The Unsinkable Titanic

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, we dug into our archives for this remarkable account of the disaster and its aftermath. Plus: Titanic video clips of the survivors, the wreckage, and more.

Also in Reader's Digest Magazine April 2012

“She’s Gone”

Second Officer Lightoller later wrote: “There was only one thing to do, and I [decided I] might just as well do it and get it over, so, turning to the fore part of the bridge, I took a header. Striking the water was like a thousand knives being driven into one’s body, and no wonder, for the temperature of the water was 28 degrees, or 4 below freezing.

“I suddenly found myself drawn to an air shaft by the sudden rush of the surface water now pouring down. I was held flat and firmly up against a grating on this opening with the full and clear knowledge that if this light wire carried away, there was a sheer drop of close on a hundred feet, right to the bottom of the ship. Although I struggled and kicked for all I was worth, it was impossible to get away, for as fast as I pushed myself off, I was irresistibly dragged back, every instant expecting the wire to go, and to find myself shot down into the bowels of the ship. I was still struggling and fighting when suddenly a terrific blast of hot air came up the shaft and blew me right away and up to the surface.”

Lightoller survived by joining some 30 others on an overturned collapsible boat before transferring to a lifeboat.

Passenger Lawrence Beesley described the great ship’s last moments as seen from Boat No. 7, 1.6 kilometers away: “We gazed awestruck as she tilted slowly up, revolving apparently about a center of gravity just astern of amidships, until she attained a vertically upright position; and there she remained—motionless!”

In the maelstrom of ropes, deck chairs, planking, and wildly swirling water, nobody knew what happened to most of the people. From the boats, they could be seen clinging like swarms of bees to deckhouses, winches, and ventilators. The famous and the unknown tumbled together in a writhing heap as the bow plunged deeper and the stern rose higher. Then a steady roar thundered across the water as everything movable broke loose—29 boilers … 15,000 bottles of ale and stout … 30 cases of golf clubs and tennis rackets … huge anchor chains … tons of coal … 30,000 fresh eggs … five grand pianos.

The structure supporting the first funnel collapsed. The mammoth smokestack seemed to lift off like a missile—its steel hawsers tearing the planking out of the decks—before it toppled on the people in the water.

The ship’s innards were now giving way. Crushed between the pressure of the sea and the gargantuan tonnage of the foundering liner, the celebrated watertight bulkheads crumpled with “big booms.” The Titanic’s stern steadily lifted, and suddenly her lights snapped off. They came on again with a searing flash and then went out forever.

Two minutes passed, the noise stopped, and the Titanic settled back slightly at the stern. Then slowly she began sliding under at a steep slant. As she glided down, the ship seemed to pick up speed. When the sea closed over the flagstaff on her stern, there was a gulp.

“She’s gone; that’s the last of her,” someone sighed to lookout Reginald Lee in Boat 13.

The starlight revealed a scene of utter horror. The sea all around was covered with a mass of tangled wreckage and the struggling forms of many hundreds of men, women, and children—slowly, inexorably freezing to death in ice-cold water. A sheet of thin, grey vapor hung like a pall a few meters above the surface.

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