The Titanic sank 108 years ago on its maiden voyage. It had set sail from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. After picking up additional passengers in Cherbourg and Queenstown, it headed for New York. At 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14—a calm, frigid, and moonless night—it struck an iceberg. By 2:20 a.m., Monday, April 15, it had disappeared beneath the waves. There were more than 2,200 aboard. There were lifeboats for only a fraction of this number.
Over the years, the Titanic disaster became a metaphor for many human failings including imprudence and hubris. It also spawned countless books and movies, especially after oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck on the ocean floor in 1985.
One of the best books on this event is Walter Lord’s classic, A Night to Remember. It was first published in 1955 and has never been out of print. As a child, Lord had traveled on the Olympic, one of Titanic’s sister ships, and became fascinated with the famous disaster. In the process of writing his book, Lord interviewed over sixty survivors, and those firsthand accounts are what make his narrative unforgettable.
Stanley Walker, who reviewed A Night to Remember for The New York Herald Tribune, said Lord’s writing was a kind of literary pointillism that arranged “contrasting bits of fact and emotion in such a fashion that a vividly real impression of an event is conveyed to the reader.” If pointillism in art is the application of dots of color to create an image, in Lord’s book, the points are distinct images created by the individuals he interviewed.
Here are some of the passengers’ descriptions of what they saw and felt just as the Titanic brushed against the iceberg:
Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe, standing on the after bridge first noticed how cold it was. There were what sailors called “whiskers ‘round the light.” These were “tiny splinters of ice in the air, fine as dust, that gave off myriads of bright colors whenever caught in the glow of the deck lights.” Then Rowe detected a break in the rhythm of the engines, and, glancing forward, saw what appeared to be a windjammer, sails set, passing by the side of the ship. Then he realized it was an iceberg, “towering perhaps 100 feet above the water.”
In the first class dining saloon, the passengers were long gone, but the tables had been set for breakfast. A small group of stewards were sitting together in the giant room, gossiping about the passengers, when the ship brushed against the iceberg. There was no large jolt, but suddenly the silverware on all the tables around them began to rattle.
Mrs. E. D. Appleton heard an “unpleasant ripping sound” like someone tearing a long long strip of fabric.
Mrs. J. Stuart White was about to turn off her light for the night when it seemed like the ship was rolling over “a thousand marbles.”
Mr. James B. McGough, a Gimbel’s buyer (remember Gimbel’s?) had his porthole open, and as the berg brushed by “chunks of ice fell into the cabin.”
Stockbroker Hugh Woolner was playing cards and drinking a hot whiskey and water in the smoking room. When the men in the room felt the “grinding jar” produced by the berg, Woolner raced outside and saw “a mountain of ice standing black against the starlit sky.” Then it vanished into the dark behind them. It seemed like a momentary bit of excitement. Woolner and the others returned to the smoking room and resumed their card game.
Down in the boiler rooms, things were quite different, of course. Fireman Fred Barrett heard an ear-splitting crash “and the whole starboard side of the ship seemed to give way” as the sea cascaded in, “swirling about the pipes and valves.”
Just over 700 people survived. Approximately 1,500 perished. George Rowe would serve aboard a hospital ship in World War I and die in 1974 at the age of 92. Mrs. Appleton was on the ship with her two sisters. All three women survived. Mrs. White survived and later testified that the Titanic broke in two before sinking—a view that was disputed at the time, though verified decades later when the wreck was discovered. When she died in 1942, Mrs. White was living at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. James McGough returned to work as a department store buyer. He died of cancer in 1937. Hugh Woolner helped some of the women passengers into lifeboats. As the ship was about to sink, he and a friend jumped into one of the last of the lifeboats that had been lowered to the water when they noticed there was a bit of space. Fred Barrett survived in Lifeboat 13. He later married and had several children.
One of the most interesting stories is that of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the most senior member of the crew to survive. He oversaw the loading of the lifeboats, then dove into the water from the roof of the officer’s quarters as the ship began its final plunge. He was able to swim to an overturned lifeboat and climb aboard along with about thirty other men. Lightoller served in World War I, and was retired by the time World War II began. He owned a boat, the Sundowner, which was licensed to carry 21 passengers. When a call went out for private citizens to rescue English servicemen at Dunkirk, Lightoller, one of his sons, and a Sea Scout crossed the English Channel and brought back 127 servicemen.
A film adaptation of Lord’s book was made in 1958. It followed the book closely, and is considered quite accurate in its presentation of the sinking. It does not, however, show the ship breaking in half because, prior to Ballard’s discovery of the wreck, the accepted view was that Titanic went down in one piece. After the wreck was discovered in 1985, Walter Lord wrote a follow-up book called The Night Lives On.