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

Burial at Sea

Meanwhile, the Carpathia was making its way toward the Titanic. “Icebergs loomed up and fell astern,” wrote Carpathia’s Captain Rostron. “We never slackened, though sometimes we altered course to avoid them. As soon as there was a chance that we were in view, we started sending up rockets at intervals of about a quarter of an hour.

“There was no sign of the Titanic herself. By now—it was about 3:35 a.m.—we were almost up to the position. I saw a green light just ahead of us, low down. I knew that must be a boat. I brought the vessel alongside, and the passengers started climbing aboard. They were in the charge of an officer. I asked that he should come to me as soon as he was on board.”

Without preliminaries, Rostron burst out excitedly, “Where is the Titanic?”

“Gone!” replied Fourth Officer Joseph G. Boxhall. “She sank at 2:20 a.m.”

“Were many people left on board when she sank?”

“Hundreds! Perhaps a thousand or more!” Boxhall’s voice broke with emotion. “My God, sir, they’ve gone down with her!”

“Daylight was just setting in,” Rostron wrote, “and what a sight that new day revealed. Everywhere were icebergs. And amid the tragic splendor of them as they lay in the first shafts of the rising sun, boats of the lost ship floated.”

At 8:30, the last of the lifeboats and the collapsibles to arrive made fast and began to unload.

The Californian(which all night long had failed to react to the Titanic’s distress) had got under way at 6 a.m., steering for the position where she had earlier been informed the Titanic had sent out her distress call. Shortly after 8 a.m., steaming cautiously through the ice, she was near enough to the Carpathia for semaphore signaling. The Californian inquired what had happened; the reply came that the Titanic had foundered. Later the Californian received a wireless message from Captain Rostron: “I am taking the survivors to New York. Please stay in the vicinity and pick up any bodies.”

Before heading back, Rostron sent for the Reverend Anderson, an Episcopal clergyman aboard, and the people from the Titanic and Carpathia assembled in the main lounge to pay their respects to the dead. While they murmured their prayers, the Carpathia steamed slowly over the Titanic’s grave. There were few traces of the great ship. And at 8:50, Rostron felt sure there couldn’t possibly be another survivor. He rang “full speed ahead” and turned his ship for New York.

According to the captain of the Californian, no bodies could be found, and after an hour or so he resumed his voyage. There were in fact hundreds of corpses, drifting to and fro on the face of the waters. They may not have been seen because they were caught up in an immense ice mass moving in a northeasterly direction, and ships dared not venture near it. Later, those bodies were dispersed, possibly as a result of the ice breaking up in the Gulf Stream.

A week after the sinking, the cable ship MacKay-Bennett found 306 of them. When first sighted, they had seemed like a great flock of gulls on the water, bobbing gently in the swell. They were all floating in an upright position as if treading water, most of them in a great cluster surrounded by debris from the ship.

All day, crewmen worked at dragging the sodden bodies onto the deck. Those victims without identification were prepared for a proper burial at sea. By 8 p.m. that Sunday, the first burials began. MacKay-Bennett engineer Fred Hamilton kept a diary:

“The tolling of the bell summoned all hands to the forecastle, where 30 bodies are to be committed to the deep, each carefully weighted and sewed in canvas. The crescent moon is shedding a faint light on us as the ship lies wallowing in the great rollers. The funeral service is conducted by the Rev. Canon Hind; for nearly an hour the words ‘For as much as it hath pleased … we therefore commit his body to the deep’ are repeated, and at each interval comes, splash! as the weighted body plunges into the sea, there to sink to a depth of about two miles.

“Splash, splash, splash.”

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