How the Titanic Worked

The Titanic's Collision with the Iceberg

This photograph taken by another boat in mid-April 1912 shows the icy site where Titanic struck the iceberg.
This photograph taken by another boat in mid-April 1912 shows the icy site where Titanic struck the iceberg.
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The night of April 14, 1912, the third day of the Titanic's maiden voyage, was numbingly cold -- the water's temperature hovered at 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2.2 degrees Celsius). Around noon that day, the Titanic's Marconi wireless operators received the first of at least four cautionary messages about large ice floes just ahead. A second message came in at 5:35 p.m. (EST) from a ship that reported three icebergs just 19 miles (30.5 kilometers) north of the Titanic's path. And just one hour before the Titanic's collision at 11:40 p.m., a vessel named the Californian messaged to the Titanic, "We are stopped and surrounded by ice." The response from the Titanic? "Shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race" [source: Titanic Inquiry Project].

Whatever conversation the Titanic's operator was having with Cape Race, it couldn't have been as pressing as the Californian's warning. Yet, the threat of ice was brushed off. It wasn't just the operator who discounted the danger (though the Californian's wireless operator later testified that he heard the man "put the phones down, t[ake] off his clothes, and tur[n] in") -- it was the illustrious captain, too [source: Titanic Inquiry Project]. Captain Smith was unconcerned about icebergs. After all, the Titanic was a steel behemoth. His concern was shattering speed records set by other steamers. He told an officer named Lightoller, who was stationed on the Captain's Bridge, that if the night became too hazy, he should be alerted immediately and would slow down the ship's speed.

­But the night was clear, and Titanic sped on. Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee were in the observation port. Fleet was nearing the end of his shift when he espied the foretold iceberg. They sounded the alarm and called down to the bridge. A full 37 seconds elapsed before First Officer William M. Murdoch shut off all the engines, dropped the watertight doors in the bottom compartments and turned the ship away from its forward, front end so that the iceberg hit toward the side [source: RMS Titanic, Titanic Inquiry Project]. Murdoch reacted as well as he could in the face of danger: Titanic didn't have enough time to make a complete stop or to turn away from the iceberg. Stopping the ship would've required a half mile (804.7 meters). The iceberg loomed closely at only 900 feet (274 meters) from the ship.

For a few minutes, it seemed as though the maneuver might've worked. From the surface, the ship missed the iceberg by all counts, but underneath, a protruding fragment of ice ripped a hole in the Titanic's hull. If the ship shuddered, it was subtle and went undetected or excused as the heavy, groaning machinery. When Thomas Andrews and Captain Smith surveyed the resulting flood damage, they surmised that the hole must be nearly 300 feet (91.4 meters) wide. In reality, the tear was quite modest -- six slim lacerations measuring about 3.2 square feet (around 0.3 square meters).

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But Murdoch's hasty navigation had steered the ship from the sturdiest place to withstand impact to the most vulnerable, and even the smallest gash caused catastrophic results. Andrews somberly observed that five of the ship's compartments had already begun to flood, and he made the grim announcement that the ship would sink -- no question about it. He predicted that there was an hour or an hour and a half left before the giantess would slip to the watery bottom of the Atlantic.