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

Final Resting Place

“Like an enormous black freighter pointing at the sky,” as one survivor described her, the Titanic had heaved herself upright at 2:18 a.m. She hovered “in this amazing attitude” for moments—some said for several minutes—and took a sudden plunge forward as everything from dynamos to cabin furniture broke loose and fell toward the bow. Then she corkscrewed slightly to port; her submerged forecastle began to shudder, and the ocean surged into A and B decks. Before the Titanic’s lights went out for good, she appeared “like an enormous glowworm”—even the lamps in the underwater sections of the ship continued to burn, flooding the water around the bow with a green radiance.

Then she settled back to an angle of about 70 degrees and began slowly sliding into the sea. Muffled thunder sounded deep beneath the surface, and “she went down with an awful grating, like a boat running off a shingly beach.” She disappeared from view at 2:20 a.m. Within 15 seconds, the Titanic was 15 meters under the surface and accelerating.

There was desperate life, still, among the more than 1,000 souls remaining aboard. But only the few that somehow got to the surface had more than a moment’s hope. After another several seconds, the Titanic passed through the 30-meter level.

Somewhat deeper, there were implosions as the heavy steel bulkheads crumpled like tinfoil. The remaining buoyancy of the ship was sharply reduced. Her speed picked up to perhaps 20 knots.

A few minutes after total submersion, the inclination of the Titanic relented a bit from the steep angle at which she had slipped beneath the pond-smooth surface. Her giant boilers, which had crashed down through all the ship’s bulkheads and punched holes in the side of the bow, had gone on ahead, advance scouts seeking the ocean floor.

Leveled out in a flatter angle, the great ship now “kited” as it made its way through the icy depths, oscillating back and forth as she descended, somewhat in the manner of a leaf floating to earth.

Around 3,300 feet, she entered a zone never penetrated by sunlight. At that depth, where the ocean bears down at 1,615 pounds per square inch, no human life is possible. The stern, which had endured unimaginable stress when it rose toward the sky, had already pulled away. More cargo broke loose—cranes, the engine-room telegraph, chamber pots, serving platters, bottles of claret and champagne from the ship’s wine cellar near the stern. Then, at about 8,000 feet, the Titanic thrust her bow into the benthic current, a vast, subsurface, slow-moving river.

The ship had been sinking for seven minutes now, and the ocean floor was still several thousand feet below. She entered a hilly landscape of river valleys, tributary streams, and outcroppings.

Her stern had been floating free of the forward section and had partially disintegrated, scattering derricks, propellers, and even personal effects from the crew’s quarters. Bursting open, too, were the individual refrigerators, aft on G Deck, to disgorge their contents: fish, vegetables, ice cream, beef, poultry, cheese, fruit, and flowers.

Finally the Titanic slammed down. It will never be known which of the two sections, bow or stern, hit the brownish seafloor first. They kicked up huge clouds of sediment, which mingled with great clods of the ship’s boiler coal. The bow section came to rest on its keel, with only a slight list to port. The stern, some 300 meters away, disintegrated further upon impact. Unseen, the sediment drifted down as a ghostly snow.

Now the fractured hulk would be a permanent tomb for the mighty and the lowly; for the ship’s captain and most of his crew, for musicians, clergymen, and millionaires, and for teachers, bricklayers, carpenters, nurses, farmers, dishwashers. There, at about 13,000 feet, people from some 20 nations lay in 37° F. water under pressure of 6,365 pounds per square inch.

The time was close to 2:30 a.m., Monday, April 15, 1912. The Titanic’s maiden voyage had lasted four days, 17 hours, and 30 minutes.

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