Why Did The Titanic Sink?

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On its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, the British luxury liner, Titanic, sideswiped an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, 1912, and was badly damaged. The 882-foot- (269-meter-) long-liner, whose 8 decks rose to the height of an 11-story building, sank 2 hours and 40 minutes later.

The sinking of the Titanic is considered the greatest disaster in transatlantic shipping history. Of the 2,227 passengers and crew, 705 escaped in 20 lifeboats and rafts and 1,522 drowned. The ancient ship Carpathia was the only vessel that responded to distress signals and saved the 705 people on lifeboats.

For a number of reasons, it seems the sinking of the Titanic, as well as the huge loss of life, could have been avoided. For instance, although Captain E. J. Smith was warned of icebergs in shipping lanes, he maintained his speed of 22 knots (one knot equals one nautical mile per hour, which equals approximately 1.15 miles per hour on land) and did not post additional lookouts. Second, it was later revealed that the liner Californian was only 20 miles (32 kilometers) away and could have helped, had its radio operator been on duty. Perhaps most significant was the insufficient supply of lifeboats. To make matters worse, the lifeboats that were available for use were poorly managed—some left the Titanic only half-full.

Contrary to a long-held belief, the Titanic was not sliced open by the iceberg. When Robert Ballard (1942—) from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution descended to the site of the sunken vessel in the research vessel Alvin in July 1986, he found that the ship's starboard (right side) bow plates had buckled under the impact of the collision. This caused the ship to be opened up to the sea.

Ballard found the bow and the stern more than 600 yards (548 meters) apart on the ocean's floor, and speculated on what happened after the collision with the iceberg. "Water entered six forward compartments after the ship struck the iceberg. As the liner nosed down, water flooded compartments one after another, and the ship's stern [rear part] rose even higher out of the water, until the stress amidships [midpoint between the bow and the stern] was more then she could bear. She broke apart..." and the stern soon sank by itself.

Sources: Cornell, James. The Great International Disaster Book, 3rd ed., pp. 403-5; Davie, Michael. Titanic: The Death and Life of a Legend, p. xiii; National Geographic, vol. 172, no. 4 (October 1987), pp. 454-63.