Why did the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic sink?

She was the most beautiful ship ever to set sail, the biggest and best ever built by man. Her designers had full confidence she’d withstand virtually anything the ocean could dish out. But less than five days into her maiden voyage, she sank to the bottom of the Atlantic roughly two hours after hitting an iceberg. What happened on that cold, dark night in April, 1912?

The Cunard Line had launched two new ships in 1907 – the Lusitania and the Mauritania –  able to cross the ocean in a record five days. J. Bruce Ismay, director of the White Star Line, planned to build three bigger and more luxurious ships to compete for Cunard’s business – the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Gigantic.

1280px-Flickr_-_…trialsanderrors_-_RMS_Titanic_and_RMS_Olympic_under_construction_at_Harland_^_Wolff_shipyards,_Belfast,_ca._1910

Building the Oceanic and Titanic side-by-side in Belfast, Ireland

The Olympic’s maiden voyage to New York was in June, 1911, and Bruce Ismay couldn’t wait to sail on the even bigger Titanic the following April. Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, led by designer Thomas Andrews, had never claimed the Titanic would be unsinkable. But word reached the press about her double-bottomed hull and 16 watertight compartments. The ship would be able to stay afloat with any two middle compartments, or four of the first compartments, flooded. Everyone thought even the worst collision couldn’t damage more than two compartments, so advertisers boasted of the ship’s ‘unsinkability’ well before her maiden voyage.

Ismay

J. Bruce Ismay, Director, White Star Line

On the night of April 14, 1912, following iceberg warnings from several ships in the area, a 60-foot iceberg was sighted “dead ahead.” First Officer Murdoch ordered the engines stopped, then reversed. Orders followed to turn the ship hard to the left. But it was too late. The ship was still moving at a high rate of speed and collided with the iceberg. It opened six of the sixteen watertight compartments on the starboard (right) side, making it impossible for the Titanic to stay afloat.

iceberg that sank Titanic

Possibly the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Photographed two days earlier in the vicinity, and matching the descriptions of some survivors.

Next week: Why were so many lives lost?

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