 60 to 72.  17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck.  5 prisoners appear to have escaped in the confusion.

Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was in the Elmira camp at this time.  Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171. William was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid the 76′ trench in which the Confederate dead were buried. He died in Elmira three days later, never regaining consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other that one last time.  James Tyner was my twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers who had gone to war in 1861.

We’ll never know.  James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865, 27 days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.

Family Plot
Note the shape of the stones themselves. Union tombstones from the Civil War era have rounded tops. Those marking Confederate graves are pointed at the top. It has been said that the pointed top was adopted to prevent “Yankees” from sitting on Confederate headstones.  This photo taken in the family cemetery, in the “Sand Hills” of North Carolina.  

Afterward

Two Confederate soldiers, the brothers John and Michael Johnson, died overnight and were buried in the Congregational church yard across the Delaware river, in Barryville, New York.  The remaining POWs killed immediately or shortly thereafter were buried in a common grave that night, alongside the track.  Individual graves were dug for the 17 Union dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.

As the years went by, signs of all those graves were erased.  Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie Railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they passed.

The “pumpkin flood” of 1903 scoured the rail line uncovering many of the dead, carrying away at least some of their mortal remains, along with thousands of that year’s pumpkin crop.

On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola we’re disinterred, and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn National Cemetery, in Elmira, New York.

 

Two brass plaques bear the names of the dead, mounted to opposite sides of a common stone marker.  The names of the Union dead face north.  Those of the Confederate face south.

The only instance from of the Civil War era, in which Union and Confederate share a common grave.

June 15, 1904  P.S. General Slocum

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” 

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now  the East Village.  “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world, save for Berlin and Vienna.

General Slocum tokenIt was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum, left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.

She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300+ children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am.  A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.

Slocum 3

The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment.  Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor.  Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.Slocum 4

Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered”  It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. The wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.

Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.  Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion, and then jumped overboard with her newborn to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

Slocum-ablaze

Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and his feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.  Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned.  It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.  There were only 321 survivors.General Slocum Casualties

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six month old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both her sisters, were among the unidentified dead.

Youngest_Slocum_Survivor

Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  There were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  There was nothing for them, there.   Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100.  The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.

General_Slocum_Memorial

May 31, 1889 Johnstown Flood

Traveling at 40 miles per hour, the 60′ wall of water and debris hit Johnstown 57 minutes after the dam broke. Some residents had managed to scramble to high ground, but most were caught by surprise

Johnstown Pennsylvania was founded in 1800, along the banks of the Stony Creek and the Little Conemaugh, where the two waterways combine to form the Conemaugh River. Miles downstream from the drainage basin formed by the Allegheny plateau, the town is hemmed in on both sides by the high, steep hills of the Conemaugh Valley and the Allegheny Mountains. A plaque at the scenic overlook on Rt. 56, four miles outside of Johnstown, describes this gorge as the deepest river gap east of the Rockies.Johnstown Spillway_drawing

The South Fork Dam was built 14 miles upstream by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, forming Lake Conemaugh and providing a feeder for the state’s network of canals. Welsh and German immigrants came to the area as the completion of the Main Line Canal led to the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Cambria Iron Works. The area flourished as multiple villages and factories were built along the banks of the Conemaugh, crowding the river basin forming the narrow floor of the valley.

The Commonwealth sold the dam and the lake to private interests when rail began to supersede the canal as the primary mode of transport. The property changed hands a couple times more: one owner removing the three iron pipes that formed a spillway and selling them for scrap, the next lowering the dam to build a road and installing a fish grate. These were the wealthy industrialists who turned the mountain lake into an exclusive private retreat for themselves and their families, calling it the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

Johnstown Flood National Memorial
Johnstown Flood National Memorial

The rain that began to fall on the 29th was unprecedented, at times falling at the rate of 6 to 10 inches per hour. Elias Unger, then president of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, awoke on the morning of the 31st to see the water just about to overtop the dam. He and several others worked throughout the morning to unclog the fish screen at the spillway.  By 1:30 that afternoon they were forced to take to the high ground and wait.

