Monthly Archives: April 2016
Crossing the English Channel has always held a wildly mystical attraction for me, whether it was war-weary soldiers returning home from battle or long-suffering French aristocrats escaping Madame Guillotine. There was something brave and noble about standing on the deck of a ship with a fierce wind blowing in your face, angry waves crashing against the hull and sea spray wetting your lips with a briny taste.
Or so I believed. I had my own narrow escape from the ravages of the cold sea on such a trip. I never forgot it.
Boarding the ship at Oostende, Belgium with only my backpack and naïveté for company, I was eager to get to London to visit a friend studying there. So what if the ferry was overbooked and the weather was stormy? I was tough, I could take it.
I nearly froze to death when I lost my balance as the ship rolled on the swell of the sea and I slid across the deck like a greased seal. I ended up cold and wet and hanging onto the rail for dear life.
I never forgot my youthful folly and many times while writing about the sinking of the Titanic, I pulled up those emotions to try to understand what my characters were experiencing on that fateful night, April 14, 1912, when the ship hit an iceberg.
Bitter cold, calm sea and freezing water.
Let me recreate the scene for you at 11:40 p.m. that night.
Contrary to what some films and TV shows have depicted, most passengers were asleep or reading in their cabins when the Titanic hit the iceberg. They were not enjoying a party-like atmosphere in the dining saloons drinking champagne and dancing. The public rooms closed down around 11 pm in all classes. It is true that diehard poker players like my hero in Titanic Rhapsody, Captain Lord Jack Blackthorn, were busily engaged in a game of poker or bridge whist in the smoking room.
The Titanic glided as smoothly as a haughty swan over the sea on that starlit night. No moon. Which is why it has been speculated that the two lookouts didn’t see the one-hundred-foot tall iceberg until the last minute (they had no binoculars—a ship’s officer was transferred at the last moment and took the key to the locker with the binoculars with him).
“Iceberg right ahead!” shouted the lookout into his telephone to the bridge. He rang the bell three times.
For thirty-seven seconds the two lookouts waited as the ship appeared to be heading straight for the iceberg. The ship’s first officer tried to avoid the berg and ordered the ship turned to port (left). What happened next no one saw coming…
The Titanic was cruising close to top speed in spite of the iceberg warnings. This was not unusual. According to the thinking of that time, Captain Smith was justified in getting through the ice region as quickly as possible. What he didn’t know was that the ship was on a direct collision course with the berg, a huge mass of ice that had traveled farther south than was ever thought possible.
The cold Labrador Current swirled around the iceberg to form a protective layer, which insulated it from the warming effects of the Gulf Stream and prevented it from melting.
Pushing the iceberg into the shipping lanes.
The Titanic never had a chance.
The White Star Line ship smashed into the iceberg along her starboard (right) side, slashing open a 295 foot gash that doomed the ship. The passengers snug in their beds or enjoying a hot whiskey and water in the smoking room had no idea that five possibly six of her sixteen compartments were flooded.
Or that the mail hold down on G deck was rapidly filling with water. Or that down in the boiler rooms the air was heavy with steam as the engineers tried to pump out the water in boiler room 5, praying the bulkheads would hold. (The hull plates of the Titanic were held in place with 3-lb. rivets—three million rivets total.)
Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, did a quick assessment of the damage—the Titanic could float with two, three, even four of her first watertight compartments gone, he said, but not five. The ship had an hour, no more than two to survive.
After conferring with Mr. Andrews, Captain Smith ordered the wireless operator to send out the distress signal CQD (the British landline operators’ signal “CQ” was for “all stations” with the addition of “D” by the Marconi company for added emphasis—danger ). He added an “SOS” (adapted because of its distinctive Morse Code pattern of three dots…three dashes…three dots) with the Titanic’s call letters: “MGY.”
Where are Katie and Jack, my heroine and hero in Titanic Rhapsody, when first class passengers feel a “jar” in their staterooms? Or when the steerage passengers are tossed about in their bunks only to find seawater seeping in under their cabin doors?
I wish I could tell you…but I can’t or I will spoil the romance. I will say that Katie and Jack experience all the fear and dread of the passengers that night when the Titanic hits the iceberg.
To give you a feeling of what happened during those last hours, we’ll go through what a first cabin lady experienced, then a second class gentleman, and finally, a family in steerage.
If you’re a first cabin lady, you’re most likely asleep in your cabin where it’s cozy and warm with the electric heater going, the lights dim, when suddenly something jolts you awake. Strange, you think, but nothing to be alarmed about. You try to go back to sleep until you realize the engines have stopped. Here, in the middle of the Atlantic?
