This is Walter Lord’s classic account of the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Certainly newer books have been written but the immediacy of his account is unparalleled. He follows minute by minute the last hours of the “unsinkable” ship after its encounter with an iceberg at 11:40p.m., after receiving no less than six warnings of icebergs in the area.
The account moves from the initial complacency of most of the passengers who trusted the assurances of Titanic’s watertight compartments. Then we learn of the shipbuilder’s assessment that too many compartments were involved for this system to work, and it was only a matter of a few hours before the ship sank (she sank at 2:20 a.m.).
We follow the loading of the lifeboats “women and children first” when there simply weren’t enough lifeboats. [One question Lord doesn’t answer is why so many lifeboats were launched with less than full complements.] We see the quiet courage of the men who assured wives they would get a later boat, knowing there was no later boat to be had. In other boats, a few men disguised themselves while some boats provided rescue for their first class male passengers. There is the ship’s orchestra, who play ragtime until almost the end. There are pastors who counsel and others who come to term with their fate on their own, in various ways.
We see the desperate calls for help from the ship’s communications, and the futility of raising the radio room of the California sitting ten miles away and even noticing the rockets set off and the gradual settling of the lights. The Cunard Line Carpathia on the other hand was 58 miles distant and arrived within four hours, saving all those in boats, but too late for others who jumped into the sub-freezing waters.
There was the scandal that so many of the first class were rescued while many in steerage were not. Lord’s book provides a complete passenger list that indicates the survivors. The dramatic difference between first and third class is clear. And we have the sad survival of Bruce Ismay, the White Line owner who retires and lives the remainder of his life as a shattered recluse.
I’ve not read other Titanic books and I suspect later ones dispute some of Lord’s account. But the power of the eyewitness accounts on which Lord draws, the dialogue he claims is based on these accounts and how he brings us along with the passengers of the Titanic to the unbelievable news that she really was sinking all make for an account not worth missing.