Natural and Man-Made Disasters


Why was the Titanic thought to be unsinkable?

The RMS Titanic was state of the art, a huge and luxurious ocean liner equipped with the latest and best. The ship’s size afforded it great stability; its structure included more steel than had been used in previous ships; it was built with a double bottom—both skins were heavier and thicker than those of other ships. The hull was divided by 15 bulkheads (upright partitions) that rose five decks forward and aft (back), and four decks midship. These transverse bulkheads divided the ship into 16 compartments—“watertight” chambers—any two of which could take on water without sinking the ship. This marvel of modern technology, which was to be the jewel in the crown of the White Star Line, was given a fitting name: titanic is a Greek word meaning “having great force or power.” And it was described as “practically unsinkable.”

However, the ship designer did not—and could not—prepare the ship for what happened on the night of April 14, 1912. Just before midnight, the Titanic was speeding—at 21 knots—through the North Atlantic, even though the crew had been warned by other ships that the unusually calm waters were full of ice. When the Titanic’s two watchmen, who were not using binoculars, sighted an iceberg in the ship’s path, it was only a quarter mile away. The ship was turned to the port (left), but it was too late. The underwater shelf of the ice tore through the plating on the starboard (right) side of the ship. Thin slits developed at the seams in the ship’s hull, allowing seawater to enter. The effect was similar to filling an ice tray with water: Once one “watertight” chamber had filled, the rushing water spilled over the top and into the next.

Titanic came to symbolize human arrogance: The ship owners and operators believed the Titanic was impervious to nature. Consequently, the ocean liner had not been equipped with the number of lifeboats needed to rescue everyone on board: Titanic’s lifeboats had room for about half the passengers. Since there had been no safety drills on board, many lifeboats were launched only half full. The enormous loss of life, which included society’s most prominent individuals as well as ordinary families who were immigrating to America, stands out as one of the great tragedies in the history of transportation.


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