You’re curious, but not worried since everyone says the ship is unsinkable. You throw a heavy coat over your nightdress and peek outside, running down the corridor in your soft satin slippers. Others are about, gossiping, yawning, until the bedroom steward in a very nice manner tells you to put on your lifebelt and go up on deck.
In this cold? you ask him. Yes, he tells you, though he assures you it’s merely a matter of precaution. Begrudgingly, you tell your lady’s maid to help you put on your corset, then fasten on the lifebelt made of six squares of cork. All the while the girl frets about, saying you’re all doomed. At the last moment, you grab your gloves and hat and scarf and join the other ladies and gents on the Boat deck.
Ah, there’s nothing to worry about, you decide, relieved. The ship’s musicians are playing a lively ragtime tune and everyone is chatting about the chunks of ice on the forward well deck—then a ship’s officer orders you into a lifeboat. Yes, orders you, like you’re a common servant. Why, the nerve of the man.
Women and children first, he says. What about the gentlemen? You hear someone whisper men are being allowed into the boats on the starboard side, but not here. Why get into the boats at all? you wonder, believing you’re safer on the ship than that small boat.
Then someone says the Titanic is sinking…
It can’t be that serious, can it? you wonder, not believing it possible You wait with your maid on the port side of the ship, watching the ladies being separated from their husbands and put into the lifeboats. Boats not even half-filled. No need to hurry. You hear someone say they’ll be laughing about this over breakfast.
Really? You start to shiver from the bitter cold…frosty puffs of air come out of your mouth when you speak. Unbelievable noise fills your ears. From the boilers, someone says. Ladies screaming as they’re pulled from their husbands’ arms. Then you notice the ship is listing heavily to one side. Well, what are you waiting for? Get into the damn lifeboat!
You don’t protest when a seaman tosses you into a boat. Then your maid. After all, you’re the lucky ones, you realize as the boat is lowered over the side and hits the water. The lifeboat pulls away from the ship so as not to be pulled down by the suction when the ship sinks…yes, it is true. The Titanic is going down.
You put your shoulder to the oar and row…listening to the whispers that a rescue ship is on the way…the Carpathia. Will it arrive in time?
Not if you’re a gentleman in second class…
You’re anxious to get to New York and start your new job—and thrilled to be on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Who would have thought you’d find yourself walking the second class promenade deck late at night, your hands in your pocket, your mind on the pretty girl you met earlier in the day? Still, you’ve no time for romance. You’ve got family back in England needing the money you’ll send home to them. It’s nearly midnight. Time to turn in for the night.
You head for the second class staircase when—
Wait, what was that? Did you feel a bump?
You rush to the starboard side—good God, was that an iceberg? Did we hit it? you wonder. No alarm sounds, though you don’t find out until later the Titanic has no PA system and relies on the three hundred stewards to alert the passengers to put on their lifebelts and go topside.
You wait, noting the other passengers seem calm and no one is in a hurry to get into the lifeboats. Then you spy the pretty girl you had your eye on over on the port side. She’s trying to convince her aunt to get into a lifeboat. She’s grateful when you charm the older woman and talk her into getting into a boat with her niece following her. Then you see the girl waving at you as the boat is lowered over the side. She’s smiling. Tears in her eyes.
You’ll never forget that smile.
No time to waste. The chap you share a cabin with finds you and tosses you a lifebelt. The grim look on his face tells you that you’ll both need more than a lifebelt to make it. No men are allowed into the boats here on the port side, so you do your duty and assist the women and children getting into the boats.
It’s been more than two hours since the Titanic hit the iceberg and she’s listing heavily.
The last few minutes are chaotic. Men rush the lifeboats, then a shot rings out—they’re pushed back. You help a woman get into a boat, then someone hands you a baby. You give it to the woman before the boat is lowered.
No more wooden lifeboats left. You try to help the ship’s officers launch one of the four collapsibles when suddenly there’s a thunderous explosion. You’re blown clear of the ship, but after swimming long, hard strokes, your hands swell up, your legs go numb and your back feels like it’s breaking in two.
Cries, screams ringing in your head, people clinging to you, clutching you around the throat, dragging you down underwater. You can’t breathe, you’re choking. Then the cold…the bitter, freezing cold…
The last thing you remember is the pretty girl’s smiling face…
But what if you can’t get topside? It is time to speak of the steerage passengers, who until now have waited patiently for a steward to bring them up on top to get into the lifeboats.
Well, not all the third class passengers have been patient.
How could you be if you’re a good wife and mother and your family’s lot depends on you getting to the lifeboats?
Holy Mary, you’ve had time of it since you boarded the Titanic at Queenstown. Getting the two little ones, Mary and Bridget, settled in their bunks with Danny, a lad of ten, wanting so to follow his da around the ship.
