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This Day in History: RMS Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage

On this day in 1912, RMS Titanic sinks. News of the tragedy shocked the world. How could this happen? The Titanic was one of the premier passenger ships of its time.


The big ship was then on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. The trip started off uneventfully enough, but everything changed when Titanic began receiving ice warnings a few days into the trip. The last warning was radioed by SS Californian late on April 14. Unfortunately, the Titanic radio operators were harried and overwhelmed after a long day. Would you believe they told Californian to “Shut up! Shut Up! You are jamming me!”


Less than an hour later, tragedy hit. Titanic was then traveling at 22 knots: a fast clip, but not the ship’s top speed. The commanding officer tried to change course when an iceberg was spotted, but it was too late. The iceberg hit the side of the ship.


The ship was doomed, but no one realized it at first. Some people felt a mild impact, but they were unconcerned and went back to bed. An intense game of cards in the First Class smoking room continued. People played with pieces of the iceberg on the deck.


A little after midnight, the ship’s captain saw the writing on the wall. He began sending out distress calls, and he gave an order to prepare the lifeboats. At first, few wanted to leave. Why should they leave the bright lights and warmth of Titanic for a small, cold ship bobbing about in the icy water?


At 12:45, the first lifeboat was lowered into the water even though it was only partially full. This was a big problem. There were not enough lifeboats to begin with.


At about that time, a rocket was fired as a distress signal. The passengers were beginning to understand that they might actually be in trouble. Men began pushing their wives and children toward the lifeboats.


“It’s all right, little girl,” one groom told his bride, “you go and I’ll stay a little while.” Another couple didn’t say anything at all. Two kisses, a hug, and one meaningful look passed between them before Mr. Cavendish put Mrs. Cavendish onto a lifeboat. Another woman protested that her husband “must come with me!” Her husband responded firmly, “No, I must be a gentleman.”


Some women stayed with their husbands. Others wanted to stay, but left because of their children. Some women were literally torn from their husbands’ arms. In at least one instance, a son made his mother go. “Don’t be foolish, Mother,” he told her firmly.


“It was all so urgent—and yet so calm,” Walter Lord writes in his classic account. “[I]t was difficult for anyone to realize it was a tragedy,” one of the survivors noted. “Men and women stood in little groups and talked. . . . All the time the band was playing. . . . I can see the men up on deck tucking in the women and smiling. It was a strange night.”


The ship’s radio operators desperately called for help. Unfortunately, Titanic’s distress signal was not heard by the one ship that was fairly close: Californian had shut off its wireless after the rude “Shut up!” Its radio operator was asleep.


RMS Carpathia finally received the distress call at about 12:25 a.m. because her radio operator was bored and called Titanic to chat! Carpathia immediately set course for Titanic, but she didn’t arrive until about 4:00 a.m.


By then, it was too late. Roughly 1,500 people had already perished.


Primary Sources:

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