The legislator is like the navigator of a ship on the high seas. He can steer the vessel on which he sails, but he cannot alter its construction, raise the wind, or stop the waves from swelling beneath his feet.—Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835
It was about 2:15 a.m. My friend Milton Long and I could see the water creeping up the deck, as the Titanic was going down by the head at a pretty fast rate. The water was right up to the bridge. There must have been over sixty feet of it on top of the bow. As the water gained headway along the deck, the crowd gradually moved with it, always pushing toward the floating stern and keeping in from the rail of the ship as far as they could. We were a mass of hopeless, dazed humanity, attempting, as the Almighty and Nature made us, to keep our final breath until the last possible moment.
Occasionally there had been a muffled thud or deadened explosion within the ship. Now, without warning, she seemed to start forward, moving into the water at an angle of about fifteen degrees. This movement, with the water rushing up toward us, was accompanied by a rumbling roar, mixed with more muffled explosions.
Long and I had been standing by the starboard rail, about abreast of the second funnel. We had previously decided to jump into the water before she actually went down, so that we might swim some distance away and avoid what we thought would be terrific suction.
We had no time to think now, only to act. We shook hands, wished each other luck. I said, “Go ahead, I’ll be right with you.” I threw my overcoat off as he climbed over the rail, sliding down facing the ship. Ten seconds later I sat on the rail. I faced out, and with a push of my arms and hands, jumped into the water as far out from the ship as I could. When we jumped we were only twelve or fifteen feet above the water. I never saw Long again. His body was later recovered. I am afraid that the few seconds elapsing between our going meant the difference between being sucked into the deck below, as I believe he was, or pushed out by the backwash. I was pushed out and then sucked down.
The cold was terrific. The shock of the water took the breath out of my lungs. Down and down I went, spinning in all directions.
Swimming as hard as I could in the direction which I thought to be away from the ship, I finally came up with my lungs bursting, but not having taken any water. The ship was in front of me, forty yards away. How long I had been swimming underwater, I don’t know. Perhaps a minute or less. Incidentally, my watch stopped at 2:22 a.m.
The ship seemed to be surrounded with a glare, and stood out of the night as though she were on fire. I watched her. I don’t know why I didn’t keep swimming away. Fascinated, I seemed tied to the spot. Already I was tired out with the cold and struggling, although the life preserver held me head and shoulders above the water.
She continued to make the same forward progress as when I left her. The water was over the base of the first funnel. The mass of people on board were surging back, always back toward the floating stern. The rumble and roar continued, with even louder distinct wrenchings and tearings of boilers and engines from their beds. Suddenly the whole superstructure of the ship appeared to split, well forward to midship, and blow or buckle upward. The second funnel, large enough for two automobiles to pass through abreast, seemed to be lifted off, emitting a cloud of sparks. It looked as if it would fall on top of me. It missed me by only twenty or thirty feet. The suction of it drew me down and down, struggling and swimming, practically spent.
As I finally came to the surface I put my hand over my head, in order to push away any obstruction. My hand came against something smooth and firm with rounded shape. I looked up and realized that it was the cork fender of one of the collapsible lifeboats, which was floating in the water bottom-side up. About four or five men were clinging to her bottom. I pulled myself up as far as I could, almost exhausted, but could not get my legs up. I asked them to give me a hand up, which they readily did. Sitting on my haunches and holding on for dear life, I was again facing the Titanic.
It seemed as though hours had passed since I left the ship, yet it was probably not more than four minutes, if that long. There was the gigantic mass, about fifty or sixty yards away. The forward motion had stopped. She was pivoting on a point just abaft of midship. Her stern was gradually rising into the air, seemingly in no hurry, just slowly and deliberately. The last funnel was about on the surface of the water. It was the dummy funnel, and I do not believe it fell.
Her deck was turned slightly toward us. We could see groups of the almost fifteen hundred people still aboard, clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly, as the great after part of the ship, 250 feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a sixty-five- or seventy-degree angle. Here it seemed to pause, and just hung for what felt like minutes. Gradually she turned her deck away from us, as though to hide from our sight the awful spectacle.
Underwater Garden, by Didier Massard, 2005. © Didier Massard, courtesy the artist and Julie Saul Gallery.
We had an oar on our overturned boat. In spite of several men working it, amid our cries and prayers, we were being gradually sucked in toward the great pivoting mass. I looked upward—we were right underneath the three enormous propellers. For an instant I thought they were sure to come right down on top of us. Then, with the deadened noise of the bursting of her last few gallant bulkheads, she slid quietly away from us into the sea.
There was no final apparent suction, and practically no wreckage that we could see.
I don’t remember all the wild talk and calls that were going on on our boat, but there was one concerted sigh or sob as she went from view.
Probably a minute passed with almost dead silence and quiet. Then an individual call for help, from here, from there; gradually swelling into a composite volume of one long continuous wailing chant, from the fifteen hundred in the water all around us. It sounded like locusts on a midsummer night, in the woods in Pennsylvania.
The wonderful sea charmed me from the first.—Joshua Slocum, 1900
This terrible continuing cry lasted for twenty or thirty minutes, gradually dying away, as one after another could no longer withstand the cold and exposure. Practically no one was drowned, as no water was found in the lungs of those later recovered. Everyone had on a life preserver.
The partially filled lifeboats standing by only a few hundred yards away never came back. Why on earth they didn’t is a mystery. How could any human being fail to heed those cries? They were afraid the boats would be swamped by people in the water.
The most heart-rending part of the whole tragedy was the failure, right after the Titanic sank, of those boats which were only partially loaded to pick up the poor souls in the water. There they were, only four or five hundred yards away, listening to the cries, and still they did not come back. If they had turned back, several hundred more would have been saved. No one can explain it. It was not satisfactorily explained in any investigation. It was just one of the many “Acts of God” running through the whole disaster.
From A Survivor’s Tale. First-class passengers were 37 percent more likely to survive than those in third class; men were 58 percent more likely to die than women. Filmmakers long before James Cameron have found the ship’s drama well-suited for the big screen: a cofounder of Universal Pictures released a motion picture a month after the incident; Joseph Goebbels commissioned a propaganda film in 1943 in which he hoped to illustrate British bluster; and Charles Walters adaptated the stage musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1965.