The Collision

It was a little more than twenty minutes before midnight on April 14, 1912, when Lookout Frederick Fleet thought he saw something straight ahead.  The object appeared quite small at first, but grew rapidly in size, and Fleet hesitated for only a few seconds to make sure of the object’s identity before reaching up for the pull of the large bronze bell above his head.  He gave three sharp tugs, three rings being the signal for “object ahead”, then quickly grabbed the telephone in the box on the mast behind him.  The bridge answered almost immediately–it was Sixth Officer Moody.

“Iceberg right ahead,” Fleet said without preamble.

“Thank you,” Moody replied.  Turning to First Officer Murdoch, he repeated Fleet’s words.

“Hard a-starboard!” Murdoch shouted to Hichens, who immediately spun the wheel all the way to the right while Murdoch rang down “ALL STOP” on the big bronze engine room telegraphs. Agonizing seconds passed before the bow began to slowly swing left, and then Murdoch shouted “Hard a-port!” to swing the stern clear of the berg as the ship made her way past it.

Up in the crow’s nest it looked as if the ship would never turn in time.  Bracing themselves for the shock of a head-on collision, Fleet and Lee breathed a sigh of relief as at the last second the prow swung left, apparently missing the ice.  Even so, it looked awfully close, and as the berg brushed past, large chunks of ice thudded onto the foredeck and into the well deck.  As the ship glided past, the two men could see why the iceberg had been so hard to spot at first–it was a “blue” berg, recently overturned and still dark with seawater.  Over the noise of the falling ice it seemed to the two lookouts that they could hear a faint, metallic ripping sound.

On the bridge Murdoch pulled the switch that closed the watertight doors to the boiler rooms and engine room, then stepped out onto the starboard bridge wing and watched the berg pass by the liner’s hull.  It was so close he felt he could almost reach out and touch it.

Throughout the Titanic, her crew, sensitive as crew members always are to the rhythms and sounds of their vessel, reacted to the collision in a surprising variety of ways and with an equally surprising variety of explanations.  Down forward on D Deck, in the crew’s quarters, Fireman John Thompson and his mates had woken up only moments before and were preparing to go on watch at midnight. A sudden crash sent those men still in their bunks went sprawling onto the deck.  Thompson heard a “harsh, grinding sound,” then ran out onto the forward well deck, only to find it littered with ice.

Asleep in his bunk in the forward crew’s quarters, Seaman Fred Clench was awakened “by the crunching and jarring, as if [the ship] was hitting up against something.”  Quickly pulling on his trousers and shoes, he too went out onto the forward well deck.  As he stood beside the hatch to the No. 1 cargo hold, Clench could hear the sound of inrushing seawater far below.

Four decks below and some ways aft of where First Officer Murdoch was standing, in the First Class Dining Saloon, four off- duty stewards were sitting around one of the tables.  The last passengers had long since left and now this small group had the huge dining room all to themselves.   A faint but unmistakable shudder that seemed to run the length of the ship interrupted them in the middle of their conversation.  That was all, just a shudder, but it was enough to rattle the table settings.

Steward James Johnson thought he recognized it: he had been on the Olympic when she had dropped a propeller blade earlier that year, and it felt exactly the same to him.  Another steward was apparently of the same mind, and, anticipating a trip back to Harland and Wolff, promptly announced, “Another Belfast trip!”

Just astern of the First Class Dining Saloon was the First Class galley, where Chief Night Baker Walter Belford had just finished baking rolls for the next morning’s breakfast.  Suddenly for no apparent reason, a pan filled with freshly baked rolls sitting atop an oven tumbled to the deck, startling Belford.  Then he too noticed that the ship seemed to shudder, although in his annoyance over the ruined rolls, the thought of another trip to enjoy Belfast hospitality was the last thing on his mind.

One deck lower, on C Deck, four off-duty seamen were relaxing in the forward crews’ mess.  Seamen Brice, Buley, Osman, and Evans were, as one of them put it, “sitting around smokin’ and yarnin'” when they heard three bells rung up in the crow’s nest, followed about a half minute later by a slight jar.  To Seaman Edward Buley “it seemed as though something was rubbing alongside her,” while Brice thought it felt like “a heavy vibration.”  Frank Osman went out onto the forward well deck and was confronted by the sight of mounds of ice piled on the starboard side of the deck.

Down in the engine room, the only indication Chief Engineer Bell had that anything unusual had happened was the unexpected ringing of the engine telegraph as someone on the bridge suddenly ordered “All Stop” on both engines.  Bell quickly gave the order to cut the steam to the center turbine and then threw the valve gear on the reciprocating engines to the “Stop” position.  A moment later an alarm bell sounded as the watertight doors began to close automatically.  For several minutes a bewildered group of engineers, greasers, and artificers looked at each other and wondered just what had happened.