The dam was 72 feet high, 931 feet long, holding back an estimated 4.8 billion gallons of water. The average flow of water over Niagara Falls is 64,750 cubic feet per second.  When the South Fork Dam let go it released 642,726,934 cubic feet of water down the valley.  The lake was emptied in 45 minutes.johnstown-flood

The Village of South Fork was first to be hit, and then the town of Mineral Point, about a mile below the viaduct. When the flood receded, there was nothing left of the town but bare rock.

By the time the flood reached East Conemaugh, it had picked up so much debris that one survivor said it looked like a “huge hill, rolling over and over”. People living and dead cascaded down the valley with trees and homes and animals and debris of every kind. Next the flood hit the Cambria Iron Works and the Gautier Wire Works in Woodvale, sweeping train cars, boilers and miles of barbed wire up in the deluge.

Locomotive engineer John Hess got ahead of the approaching flood for a time, as he tied down the train whistle and raced backward down the line trying to warn as many as possible. His warning saved many people before the flood caught up with him and tossed his locomotive aside.  Hess would survive the flood, though many of the passengers stranded in rail cars, did not.

johnstown-flood, RR CarTraveling at 40 miles per hour, the 60′ wall of water and debris hit Johnstown 57 minutes after the dam broke. Some residents had managed to scramble to high ground, but most were caught by surprise by the flood waters.

An enormous stone railroad bridge at the edge of Johnstown caught and held tons of barbed wire entangled debris on its upstream side. Perversely, the debris caught fire and the fire became an inferno that burned for three days, killing 80 people. After the flood waters receded, the field of debris at the bridge covered 30 acres and reached 70 feet high.

Johnstown - RR BridgeWhen it was over, 2,209 were dead. 99 entire families had ceased to exist, including 396 children. 124 women and 198 men were widowed, 98 children orphaned. 777 people, over 1/3rd of the dead, were never identified.  Their remains are buried in the “Plot of the Unknown” in Grandview Cemetery in Westmont.

Property damage exceeded $17 million, over $425 million in today’s dollars.

May 23 1928  Crash of the Airship Italia

The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried 20 personnel, a payload of 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, and the expedition mascot, a Fox Terrier named Titina.

Stolp, Landung des Nordpol-Luftschiffes "Italia"

Her mission was to explore the ice cap surrounding the North Pole, operating out of an expedition base in Ny-Ålesund, one of four permanent settlements on Spitsbergen Island in the Kingdom of Norway.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in near perfect weather conditions and unlimited visibility, the craft covering 4,000 km (2,500 miles) and setting the stage for the third and final trip departing on May 23.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen. Though wind conditions prevented them from dropping scientists onto the ice sheet, survival packs and the inflatable raft they brought along for the purpose would turn out to be providential.

Trouble started almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds as they headed south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Umberto Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle made the task difficult. The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

Now relieved of the weight of the gondola, the envelope of the ship began to rise again with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a remarkable display of calm under pressure. As the airship’s italia-crashenvelope floated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino started to throw everything he could get his hands on down to the men on the ice. These were the supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death. Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Nine survivors and one fatality were left stranded on the ice.  They immediately began to go through their supplies. They found a radio and fashioned a mast from the debris, and set up a tent after coloring it red using the dye contained in several flares.

The tale of the Italia rescue is a story in itself, as would-be rescuers themselves became stranded or disappeared into the arctic circle, never to be seen again.

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while flying on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Bureaucratic intransigence, equipment failure and a lack of coordination would hamper rescue efforts.  It would be more than 49 days before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers would be found. The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia, is unknown.

May 6, 1937 Hindenburg

The famous film shows ground crew running for their lives, and then turning and running back to the flames. It’s natural enough to have run, but there’s something the film doesn’t show.

Hindenburg left Frankfurt airfield on its last flight at 7:16pm, May 3, 1937, carrying 97 passengers and crew. Crossing over Cologne, Beachy Head and Newfoundland, the airship arrived over Boston at noon on the 6th.  By 3:00pm it was over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, arriving at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, NJ at 4:15.

Foul weather had caused a half-day’s delay, but the landing was eventually cleared.  The final S turn approach executed at 7:21pm. The ship was at the mooring mast, 180′ from the ground with forward landing ropes deployed, when flames first erupted near the top tail fin.

