Why so many?

Of the 2,223 souls aboard the RMS Titanic, 1,517 perished in the disaster, leaving only 706 survivors. Why was there such a great loss of life? Certainly, one reason so many perished was the fact that the Titanic sank in under three hours after it struck the iceberg. By the time Captain Smith ordered the lifeboats to be filled and lowered, there was not much time to spare. Many passengers, particularly those in third class, did not know what was wrong or could not find their way up to the lifeboats in time. Other factors, including crewmembers not trained in lifeboat procedures, contributed to accidents and boats being lowered half full. But perhaps the main reason for so many deaths was simply the lack of enough boats for everyone on board.


Titanic passengers waiting for rescue aboard a lifeboat

Following the sinking, investigations into what happened were conducted by the U.S. Senate and the British Board of Trade. Dozens of witnesses were questioned at both inquiries. They hoped to get answers to the following:

How safe was the Titanic?

What ice warnings were received?

Was the ship traveling too fast?

Were those in 3rd class prevented from reaching the lifeboats?

Were there enough lifesaving devices?

Did the crewmembers do their jobs?

Did the Californian (the closest ship in the area) ignore distress signals from the Titanic?

Both groups concluded there were three basic reasons for the disaster: The Titanic was going too fast, the crew failed to keep a proper watch (including Titanic’s wireless operator, who ignored several ice warnings), and the lifeboats were not manned properly. They did not find the third class passengers were treated unfairly. And both inquiries concluded the Californian could have come to the rescue in time to save many, if not all of the lives that were lost.


Titanic wireless operator Jack Phillips

The number of lifeboats did not come into question. At the time, there was no law requiring ships to carry enough boats for all on board. Titanic did have enough lifebelts for everyone, but many of those who were unable or unwilling to get in a lifeboat, even though they wore their lifebelts, died from hypothermia in the freezing cold waters of the north Atlantic. Several passengers testified that they or others wanted to try to pick up those in the water but were prevented from doing so by the crew member in charge of their boat.

Recommendations following the two inquiries included:

Watertight compartments should be further divided.

Regular lifeboat drills should be conducted.

Lifeboats should be provided for all on board.

Crew members should be skilled in lowering and rowing lifeboats.

Lookouts should have regular eye tests.

Ships should slow down and alter course when ice is reported.

Today, these are regulations strictly adhered to by cruise ship operators. Also, following the Titanic disaster, nations with ships traveling in the north Atlantic (Grand Banks) near Newfoundland called for regular patrols in the area to provide iceberg warnings. The International Ice Patrol, led by the U.S. Coast Guard, has monitored the area during ice season since 1913, except during the years of the World Wars. No ship that has heeded the Ice Patrol’s warnings has ever collided with an iceberg.

ice patrol