If you’re a millennial, chances are that thinking about Titanic probably doesn’t go much beyond an image of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio fogging up the windows of a parked car while she stays weirdly clothed—or the equally memorable image of Jack drawing an unclothed Rose.
If you’re like me, you recall both of these scenes, along with a memory of standing in your living room crying to Celine Dion’s music video for “My Heart Will Go On.”
It’s easy to forget that James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster movie was based on a tragedy that touched the lives of thousands of actual human beings. The Titanic was carrying roughly 2,200 people—including both crew and passengers—when it set off on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, departing from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912.
Due to undeveloped emergency procedures and too few lifeboats, some 1,500 of these people perished on April 15, when the ship sank to the ocean floor after being ruptured by an iceberg. Here are some of the accounts of what happened on the night Titanic sank.
People Died Fighting For Lifeboats
The Titanic had the capacity to carry 64 lifeboats, with plans to carry 48. What it ended up carrying in actuality, however, was 20 lifeboats—2 wooden cutters, 14 standard wooden lifeboats and 4 collapsible canvas lifeboats.
Carrying so few lifeboats was extremely negligent, but it was legal, since ships were required only to carry the number of lifeboats based on the gross register tonnage of a ship rather than passenger capacity
Moments of crisis bring out all manner of extreme behaviors. Our survival instinct is a powerful force, one that often does not yield heroism. While many people sacrificed their own lives for those of others, there was also a great deal of panic when people realized the space on lifeboats was limited.
“As the excitement began I saw an officer of the Titanic shoot down two steerage passengers who were endeavoring to rush the lifeboats,” Dr. Washington Dodge told the San Francisco Bulletin when giving his account of that night. “I have learned since that twelve of the steerage passengers were shot altogether, one officer shooting down six.”
Steerage, or third-class, passengers, were comprised of immigrants—including Armenians, Chinese, Dutch, Italians, Russians, Scandinavians, Syrians, and people from the British Isles—who were coming to America in search of a new life.
There were no lifeboats stored in the ship’s third-class sections, and these passengers, as the BBC reports, “had to find their way through a maze of corridors and staircases to reach the boat deck.” By the time they arrived to the decks with lifeboats, there was often no space. In the end, 76 percent of the steerage passengers aboard Titanic died.
The Extent Of Loss Was Avoidable
In addition to poor emergency planning and there being too few lifeboats on board Titanic, there was another botched opportunity to save lives. The Cunard liner Carpathia arrived one hour and 20 minutes after the Titanic had already sunk, rescuing people from lifeboats and from the water.
It wasn’t until later that people learned of the Leyland liner Californian, which had been less than 20 miles away at the time of the accident; the ship’s radio operator had been off duty and did not hear the distress signals coming from the Titanic.
This discovery, along with knowledge about the conditions that led to such loss of life, caused outrage. This led to the the first International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, held in 1913, where rules were established that would require every ship to carry enough lifeboats for all people on board, along with clearly defined emergency precautions such as lifeboat drills and a 24-hour radio watch.
Additionally, the International Ice Patrol was established, whose purpose was to monitor icebergs in the North Atlantic shipping lanes.
Families Were Torn Apart, Sometimes Literally
Some of the most heartrending accounts of the Titanic‘s sinking involve families who were fractured. In 1973, The New York Times covered “a memory-charged meeting of buffs and survivors of history’s greatest peacetime maritime disaster.” One of the attendees was Mrs. Edwina MacKenzie, who had been on the Titanic at age 27.
She recalled “being handed a tiny baby boy by a distraught father before going into her lifeboat, No. 13.” (The baby boy and the mother, who had been aboard another lifeboat, were later reunited, though he died at age 20 of influenza.)
Harvey and Charlotte Collyer and their 8-year-old daughter, Marjorie, were among the second-class passengers. They were coming from England to relocate to an Idaho farm in the hopes of improving Charlotte’s health.
After the Titanic had been struck by the iceberg, sailors were shouting for women and children to enter the lifeboats, but Charlotte remained clinging to her husband’s arm.
It wasn’t until she was physically pulled away from her husband by a sailor and put into a boat that they were separated. “‘Go Lotty, for God’s sake be brave and go!” Harvey told her. “I’ll get a seat in another boat.”
But Harvey, like most men, did not get a seat in another boat.
A week later, in New York with her daughter, Charlotte sent her mother-in-law this message: “My dear Mother, I don’t know how to write to you or what to say. I feel I shall go mad sometimes but dear as much as my heart aches it aches for you too for he is your son and the best that ever lived…Oh mother how can I live without him…he was so calm…The agony of that night can never be told…I haven’t a thing in the world that was his[,] only his rings. Everything we had went down.”
The Little Details Haunt You
Often it’s the small sensory imprints of a trauma that are difficult to move past. Many who survived the sinking of Titanic make reference to the uniquely horrifying sounds and images they witnessed.
“I will never forget the awful scene of the great steamer as we drew away,” Dr. Dodge’s wife told the Bulletin. “From the upper rails heroic husbands and fathers were waving and throwing kisses to their womenfolk in the receding lifeboats.”
Indeed, the majority of those saved were women and children. Eighty percent of male passengers aboard the Titanic died.
Jack Thayer, a 17-year-old from an upper-class family returning from a trip to Paris, recalled quietness, followed by “one long continuous wailing chant, from the fifteen hundred in the water all around us…” until the cries finally faded. Thayer later took his own life.
The New York Times reported in 1973 that, even “[s]ix decades after the disaster,” the 80-year-old survivor and former steerage passenger Mrs. Margaret Devaney O’Neill, of County Sligo, Ireland and who settled in Clifton, New Jersey, could “still ‘hear’ the cries and screams from those left on the liner as it took its final plunge.”
The Band Played Until The Very End
One of the most popular stories from the Titanic tragedy is of the ship band continuing to play music through the chaos in an attempt to comfort passengers.
Dr. Dodge told the Bulletin that, as the boats were drawing away from the ship and rockets were shooting into the sky, he could hear the orchestra playing the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light.”
More often, “Nearer, My God, To Thee” is cited as the band’s final song, a powerful scene that’s been reproduced in films about Titanic. “The passenger that recalled that particular hymn being played was lucky to get away quite some time before the ship sank,” Simon McCallum, archive curator at the British Film Institute, told the BBC.
“We will never really know as all seven musicians perished – but it’s poetic licence. ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’ is such an evocative hymn that works as a romantic image in film.”
The fact-checking website Snopes took an in-depth look at which song may have been played last on the Titanic, and found compelling evidence for one titled “Autumn.” Ultimately, though, “any answers must remain the product of informed guesswork and speculation.” As Snopes notes:
“If there’s a tie-breaker to be had here, perhaps it’s that a former colleague of the Titanic‘s bandmaster, Wallace Hartley, reported that years earlier he had asked Hartley what he would do if he found himself on the deck of a sinking ship. Hartley responded that he would gather the band together to play ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’ or ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ The latter was reportedly Hartley’s favorite hymn, and it was regularly played at the funerals of members of the Musicians’ Union.”