Eyewitness accounts differ as to the origin of the fire.  The leading theory is that, with the metal frameworkHindenburg grounded through the landing line, the ship’s fabric covering became charged in the electrically charged atmosphere, sending a spark to the air frame and igniting a hydrogen leak.  Seven million cubic feet of hydrogen ignited almost simultaneously.  It was over in less than 40 seconds.

The largest dirigible ever built, an airship the size of Titanic, burst into flames as the hull collapsed and plummeted to the ground.  Passengers and crew jumped for their lives and scrambled to safety, along with ground crews who had moments earlier been positioned to receive the ship.

The famous film shows ground crew running for their lives, and then turning and running back to the flames. It’s natural enough to have run, but there’s something the film doesn’t show.  That was Chief Petty Officer Frederick “Bull” Tobin, the airship veteran in charge of the landing party, bellowing at his sailors above the roar of the flames.  “Navy men, Stand fast!  We’ve got to get those people out of there!” Tobin had survived the crash of the USS Shenandoah on September 4, 1923.  He wasn’t about to abandon his post, even if it cost him his life. Tobin’s Navy men obeyed.  That’s what you see when they turn and run back to the flames.

The Hindenburg disaster is sometimes compared with that of the Titanic, but there’s a common misconception that the former disaster was the more deadly of the two. In fact, 64% of the passengers and crew aboard the airship survived the fiery crash, despite having only seconds to react.   In contrast, officers on board the Titanic had 2½ hours to evacuate, yet most of the lifeboats were launched from level decks with empty seats. Only 32% of Titanic passengers and crew survived the sinking.  It’s estimated that an additional 500 lives could have been saved, had there been a more orderly, competent, evacuation of the ship.

As it was, 35 passengers and crew lost their lives on this day in 1937, and one civilian ground crew.  Without doubt the number would have been higher, if not for the actions of Bull Tobin and is Navy men.

Hindenberg CrashWhere a person was inside the airship, had a lot to do with their chances of survival.  Mr and Mrs Hermann Doehner and their three children (Irene, 16, Walter, 10, and Werner, 8) were in the dining room, watching the landing.  Mr. Doehner left before the fire broke out.  Mrs. Doehner and the two boys were able to jump out, but Irene went looking for her father.  Both died in the crash.

For all the film of the Hindenburg disaster, there is no footage showing the moment of ignition. Investigators theorized a loose cable creating a spark or static charge from the electrically charged atmosphere.  Some believed the wreck to be the result of sabotage, but that theory is largely debunked.

Four score years after the disaster, the reigning hypothesis begins with the static electricity theory, the fire fed and magnified by the incendiary iron oxide/aluminum impregnated cellulose “dope” with which the highly flammable hydrogen envelope was painted.

The 35 year era of the dirigible was filled with accidents before Hindenburg, but none had dampened public enthusiasm for lighter-than-air travel. The British R-101 accident killed 48, the crash of the USS Akron 73. The LZ-4, LZ-5, Deutschland, Deutschland II, Italia, Schwaben, R-38, R-101, Shenandoah, Macon, and there were others.  All had crashed, disappeared into the darkness, or over the ocean.  Hindenburg alone was caught on film, the fiery crash recorded for all to see.  The age of the dirigible, had come to an end.

April 15, 1912 Unsinkable

The elderly owner of Macy’s Department Stores Isidor Straus was offered a seat with his wife Ida, on account of his age. Strauss refused any special consideration and Ida refused to leave his side. The couple went down with the ship.

Titanic_stern_and_rudder
For Scale, Note the Man Standing Next to Titanic’s Stern and Rudder

The maiden voyage of the largest ship afloat left the port of Southampton, England On April 10, 1912, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew.  An accident was narrowly averted only minutes later, as Titanic passed the moored liners SS City of New York and Oceanic.

Both smaller ships lifted in the bow wave formed by Titanic’s passing, then dropped into the trough. New York’s mooring cables snapped, swinging her around stern-first.  Collision was averted by a bare 4 feet as the panicked crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled to bring New York under tow.

The Southampton-to-New York run made stops at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown Ireland, to pick up passengers before the Atlantic crossing.  Titanic stoker John Coffey jumped ship in Ireland, hiding under a pile of mail bags.  The Queenstown native may have had a premonition as he claimed, or maybe he just wanted to go home.  Be that as it may, subsequent events may have made him the luckiest man on the cruise.