And then there’s Patrick, your man. A strong, blustering bloke with strong hands and a big heart. Him always ready to enjoy a pint after a hard day’s work and eager to give you a hug and a kiss when you’re weary from toiling from dawn till night.
“You’ll have a better life in America,” he promises you, after buying passage on the grand ship. And now look at the lot of you. Huddling in the stairway down here on E deck like drowned rats after the seawater came flooding into your cabin. The ship hit an iceberg, they say, split her open where you’re quartered in the fore part of the ship in the married couples section.
And would you believe the likes of them stewards shouting and hollering to put on lifebelts that don’t exist? Only through the help of the good Lord did Patrick find belts for you and the children. And now they won’t let you through the gate to go topside?
“Have you no heart, man?” Patrick yells to the steward, asking him to let his family through. No, he tells him, you have to wait. Then you put your hands over the girls’ ears when Patrick lets go with a barrage of expletives and his fists. He pushes the steward aside and bangs on the barrier. With help from the other men, down it goes with a loud crash.
Then Patrick picks up the girls, one in each arm, and orders you to grab Danny and go ahead of him. Up the stairs you go, the companionway taking you up to the next deck. Then someone says go through the second class door and somehow through Divine grace you find your way up on top.
Oh, such chaos you’ve never seen. People yelling and rushing about like frightened mice with their tails caught in the jaws of a hungry cat. Patrick, good man that he is, doesn’t stop. From boat to boat he goes until he finds one that will take you and the girls. And Danny.
But not him.
“Women and children first,” orders the ship’s officer, shaking his head. Patrick nods. He knew all along there’s no place for him, but he didn’t let anything stop him until his family was saved.
God bless him.
“A kiss to you, lass,” he says, brushing your lips with his, then he tosses you into the boat and it’s lowered away. You huddle in the lifeboat with your children close to you. The sea is so calm, so smooth, the piercing screams and pitiful pleas for help sound sharp and clear in your ears, but you can’t cry. That will come later. Now you have to be strong. For the girls and Danny.
Patrick would want it that way.
And there you have it. A trio of passengers and how they fare on that fateful night. Then at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, the Titanic breaks in two and sinks into the North Atlantic, a pale gray vapor hanging like smoke over the spot where she disappears.
For the passengers and crew, cold and freezing in the lifeboats, it will be hours before the rescue ship Carpathia reaches them. Then it’s on to New York. Between twenty and thirty thousand people crowd Chelsea Piers when the Carpathia steams into New York Harbor around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, 1912.
Even the aftermath of the Titanic is dramatic. Reporters hire their own tugboat to try to get to the passengers first and buy their exclusives stories; the newspapers blast the headlines for days about the society folks on board (third class passengers don’t fare as well—they’re sent to homeless shelters and their names don’t appear on the survivors’ list); and the U.S. Senate subcommittee holds hearings at the Waldorf-Astoria, interviewing first class passengers and crew.
We’ve come to the end of our journey on the Titanic and a grand tale it is. Before I go, I want to take one last look at the ship of dreams.
I want to take one more walk down her sweeping Grand Staircase with the great glass dome overhead like Katie O’Reilly, my heroine, does in Titanic Rhapsody. I see the stars peeking through, heavenly witnesses to all that is elegant and romantic.
A place of enchantment where everything is unique to this time, this place. Katie can’t believe she’s really here and neither can I.
I quicken my pace and leave the ship, knowing the Titanic will stay with me always.
“2,000 lives are saved off wrecked Titanic by wireless; vessel is reported sinking.”
Hold on, are we in an alternative universe? Two thousand lives saved off the Titanic when every historian will tell you only 705 passengers survived the sinking on April 15, 1912?
No, this isn’t some Edwardian version of the Twilight Zone. The headline above was printed on April 15, 1912 by The Denver Times.*
According to the Monday evening edition (consisting of sixteen pages and costing 2 cents), several ships including the Virginian and the Parisian were within distance of the Titanic and the Baltic “was coming up fast.”
The newspaper went on to report that all the women and children had been rescued and the lifeboats were the “…very latest in the lifeboat design, wide and unsinkable.” No mention was made of the fact there weren’t enough lifeboats on the Titanic to save all the passengers.
The story continued for several pages and on page 5, the headline decreed: “Dreaded C.Q.D. of wireless brings rescuers quickly to the side of the crippled Titanic.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The only ship close enough to effect a rescue was the Cunard liner Carpathia and she was 58 miles away. When her captain, A. H. Rostron, received the distress message from the Titanic, he turned his ship around and traveled full speed ahead through dangerous icy waters to reach the sinking liner.
