How the Titanic Worked

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus & Kathryn Whitbourne  | 

The Titanic Disaster: Women and Children First

An artist's impression of the sinking of the Titanic.
An artist's impression of the sinking of the Titanic. Willy Stöwer/Wikimedia

Capt. Smith accepted that his ship was sinking, and he acted quickly to save his passengers and crew. At 12:15 a.m., he marched into the Marconi Room to order a series of distress messages. One of the vessels that responded was the Carpathia, a Cunard Line steamer. Carpathia was nearly 58 miles (93 kilometers) away and wouldn't reach Titanic before it sank. The Californian was closer to the Titanic, but the ship's wireless operator wasn't aroused until 3:30 a.m. and the other distress signals (like the rockets fired every five minutes) were not answered [sources: RMS Titanic, Titanic Inquiry Project]. Still any vessels that saw the flares couldn't traverse the dangerous ice floes to aid the sinking ship.

Because the collision with the iceberg had been so slight, scarcely any passengers were aware that the ship was in trouble. They continued their nightly rituals — some socialized in the lounges, others relaxed in their cabins and some were fast asleep. Crew members were mobilized for action, but no formal shipwide announcement had been made that Titanic was sinking. People who heard murmurs of an emergency dismissed them; after all, the ship was unsinkable. Instead, a hushed and dire situation gradually gave way to chaos as it became clear that the ship was not equipped with enough lifeboats to convey everyone to safety.


While there were plenty of cork life jackets to go around, there was room for only 1,176 passengers in the lifeboats — and there were 2,208 passengers and crew members onboard. At 12:25 a.m., the captain gave his crew orders to start lowering the first lifeboats and leading first-class passengers to the boat deck. There were 14 lifeboats capable of carrying 65 people (910 total), two emergency sea boats capable of carrying 35 people (70 total) and four collapsible boats capable of carrying 49 people (total 196) [source: Titanic Inquiry Project]. The first lifeboat wasn't even filled to capacity — it held 27 people when it had room for 65. The crew was worried it could not hold the weight of a full load.

scene from James Cameron's Titanic
A scene from James Cameron's "Titanic" shows the chaotic atmosphere as passengers scramble for lifeboats.
Merie Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

As ocean water rose higher and higher in the ship, first- and second-class passengers were directed in droves to the highest deck. Third-class passengers were detained in the bottom decks and permitted to ascend to the boat deck only after the first and second classes were accounted for (about 20 minutes later). Third-class steward John Hart took it upon himself to direct them toward the proper evacuation route. Many members of the third class had never ventured far past their cabins, and they got lost in the labyrinthine hallways of the ship.

While First Officer Murdoch and Second Officer Lightoller both loaded passengers in lifeboats, their strategies were a little different. Murdoch ushered as many people as possible into his boats; Lightoller permitted only women and children. By 2:00 a.m., all the lifeboats had been lowered, and half the ship's passengers and crew still remained. They strapped on their life vests as the band stoically played on. According to sources, their last song was likely either "Autumn" or "Nearer My God to Thee" [source: Tikkanen].

At this point, the ship's stern had risen dramatically out of the water as the bow plunged forward. It loomed dramatically at the height of a 25-story building. Thirty-one thousand tons (28,122 metric tons) of water had poured into the ship, and Capt. Smith officially dismissed his crew members from duty so that they could choose how to accept their fates. Flickering lights finally gave way to darkness, and radio wires were severed as the second smokestack broke and tumbled onto the deck. At 2:20 a.m., the ship sank into the North Atlantic.