Authors: Erik Larson
It was now about 2:20
., ten minutes since the torpedo struck. For the next few moments, as deckhands and passengers waited for the ship to slow enough to allow the safe launching of boats, there was quiet. “
A strange silence prevailed,” said Albert Bestic, junior third officer, “and small, insignificant sounds, such as the whimper of a child, the cry of a seagull or the bang of a door, assumed alarming proportions.”
HE TELEGRAMS ARRIVED AT THE
and the Naval Center in Queenstown in rapid and jarring sequence, sent from various points:
ALENTIA STATION TO
IN DISTRESS OFF
’ S.E. 10
MILES SINKING BOW FIRST APPARENTLY ATTACKED BY SUBMARINE
TORPEDOED REPORTED SINKING
LL AVAILABLE TUGS AND SMALL CRAFT BEING SENT TO HER ASSISTANCE
HE FIRST ATTEMPTS TO LAUNCH THE
revealed the true degree of danger now faced by the ship’s passengers and shattered the illusion of safety projected by having so many boats aboard. The list was so severe that the boats on the starboard side now hung well away from the hull, leaving a gap between the boats and the deck of 5 to 8 feet, with the sea 60 feet below. Members of the crew tried using deck chairs to span the opening, but most passengers chose to jump. Parents handed small children across. One boy took a running leap and landed in a boat feet-first.
Meanwhile, the lifeboats on the opposite side, the port side, had swung inward over the deck. These were all but unusable. Only a great effort could move them into position for launch. Capt. Turner ordered them emptied, but as the ship’s condition worsened, passengers and crew tried to launch them anyway.
Ogden Hammond, the New Jersey real-estate developer who’d been assured the ship was as safe as a New York trolley, walked along the port side of the boat deck with his wife, Mary, until they found themselves at Boat No. 20, which a group of crewmen and male passengers had somehow muscled to a point outside the rail. Women and children were climbing aboard.
Neither Mary nor Ogden wore a life jacket. He had wanted to go down to their stateroom and retrieve the jackets stored there,
but Mary had pleaded with him not to leave her. They had hunted for jackets on deck but found none.
At the lifeboat, Ogden balked at climbing aboard, out of respect for the maritime custom that gave women and children priority. Mary refused to go unless Ogden came too, so the couple stood aside, watching the process and waiting. At last Ogden agreed to get in. He and Mary took a place near the bow. The boat was half full, with about thirty-five people, when the attempt to launch it began.
Men at the bow and stern manipulated the ropes—the falls—that ran through block and tackle at each end of the boat. A sailor at the bow lost control of his rope. Ogden tried to grab it, but the rope was running so fast it tore the skin from his hands. The bow plunged; the stern rope held. Everyone fell from the boat into the sea, 60 feet below.
Ogden came to the surface; his wife did not. He reached for an oar floating nearby.
T THE NEXT
port-side boat, No. 18, another launching attempt had stalled.
This boat contained forty women and children, and was held in place by a restraining pin. The sailor in charge refused to lower it, in accord with Turner’s orders, but held an ax, ready to knock the pin loose should the orders change. Several dozen passengers stood between the boat and the outer wall of the first-class smoking room.
Isaac Lehmann, the New York businessman, was shocked that no effort was being made to launch the boat. He had managed to find a life jacket; his revolver was in his pocket. He glanced toward the ship’s bow and saw water advancing along the deck. He demanded to know why the sailor didn’t act.
It is the captain’s orders not to launch any boats,” the sailor replied.
“To hell with the captain,” Lehmann said. “Don’t you see the boat is sinking?” He drew his revolver. “And the first man that disobeys my orders to launch the boat I shoot to kill!”
The sailor complied. He swung his ax to knock out the restraining pin. The boat was heavy to begin with, but now loaded with three tons of humanity it swung inward, crushing everyone between the boat and the wall. At least two passengers, sisters in their fifties, died instantly, of injuries associated with severe crushing. Lehmann’s right leg was damaged, but he managed to crawl from the mass of wounded bystanders. This was not easy. He was a large, round man and wore a long overcoat and a life jacket.
Passengers and crew again attempted to launch the lifeboat. They were making progress when something went awry and this boat too dumped its passengers into the water. At about the same time, Lehmann said, a “terrific explosion” rose from the deck in the direction of the bow. This new convulsion was likely caused by water infiltrating yet another boiler room and coming in contact with a superheated tank, one of a number of such secondary eruptions. Only about fourteen minutes had passed since the torpedo impact, but the sea was climbing fast.
decided to forgo the boats and take a more direct path. Dwight Harris headed toward the bow, as per his plan. He climbed over the port rail on A Deck and scuttled down the side of the ship, two decks, then went toward the bow, which had sunk to the point where all he would have to do was step into the water. He took off his shoes and discarded his overcoat, his hat, and his Medici book. He had no life jacket, not even his custom Wanamaker’s belt. He too had been afraid to go to his cabin for fear of being trapped. But now, at the water’s edge and facing the real prospect of drowning, he changed his mind.
I took a look at things and decided I must have a life belt so I climbed up again to ‘A’ deck and rushed to my cabin,” he wrote. He put the belt on and returned to the bow. An officer called to him to come up to the lifeboats, “but I realized that all available space in them was badly wanted, so I shook my head no!—I got up on the rail, swung my feet over, and when the water got right up to the deck I jumped overboard!”