When the ship arrived, all they found were half-frozen men and women in a few lifeboats.
My heroine in TITANIC RHAPSODY, Katie O’Reilly, was in one of those boats:
“The glassy icebergs entombed the lifeboats.
“Impenetrable guardians they were, reminding Katie of their silent power to destroy everything she loved. Something in her stomach twisted at the sight of the bergs tinted a pale gray against a pinkish horizon, but she fought back the pain. Fought hard, until all that was left was a nagging prayer that reminded her she still wasn’t safe.
“She pulled the chilly air into her lungs, held her breath, then put her shoulder to the oar and tried to ignore the mountains of icebergs emerging through the darkness as daylight crept over the ice field. She wasn’t alone in her despair. Through the veil covering her face, she looked at the other passengers.
“Women, mostly first cabin ladies with some steerage speaking a language she didn’t understand.
“All trying desperately to survive the night.”
The Carpathia was the only ship to rescue passengers from the Titanic.
On April 16, 1912, the Denver Post went to press with a headline closer to the truth: “1,300 perish when Titanic sinks; 866 known to be rescued.” (1,517 perished and 705 survived).
Also on the front page in large letters was a quote from Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) worth noting:
So fleet the works of men, back to the earth again; ancient and holy things fade like a dream.”
Tomorrow: another Titanic story!
A very special post: “What you don’t know about that night to remember…”
I’ll take you through that fateful night of April 14th from the POV of a first class lady, a second class gentleman, and a third class or steerage mother and her family.
Believe me, it’s a night you’ll never forget.
Check out my Titanic novel, “Titanic Rhapsody,” about a poor Irish girl who becomes a countess aboard the Titanic…
Titanic Rhapsody on Amazon: http://amzn.com/B007TUXNJE
*The Denver Times was the afternoon edition of the Rocky Mountain News, which ceased publishing in 2009.
Titanic Rhapsody from Jina Bacarr on Vimeo.
Women and children first…
This was the cry heard on that cold, bitter night of April 14, 1912. Earlier that Sunday morning passengers of all classes had attended divine services and offered prayers for a safe crossing.
At 11:40 pm the Titanic struck an iceberg and she was sinking fast.
Everyone scrambled to get to the lifeboats.
“Women and children first,” called out the ship’s officers.
Why then, when lifeboat number 5 was lowered (capacity 40), were there only 2 women and 10 men aboard?
If the call was for women and children first, why were gentlemen permitted to get into the boats on the starboard side?
While no male passengers were allowed to enter a lifeboat on the port side of the ship when there were women and children about?
And who can forget the look of pain on faces of the Irish family–the da, mum and three children–who fought their way up from the bowels of the ship only to discover there were no more lifeboats?
No more lifeboats.
With only a rosary and prayer and their arms wrapped around each other, they faced the end bravely.
Still, the question, persists, why were there not enough lifeboats?
Some put the blame on J. Bruce Ismay, the Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line, who insisted the number of lifeboats be cut from 48 to 16 (in addition, 4 Englehardt or collapsible lifeboats were stored on the Boat deck) because they “cluttered” the deck.
For the record, Mr. Ismay escaped the sinking in collapsible lifeboat C.
The White Star Line argued that it had followed the British Board of Trade regulations that dictated for a liner the size of the Titanic (using a specific formula based in tonnage), sixteen lifeboats was more than the number of boats required.
This rule was hopelessly outdated when the Titanic was launched.
But no one seemed to notice.
Until it was too late.
It does me heart in, as my heroine Katie O’Reilly would say, to write this post, knowing so many more passengers could been saved if they’d had more boats. As it was, several lifeboats were lowered half full or less. (The first lifeboat left with only 28 people–it could hold 65). Again, there is some confusion as to why this happened. The lifeboats had been tested and could hold forty to sixty-five people, but the captain decided to lower them half full, then fill the boats with passengers from the lower gangways.
That never happened. The doors were never opened.
As the lifeboats rowed away and the horrified passengers in the lifeboats watched the horrifying scene. I wrote about it in Katie O’Reilly:
The Titanic sinking into the black, calm sea as smoothly as if a Divine hand parted the waters to ease its descent into a lasting grave…the wild explosions shattering the quiet night… then the harrowing distress calls…the unbearable moans in a chorus of shouting and cries that lasted more than an hour then became feeble until they died out…then silence. As cold and still as the sea surrounding them.
God rest their souls…
Tomorrow: another Titanic story!
“The Titanic headline that wasn’t true”
Check out my Titanic novel, “Titanic Rhapsody,” about a poor Irish girl who becomes a countess aboard the Titanic…