Up on the bridge, Captain Smith appeared just seconds after the impact. Imperturbable as ever, but with a serious air, he asked, “Mr. Murdoch, what was that?”
“An iceberg, Captain. I ordered hard-a-starboard and rang for full speed astern. I was going to hard-a-port around it, but it was just too close.”
“Close the watertight doors.”
“Already closed, sir.”
“Aye, sir.” Murdoch turned to the engine room telegraph and rang down for the engines to stop.
Just then Fourth Officer Boxhall came up to the bridge, and together with Smith and Murdoch, stepped out onto the starboard bridge wing, where for several seconds they peered vainly into the night trying to spot the iceberg. Stepping back inside, Smith sent Boxhall on a quick inspection of the ship. After just a few minutes Boxhall returned, saying he could find no damage below decks. His report didn’t satisfy Captain Smith, who told Boxhall, “Go and find the carpenter and get him to sound the ship.” As Boxhall ran down the bridge ladder, the carpenter, Jim Hutchinson, pushed past him on his way up to the bridge, blurting out, “She’s making water fast!”
Right behind Hutchinson came one of the postal clerks, Iago Smith, calling out, “The mail hold is filling rapidly!”
Boxhall worked his way down to the mail hold and for a minute or two watched the other four mail clerks, standing almost knee deep in water already, snatching letters from sorting racks and stuffing them into bags, while around them floated other bags of mail, already full. Boxhall rushed back to the bridge to report what he had seen. Chief Officer Wilde appeared and asked Captain Smith if it was serious. After hearing Boxhall’s report, Smith turned to Wilde and said, “Certainly. It is more than serious.” He asked for Thomas Andrews to be brought to the bridge, then turned and checked the commutator, a device showing if a ship is listing to port or starboard, or down by the bow or stern. At that moment the commutator showed the Titanic listing five degrees to starboard and two degrees down by the head. Smith stared at it for some seconds, then muttered, “Oh, my God!” so softly that only Boxhall heard him.
A few moments later Andrews arrived on the bridge, he and Captain Smith began their own inspection of the damage. Working their way deep into the ship, using mostly accesses and corridors used only by the crew to attract less attention, they found flooding in the forward cargo holds, the mailroom awash, the squash court floor covered with water. As they made their way back to the bridge they passed through the A Deck foyer, their faces set in expressions of inscrutability. Once on the bridge, Andrews reviewed the situation: the forepeak and both forward holds were flooded, the mailroom was awash, Boiler Room No. 6 was flooded to a depth of fourteen feet, and water was entering Boiler Room No. 5. For nearly three hundred feet, as the iceberg and bumped and ground along the Titanic‘s side, seams had been split, plating bent and rivets popped: the first six of the Titanic‘s sixteen watertight compartments had been opened to the sea, all in the ten seconds’ time it took the berg to brush by.
Down in the bowels of the ship Andrews’ diagnosis would have come as no surprise. Just moments before they had heard a thud, the eldritch screech of tearing metal, the clanging of a warning bell. A red warning light began flashing above the watertight door. The men in Boiler Room No. 6 barely had time to take this all in when with a tremendous bang the whole starboard side of the ship seemed to split open. The sea began thundering in, and the two men barely had time to leap through the rapidly closing watertight door into Boiler Room 5.
No. 5 had its own problems. A gash two feet long extended past the bulkhead dividing No.5 from No. 6, and water was pouring in. One of the stokers was digging himself out of a bunker the impact had knocked him into, while the rest of the crew in Boiler Room No. 5, along with Barrett and Hesketh, began to rig hoses and start pumps in a valiant effort to keep the water at a manageable level.
Farther astern in the other four boiler rooms and the engine room the rumor quickly started that the Titanic had run aground off the Banks of Newfoundland. This was quickly quelled when an off-duty trimmer came around, announcing, “Blimey! We’ve struck an iceberg!”
Far above, having gone back to Andrews’ cabin, A-36, builder and captain stood over a structural diagram of the ship. Andrews quickly outlined the problem for Captain Smith. All of the ship’s six forward watertight compartments were open to the sea. The Titanic could float with any two of her sixteen watertight compartments flooded–in an extreme case she could actually float with four of her forward compartments flooded. But at this point a design flaw emerged: the first two watertight bulkheads extended only as high as D Deck, as did the last five, while the middle eight only carried up to E Deck. With the first five–or in this case six–compartments breached, the weight of the incoming water would pull the ship’s head down until the water level in the flooded compartments rose above the top of the bulkheads; the water in the fifth compartment spilling over into the sixth, pulling the ship down farther until the water in the sixth compartment spilled over into the seventh, and so on until the ship inevitably sank.
Smith was stunned. After forty uneventful years at sea the worst nightmare of a captain’s career had come for him. How impossibly bitter must have been the memory of six years earlier, when on the bridge of the then-new Adriatic he had told reporters “I cannot imagine any accident happening to this vessel. I cannot conceive of any disaster causing this ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” Now, he was making his last voyage before retiring, in command of what was supposed to be the largest, safest ship in the world, and the Titanic‘s builder was telling him that she had at the most an hour and a half before she sank.
Even more unbearable must have been the knowledge shared by Smith, Andrews and a handful of the officers on board: that night the Titanic was carrying 2,207 passengers and crew, yet because of the hopelessly outdated Board of Trade regulations there were lifeboats for only 1,178 of them. Andrews’ news was not only the ruin of Smith’s career, it was a death sentence for half the people on board the ship.
With the knowledge that he was facing exactly such a situation, Captain Smith returned to the bridge. At 12:05 a.m. he told Chief Officer Wilde to uncover the lifeboats. Boxhall had already gone to the officers’ quarters to rouse Second Officer Lightoller and Third Officer Pitman, Murdoch was organizing the muster of the passengers. Slowly the alarm began to spread through the ship.