As he swam away, he looked up, and saw the ship’s giant funnels move past against the sky.
and Edwin Friend had planned that if an emergency arose they would rendezvous on the boat deck with Theodate’s maid, Emily Robinson. “
The deck suddenly looked very strange crowded with people,” Theodate wrote, “and I remember two women were crying in a pitifully weak way.” Theodate and Friend looked over the port side and watched a boat being lowered. One end fell too fast and everyone plummeted into the sea. This could have been Ogden Hammond’s boat, or the one Lehmann tried to launch at gunpoint. “We looked at each other, sickened by the sight, and then made our way through the crowd for deck B on the starboard side.”
As they stood at the rail, they saw that efforts to launch the lifeboats on this side were having more success. Boats came down past them, winched slowly from the deck above. The two feared the ship was sinking so quickly and with so pronounced a list that it might roll onto the boats after they reached the water.
They climbed back up to the boat deck but made no attempt to board any of the remaining lifeboats.
We walked close together, side by side, each with an arm around the other’s waist,” Theodate recalled. The two met a passenger whom by now they knew well, Marie Depage, the Belgian nurse. Depage seemed stunned. “She had a man on either side of her, friends of hers, so I did not speak,” Theodate wrote. “It was no time for words unless one could offer help.”
Theodate and Friend headed toward the stern, now an uphill climb. Her maid came up beside them and Theodate noted the tense smile etched on her face. “I could only put my hand on her shoulder and say, ‘Oh Robinson.’ ”
They searched for life jackets. They entered several cabins and found three. Friend helped the women put them on; they all walked to the rail. The ship’s giant funnels towered above them at an exaggerated slant. The water was far below.
Theodate glanced at Friend. The two looked down at the water. The time had come. “I asked him to go first,” she wrote.
Friend climbed down one deck, then jumped. He disappeared briefly, but soon bobbed to the surface, and looked up at the women. The ship continued to move forward; his form receded.
Theodate said, “
Come Robinson,” and stepped off the rail.
ran back to where she and Preston Prichard had been standing at the moment of impact. He was nowhere in sight. She went to the rail, took off her coat, and jumped. She had no life jacket. Her plan was to swim until she found a piece of floating debris. The jump took her deep under the surface, where an eddy caused by the passing ship held her down.
, Captain Turner knew the ship would sink. He put on a life jacket but remained on the bridge, as did fellow officers and his helmsman, Hugh Johnston. In the Marconi house behind the bridge, the ship’s chief wireless man, Robert Leith, used auxiliary power to send message after message asking all ships in the vicinity to come at once.
Turner asked Johnston for
another readout of the spirit gauge.
Johnston called, “Twenty-five degrees.”
Turner said, “
His view from the bridge was of water surging over the forecastle below. He told Johnston, “
Save yourself.” The time was about 2:25
.—fifteen minutes since impact.
Johnston left the bridge and found one of the ship’s thirty-five life buoys. Water had reached the starboard bridge wing. Johnston entered the sea and was washed across the deck. “I simply had to go wherever the tide took me,” he said.
Turner remained on the bridge.
TOOK MY POSITION AT THE PERISCOPE AGAIN
told his friend Max Valentiner. “The ship was sinking with unbelievable rapidity. There was a terrific panic on her deck. Overcrowded lifeboats, fairly torn from their positions, dropped into the water. Desperate people ran helplessly up and down the decks. Men and women jumped into the water and tried to swim to empty, overturned lifeboats. It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen. It was impossible for me to give any help. I could have saved only a handful. And then the cruiser that had passed us was not very far away and must have picked up the distress signals. She would shortly appear, I thought. The scene was too horrible to watch, and I gave orders to dive to twenty meters, and away.”
In his final log entry on the attack, at 2:25
., Schwieger wrote: “
It would have been impossible for me, anyhow, to fire a second torpedo into this crushing crowd of humanity trying to save their lives.”
Schwieger directed his U-boat out to sea. His crew was jubilant: they had destroyed the
, the ship that symbolized British maritime prowess.
ERTAIN NOW THAT THE SHIP WOULD SINK
Lauriat went back to his cabin at the forward end of B Deck to rescue what he could of his belongings. As he moved along the corridor toward his room, he found vivid evidence of just how much the ship had listed.
The floor was canted to a degree that made it impossible to walk without also stepping on the wall. The awkward bulk of his life jacket further impeded his progress. He passed open staterooms whose portholes had once provided views of sky and horizon but now looked down onto water made dark by the shadow of the leaning hull. The only light in the corridor was a shifting, silvery glow raised by sunlight glinting off the sea from beyond the ship’s shadow. Lauriat was startled to see that many of the portholes were open.
His room was a black box. He found his matches and used these to locate his passport and other items he hoped to rescue. He grabbed his leather briefcase with the Dickens
inside but left the Thackeray drawings in his shoe case. He hurried back onto the deck, which now was close to the water.
A lifeboat containing women and children was floating just off his deck, on the starboard side, but had not yet been released from the ropes that tied it to the davits on the boat deck above. This was Boat No. 7. Someone needed to act, and soon, Lauriat realized, before the ship dragged the lifeboat under. He climbed into the
boat and placed his briefcase on the bottom, then set about trying to free the stern. The bow remained tethered. Another man, a steward, was struggling to cut it loose with a pocketknife. “
The steamer was all the time rapidly settling,” Lauriat recalled, “and to look at the tremendous smokestack hanging out over us only added to the terror of the people in the boat.”
Being this close to the hull brought home just how big the
truly was. Arthur Mitchell, the Raleigh Bicycle agent who had wanted to hold lifeboat drills for passengers, was in Boat No. 15, four astern of Lauriat’s. He said, “
Never could one realize the size of the ship so well as at this moment, her great deck towering above us, and her enormous funnels clear against the sky belching forth smoke which almost blinded the people in the boats around her.”