Quartermaster George Rowe had been standing watch on the after, or auxiliary, bridge.  This was often a hardship post, for the bridge was really just an open catwalk running across the poop deck at the stern, leaving Rowe completely exposed to the elements.  Tonight, though, wasn’t all that bad:  the absence of any wind kept the cold from becoming unbearable, and Rowe was able to keep reasonably warm by pacing to and fro across the bridge.  As he paced he noticed a curious sight:  thousands of tiny ice splinters that gave off bright colors as they caught and refracted the glow of the deck lights, a phenomena that sailors call “Whiskers ’round the Light.”  It stuck in Rowe’s mind because it usually occurred only near ice fields.

His reverie suddenly was broken by a slight change in the motion of the ship, as the steady beat of the engines changed.  Peering forward he stared at what appeared to be a full-rigged ship, with sails set, passing perilously close by the Titanic’s starboard side.  After a second or two, Rowe realized that he was actually looking at an iceberg, one that towered over the auxiliary bridge, itself nearly sixty feet above the water.  As Rowe watched, the berg passed by swiftly and vanished.

Steward Alfred Crawford was strolling the corridors of B Deck forward when he heard a muffled “crunch” coming from the starboard side of the ship; he ran out to the railing just in time to see “a large black object” passing alongside.  Turning to go back inside, he saw Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson Bishop coming out onto the deck.  The Bishops had left their cabin, B-47, to see what had happened.  Both were shivering furiously in the intense cold, and they walked up and down the deck a couple times before bumping into Steward Crawford.  “You go back downstairs,” Crawford told them, “there’s nothing to be afraid of.  We have only struck a little piece of ice and passed it.”

The Bishops’ experience was typical of most of the passengers':  many of them felt something, variously described later as a bump, a quiver, a grinding jar, but few had any idea what it was.  Major Peuchen thought a heavy wave had struck the ship.  Marguerite Frolicher, a young Swiss girl traveling with her father on one of his business trips, was half asleep and thought of the Zurich ferries’ notoriously bumpy landings.  Mrs. E. D. Appleton felt little, but heard something disturbing indeed:  a ripping sound, as if someone was tearing a very long piece of cloth.

In the First Class Smoking Room, located almost at the center of the Titanic‘s upper deck, the shudder brought all activity to an abrupt halt.  A handful of guests from George Widener’s party in honor of Captain Smith had left the a la carte restaurant behind and moved into the Smoking Room shortly after the ladies had retired.  Now Clarence Moore, Major Butt, George Widener’s son Harry, and William Carter were all that were left.  In one corner of the room, a handful of young men, Hugh Woolner and Bjorn Steffanson among them, were involved in a rather boisterous game of bridge, while at another table Lucien P. Smith was discovering that his French wasn’t up to the complexities of  bidding with three Frenchmen.

Suddenly they all felt a shudder, and conversations hung suspended for a moment.  Every man was instantly on his feet, hurrying out the aft doors, rushing to the after railing of the Promenade Deck.  Hugh Woolner heard someone calling out “We’ve struck an iceberg–there it is!”  Peering intently into the night, Woolner thought he could make out a huge black shape a hundred or so yards astern of the ship, but it was quickly swallowed up by the darkness.  The group filed back into the Smoking Room passing comments back and forth about the incident, and just as the last man in was closing the door behind him, someone noticed a new phenomenon:  the engines had stopped.

Just a few moments earlier, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Douglas had been strolling past the Grand Staircase.  Mr. Douglas had just remarked to his wife that the ship seemed to be going faster than it ever had before, as for once the vibration of the engines was quite noticeable on the staircase.  They had arrived at their stateroom, C-68, just as the Titanic hit the berg, but to them the shock of the collision didn’t seem very great.

Mrs. J. Stuart White didn’t think much of it at the time either:  the ship quivered as if it “went over a thousand marbles.  There was nothing terrifying about it at all.”  Mr. C. E. Stengel, in C-116, was moaning in his sleep.  His wife shook him awake, and just as his head cleared, he heard a “slight clash.”  Stengel paid it little attention until he noticed a moment later that the engines had stopped.  Turning to his wife he said, “There is something serious, there is something wrong.  We had better go up on deck.”

To Bruce Ismay the shudder meant something serious–though perhaps not dangerous.  He had awakened with a start in his deluxe cabin on B deck, having had enough experience with ships to know that the Titanic had hit something.  But what?

James McGough, a buyer for Gimbel’s from Philadelphia, could have answered Ismay’s question.  Something of a fresh-air fiend, McGough had left the porthole of his cabin open as he was getting ready for bed.  When the iceberg brushed by, several sizable chunks of ice fell into his cabin through the open port.

Of all the passengers’ reactions, perhaps that of Mrs. Walter Stephenson was the most ominous.  As she lay in her bed, just dozing off, she felt a jolt run through the ship.  Instantly it brought to mind the memory of another April, just six years earlier, when she had been lying in bed and felt such a jolt, as the city of San Francisco began falling to pieces around her.

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