On the morning of April 15, 1912, the survivors of the Titanic were pulled from the icy North Atlantic by the Carpathia. The night before, at 11:40 p.m., the ship had struck an iceberg in a glancing-but-fatal blow, tearing into six of her 16 compartments — two more than the greatest ship ever made could withstand.
Capt. Edward Smith, a man with four decades on the seas, immediately went to the bridge and then down below with the ship’s architect, Thomas Andrews, to ascertain the extent of the damage. By five past midnight, Smith would order the passengers brought to the deck and the lifeboats prepared. Twenty minutes later, Andrews gave him the terrible news: “the unsinkable ship” was going to the bottom.
What followed is a story of the heights and the depths of humanity. Rare virtues such as duty, honor, selflessness, and gentlemanly respect were on full display, as too were man’s based, beastial natures: selfishness, cravenness, and abandonment of duty. Pride, ignorance, and more than a little old-fashion stupidity walked hand-in-hand with both the rare and common reactions of that horrible night. What separated the two types of reactions was something different: courage.
In those last hours aboard the Titanic, confusion reigned both above and below the decks, with many factors involved. The night was bitter cold. The ship lacked a mass intercom, making communication among the crew and with the passengers haphazard at best.
The different classes of passengers had different numbers of stewards — with fewer assigned to the masses of steerage — and different lengths and heights to journey to the deck, with the richer closer to escape. The only lifeboat drill that had thus far been scheduled had been called off. U.S. law demanded that the Third Class passengers — many of them immigrants who did not speak English — be kept separately for immigration and disease checks once in-country.
A good number of those poorest immigrants were culturally schooled to wait and do what they were told. Finally, many of all classes believed a ship such as this simply wouldn’t go down.
While some members of the crew locked the gates to keep throngs of steerage passengers from swamping boats, ignoring the cries of women and children, others, like Third Class Steward John Edward Hart, made multiple trips into the lower decks to escort them to the lifeboats.
“Then there were the people Colonel [Archibald] Gracie, [Second Officer Charles] Lightoller and others saw surging up from below, just before the end,” Titanic chronicler Walter Lord wrote in his seminal 1955 book, “A Night To Remember.”
Until this moment Gracie was sure the women were all off — they were so hard to find when the last boats were loading. Now, he was appalled to see dozens of them suddenly appear. The statistics suggest who they were — the Titanic’s casualty list included four of the 143 First Class women (three by choice) … 15 of 93 Second Class women … and 81 of 179 Third Class women.
Not to mention the children. Except for Lorraine Allison, all 29 First and Second Class children were saved, but only 23 out of 76 steerage children
Fr. Thomas Byles, whom Pope Pius X would later declare a blessed martyr of the church, helped as many Third Class passengers board the lowering boats as he could, refusing escape multiple times and staying aboard to pray the rosaries, hear confessions, and deliver final absolution to the remaining faithful after all the lifeboat were gone.
Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon and her secretary, Laura Mabel Francatelli, turned down two boats for women and children, choosing to wait for a third, which agreed to also take her husband, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon. Her husband went on to receive heavy criticism in the press for allegedly giving a bribe to the sailors so they did not return their under-capacity craft to the desperate survivors soon stranded in the dark waters.
While some of those still on deck fought and clawed, jumping down and nearly toppling some of the lifeboats into the sea while still others boats remained foolishly under-capacity, some men chose to stoically help their families into boats and then stand aside, assuring crying wives they would be right after them.
“It is only a matter of form to have women and children first,” Lucien Smith yelled out to his crying wife, Eloise, as she boarded to safety. “The ship is thoroughly equipped and everyone on her will be saved.”
“Go, Lottie!” Harvey Collyer yelled out to his crying wife, Charlotte. “For God’s sake, be brave and go! I’ll get a seat in another boat!”
Benjamin Guggenheim boarded his French mistress, Léontine Aubart, and her maid, Emma Sägesser, aboard and comforted the frightened German, promising, “We will soon see each other again! It’s just a repair. Tomorrow the Titanic will go on again.”