Edward Smith
Edward Smith, 1911

By the evening of the 14th, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, conditions clear, calm and cold.  There were warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but the ship continued to steam at full speed.  It was generally believed that ice posed little danger to large vessels at this time, Captain Edward Smith opined that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder.  Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge of an iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines put in reverse, veering the ship to the left.  Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision had been averted.  Below the surface, the starboard side of Titanic ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.  The ship had been designed to withstand the flooding of four watertight compartments.  The iceberg had opened five.  As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear that the ship was doomed.

last-image-of-the-titanic
Last known image of titanic

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The ship was built for 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4,000, however the White Star Liner carried only 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles. Regulations then in effect required enough room for 990 people. Titanic carried enough to accommodate 1,178.

As it was there was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity. The crew, however, hadn’t been adequately trained in evacuation.

The “women and children first” protocol was generally followed, sometimes to the exclusion of all others.  Ship’s officers didn’t know how many could safely board the lifeboats, and many were launched barely half-full. The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard.

3rd class passenger Bertram Dean and his wife Georgette had decided to leave the UK and emigrate to the United States.  Mr. Dean planned to become a partner in a tobacco store, owned by a cousin in Wichita.   Down below, Bert Dean was among the first to hear the collision.  After inspecting the damage, Dean told his wife to dress the children, two-year old Bertram and two-month old Millvina, the youngest passenger on board.     Georgette and the two kids were placed on lifeboat #10, the first to escape.  Most of the male passengers and crew were left aboard, even as lifeboats launched half empty.Carpathia Iceberg

J. Bruce Ismay, CEO of White Star Lines, helped to load some of the boats. Looking about and seeing no women or children in the vicinity, only then did he step onto a lowering collapsible, but he never lived down having survived a disaster in which so many others perished.

Titanic chief architect Thomas Andrews was last seen in the First Class smoking room, staring blankly at a painting of the ship.  John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest passenger onboard, was traveling with his young wife Madeleine Talmadge Force, 29 years his junior.  Placing her on a lifeboat, Astor asked if he could join her, explaining that she was pregnant.  All that money didn’t help him, Astor was refused.  All he could do was kiss his young wife goodbye as the boat lowered out of sight.

The elderly owner of Macy’s Department Stores Isidor Straus was offered a seat with his wife Ida, on account of his age.  Strauss refused any special consideration and Ida refused to leave his side.  The couple went down with the ship, as did Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet, who returned to their rooms and changed into Tuxedos.  Emerging on deck, the wealthy industrialist declared, “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen”.

The stories that will never be told, are those of the 700 or so 3rd class passengers below decks.  Disoriented, terrified and trapped below decks, one by one they spent their last moments gasping in shrinking pockets of air, as frigid water swirled like class V rapids through the pitch black interior of the ship.Titanic last moments

Distress signals were sent by wireless and lamp, but none of the ships responding were close enough to effect the outcome. The Californian, six miles to the north, was close enough to see distress rockets, but crew members thought the liner was having a party.

Two hours and 40 minutes after striking the iceberg, Titanic went up by the stern.  The forward deck dipped underwater as seawater poured in through open hatches and grates.  The immense strain on the keel split the ship in two between the third and fourth funnels, as the unsupported stern rose out of the water.  Propellers exposed, the stern remained afloat for a few minutes longer, rising to a nearly vertical angle with hundreds of people still clinging to it. The last piece sank out of sight at 2:20am, plunging passengers and crew into 28°F water.  Most of them died within minutes of hypothermia, cardiac arrest, or drowning. Lifeboats had room for almost 500 more, but only 13 were pulled from the water. Titanic_wreck_bow

RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene around 4am, in response to Titanic’s distress calls.  Originally bound for Austria-Hungary, Carpathia diverted to New York with survivors.  A crowd of 40,000 awaited the arrival of 705 survivors on the 18th, despite a cold, driving rain.  It would take four full days to compile and release the full list of casualties.

Millvina Dean, once the youngest survivor of the Titanic disaster, died 97 years later, the last survivor of the sinking.  The remains of her father lie with the ship on which he perished, 12,415 feet beneath the surface of the north Atlantic.