The pride of the British-owned White Star Line, the Titanic was the largest ship ever built when it made its first, ill-fated voyage in 1912. Like most companies, the White Star Line was always searching for ways to outperform the competition. Their main rival at the time was Cunard, the company that manufactured the doomed Lusitania (sunk by the Germans in 1917) and the Mauritania. Both Cunard ships were impressive in terms of speed. Their engines were state of the art, the finest produced at that time. White Star Line's president, J. Bruce Ismay (1862–1937), was confident, however, that he could produce a vessel that would be bigger, heavier, and more luxurious than any ship to date.
White Star Line's plan to surpass its competition produced the Titanic. At 883 feet (269.1 meters, or 1/6 mile) long, 92 feet (28 meters) wide, and 104 feet (31.7 meters) tall, it dwarfed all other sailing vessels. It boasted 46,328 tons (42,019.5 metric tons) of steel, and Ismay boasted that it was “practically unsinkable.” After the sinking of the ship, everyone would forget the “practically” part of his claim and label Ismay a greedy scoundrel and a liar.
The Titanic cost $7.5 million to build (the equivalent of around $400 million today). Passengers who could afford a first-class passage enjoyed use of the on-deck heated swimming pool (the first of its kind), four electric elevators, and a fully equipped gymnasium. They could eat in the elegant dining hall (seating capacity of 554), or pay extra to enjoy their food served on fine china and glassware in a more private setting. At any time of day, these passengers could borrow books from the magnificent library, then stroll to one of the decks to read while basking in the sun. Those in need of a haircut visited one of two barbershops. For this segment of the Titanic's passengers, the experience was one of unforgettable luxury.
Less glamorous steerage class
Beneath the grandeur of first and even second class was the steerage section of the ship. Steerage was in stark contrast to the opulence (luxury) of the top floors. There were no dining rooms nor dance floors for these passengers: They slept in small, windowless rooms the size of closets, in beds made up with rough, inferior-quality sheets and blankets. Compared with the $4,350 one-way ticket for a first-class parlor passage, the $40 steerage passage got its buyers little else than transportation across the ocean.
Many passengers in third class were women and children. A large number of them did not speak English, which made communication with the White Star Line crew working in third class difficult. Unlike their first- and second-class shipmates, the passengers in third class were not given the required lifeboat drill. It would prove to be a costly omission.
The Titanic set out on its maiden (first) voyage on April 10, 1912. It departed from Southampton, England, for a six-day voyage to New York. Through the years, the number of people on board the Titanic has been disputed. It is generally accepted that on the day the ship hit the iceberg, 329 passengers were in first class, 285 were in second class, and 710 were in third class. There were 899 crew members on board as well.
Warning came too late
On the evening of April 14, 1912, the captain and crew received more than one warning of ice in the area. Despite those warnings, the Titanic forged ahead. The crew member on lookout saw the iceberg before the collision. He rang the warning bell three times. He phoned the bridge with the warning, but by then it was too late. Thirty-seven seconds later, at 11:40 pm, the Titanic hit the iceberg. It was about four hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Distress signals were immediately sent to other ships in the area to let them know the Titanic needed help. The Carpathia was nearest, but even so, was 58 miles (93 kilometers) away.
At 12:25 am, order was given to get women and children into the lifeboats. Twenty minutes later, the first boat was lowered into the water. Even though it could seat sixty-five people, only nineteen of the seats
were filled. This underusage happened with all but two of the lifeboats (in each of those two, capacity was overflowing with seventy passengers) and would be a source of criticism in the investigation that followed.
Those unfortunate passengers riding in steerage were all but forgotten. In the mass confusion above deck, the record remains unclear whether orders were ever given to evacuate passengers from the lower decks. Some of the gates to the upper deck were locked. Some passengers who did manage to reach an open gate for escape were turned back by crew members. Other crew allowed only women and children from third class to ascend the stairs to rescue.
By the time third-class passengers were able to get to the upper decks, most of the lifeboats were either rowing toward the Carpathia or had already made it to the rescue ship. It would later be revealed that, had the lifeboats been filled to capacity, another 473 passengers could have made their way to safety. All the women and children lost in the disaster could have been saved.
At 2:20 am on April 15, 1912, the Titanic disappeared beneath the sea. The ship that had taken three years to build took fewer than three hours to sink. Of the more than two thousand people on board, approximately fifteen hundred died.
Official inquiry revealed desperation
An investigation was conducted by British officials from May 2 to July 3, 1912. Crew members and survivors testified during the inquiry. Accounts of what happened that fateful night varied greatly, which is common in the aftermath of an event marked by mass confusion. Some eyewitnesses reported that crew members were more interested in saving themselves rather than the passengers. It was also reported that certain crew members actually shot some passengers during the chaos, either to keep order or to get themselves a spot on the lifeboats.
Whatever may have happened that night, the first International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea was called in London, England, in 1913. Rules and regulations were established. Every ship would be required to have enough lifeboat space for each passenger on board. A law now required lifeboat drills for all passengers during each voyage. Ships would also need to maintain a twenty-four-hour radio watch. Another direct result of the tragedy was the formation of the International Ice Patrol. This organization would warn ships of icebergs in the North Atlantic shipping lanes.