Lt. Col. Jacob Astor — the richest man aboard and the highlight of ensuing news stories in a time before Hollywood and sports stars, when the American aristocracy dominated our imaginations — helped his sickly wife, her maid, and her nurse aboard a below-capacity boat but was denied his request to join them by Lightoller, a heroic officer who foolishly interpreted the captain’s order to help women and children before men as excluding men from rescue. “Well, tell me the number of this boat so I may find her afterwards,” Astor told the officer so his wife could be assured by his words.
Astor, Collyer, Guggenheim, and Smith all knew by the time they boarded their wives they wouldn’t see their families again, but they comforted them and knew their widows would understand that their sacrifices for the other women and children were no selfish abandonments. As the ship listed and desperate passengers scrambled for the remaining rafts, Astor, joined by his loyal valet Victor Robbins, lit a cigarette with the author Jacques Futrelle, who perished with them in the sea.
“Things weren’t so bad at first,” survivor and first-class Steward James Etches told The New York Times once ashore, “but when I saw Mr. Guggenheim about three-quarters of an hour after the crash there was great excitement.”
What surprised me was that both Mr. Guggenheim and his secretary were dressed in their evening clothes. They had deliberately taken off their sweaters, and as nearly as I can remember they wore no lifebelts at all.
‘What’s that for?’ I asked.
‘We’ve dressed up in our best,’ replied Mr. Guggenheim, ‘and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.’
Etches delivered a message Guggenheim had given him for his wife. “If anything should happen to me,” he had said, “tell my wife in New York that I’ve done my best in doing my duty.”
“That’s all he said,” Etches told the press after delivering the message. “There wasn’t time for more.”
The 63-year-old Ida Strauss refused to leave her husband, Rep. Isidor Strauss, sitting instead in a chair beside his. “We have been living together for many years. Where you go, I go.”
The communication officers stayed at their posts long after their futile rescue calls had grown garbled, fleeing only in the final moments.
“Now it’s every man for himself,” Captain Smith told the radio officers and crew at the very end. “Well boys, do your best for the women and children, and look out for yourselves. ” In an account confirmed by some but disputed by others, he then went to the bridge to meet his Maker.
One of the Titanic’s two band leaders, Wallace Hartley, who went down with the ship, heeded the captain’s orders to keep the calm as best he could, and organized the musicians to play waltzes and other light-hearted music to the increasingly panicked passengers until the increasingly sloping decks could no longer hold their instruments in place.
“Today,” Lord writes, “nobody could carry off these little gestures of chivalry, but they did that night. An air of noblesse oblige has vanished too.”
Among those few who survived the plunge into the 28-degree water, Lightoller, Col. Archibald Gracie, and teenager Jack Thayer made it to a capsized boat, trying with several others in the waves to keep it afloat on the small pocket of water left between the upside-down deck and oblivion.
“Hold on to what you have, old boy,” Gracie called to one soul who tried to board after the barely floating boat was at its capacity. “One more of you aboard would sink us all.”
“In a powerful voice,” Lord recounts, “the swimmer replied ‘All right boys. Good luck and God bless you.'”
“The last voice I heard,” Lady Duff-Gordon later recounted, “was a man shouting, ‘My God! My God!'”
“But along with the prejudices,” Lord writes of the tumultuous years after the sinking, “some nobler instincts also were lost. Men would go on being brave, but never again would they be brave in quite the same way.”
But he is wrong in that. Courage is not a permanent state, it’s a choice, and it’s a choice some men and women made while others chose cowardice. But he is correct in seeing how those nobler impulses on display in the ship’s final, fateful moments came from a sense of God and honor our society often fails to teach.
Cowardice is also not an immutable characteristic — it too is a choice, and one we face at some low level most days, and someday will face for real. Often it won’t be so clear as in those frantic minutes, but other times it will, and we must always be on guard.
Although the Titanic went to the bottom 109 years ago on April 15, its passengers’ and crews’ legacies of cowardice and bravery stand to us as testaments to both the cruel depths and enlightened heights mere men can achieve.
Let us remember those men and women who went before us: The lessons of how they lived and died reach out through the voices of those who survived them, and they are as real for those who live now as they were those whom the dead left that terrible early morning, alone in the darkness. Strive to wrap yourself in their courage, wearing it like armor for the trials you will face — in this life and at its end.
And may God bless the souls of the RMS Titanic.
Photo The RMS Titanic. US National Archives.
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