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Titanic sinks

The 15th of April 1912 AD

The sinking of the Titanic is a story that has been dramatised and romanticised since shortly after the great liner sank with the loss of more than 1,500 lives. While there are undoubtedly heroic elements to the tale, there are far more that speak of stupidity, ill-preparedness, and idiotic class distinction.

On her maiden voyage to New York the Titanic, supposedly unsinkable, struck an iceberg at 11.40pm on April 14 1912. Bad weather meant that in spite of the ship’s course being moved about ten miles further south than would have been usual, there were icebergs around it and even still to the south of it. Wireless messages were sent regarding this situation, but ignored.

The lookouts on the Titanic were set to watch for danger, but were not equipped with binoculars. On a moonless night there was little or no light to reflect off the iceberg and warn of its presence. Thus it was only seen an estimated 37 seconds before the ship hit it, attempting at the last moment to veer away from danger. Though the decision to veer away can surely not be criticised, it meant the ice scraped along the side of the ship, holing it in five compartments. The ship had been designed to be able to stay afloat if four were flooded.

By 12.45am it was obvious the ship was doomed, and the first lifeboat was lowered, rapidly followed by the rest. Tragically there were only enough places on lifeboats for 1,178 people, just over half of those on board. Even more tragically, only 712 of these places were taken, boats leaving with places empty in the panic to depart before the ship went down, and in at least one case leaving almost empty to satisfy the cowardly desires of certain rich passengers for their own safety and comfort.

After deaths from hypothermia of several of those who did make the lifeboats, 705 passengers survived. In spite of the ‘women and children first’ rule, more first class male passengers than third class women and children survived – in the lower decks reserved for the poorest voyagers most did not know how to get up to the higher decks where the boats were kept, or even that there were boats available.

That survival depended on financial status, or rather the class of travel, is starkly illustrated by the statistics: 60 per cent of first class passengers survived; 44 per cent of second class; 25 per cent of third class. While some of this is possibly down to the varying numbers of women and children in each class of voyager, there is no escaping the conclusion that on that night money talked.

Captain Smith went down with his ship, as naval tradition demanded. Famously the orchestra played on, supposedly making their final piece ‘Near My God to Thee’.

The only real positive that can be taken from the story is that the subsequent enquiries forced through changes in safety drills, lifeboat provision, and wireless communication protocols. But for the hundreds who died these changes obviously came far too late.

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