Tuesday, September 6, 2016

15 April, 1912: The Iceberg(s) That Sunk the Titanic

In the night of April 14, 1912 the passenger liner "R.M.S. Titanic" collided with an iceberg, two hours later (2:20, April 15) the ship sank, estimated 1490 to 1517 passengers died in the cold water of the Atlantic.

The story of the ship became part of history and pop culture, but the story of the iceberg that caused the disaster is less understand or known and only vague descriptions and some photos exists of the supposed iceberg(s).

Based on testimony from surviving crew members, the iceberg that doomed Titanic was a “dark-blue mass” between 30-60 feet high above the water line. Seamen Joseph Scarrott, who spied the berg once the ship had passed it, said it resembled in shape “the Rock of Gibraltar” with its highest point to the right.

Photos taken by those on board ships that entered the Titanic’s debris field hours and days after the tragedy have claimed to show the deadly iceberg. Some vessels were there to retrieve bodies, while others were simply following shipping lanes that took them within the area. One thing is for certain: there was lots of ice and icebergs the night Titanic sank. According to the Captain of the Carpathia, the ship that was first on the scene, more than 20 large bergs (some estimated at over 100 feet tall) were observed.

Below are some of the pictures of icebergs taken in the area of the Titanic disaster.

Fig.1. Frederick Fleet's Sketches

Two sketches made by Fred Fleet.

Two sketches made by Fred Fleet for Ed Kamuda of the Titanic Historical Society are reproduced here. As historical documents, they are invaluable. But as a record of what actually happened, they have little value, other than sentimentality. The "First Sight" sketch is obviously wrong as it shows the iceberg on the horizon. This indicates such a long time between sighting and warning that it implies negligence on the parts of the lookouts. Perhaps what Fleet meant to say was that only a portion of it was above the horizon (the red line included by this author)? Even so, this would happen at such a distance from the Titanic (before it drops below the look-outs visible horizon) that it begs the obvious question: why did the lookouts leave it so late? Or, if the lookouts did respond in time (as Louise Patten claims) why did the bridge crew not react until it was too late?

Of course, if the berg was bigger than the oft quoted "60 feet" then some portion of it would be visible against the sky till fairly late. Then there is the positioning of the iceberg. It is clear off to starboard. Fleet reported that it was "dead ahead."

Taken in isolation, the first sketch has enough features to elicit suspicion. The second sketch, not often referred to, confirms that the diagrams are merely the product of imagination. It shows an iceberg that is far too high, bears no resemblance to Scarrott's sketch, and only approximately reproduced the location of impact.

Fig.2. The Prinz Adalbert Iceberg

Photograph taken from the ship "Prinz Adalbert".

One of the many icebergs suspected of having sank the Titanic, this iceberg was photographed in the morning of April 15, from board of the ship "Prinz Adalbert". The photograph was taken by the chief steward of the liner, just a few miles south of where the Titanic went down. The steward hadn't yet heard about the Titanic. What caught his attention was the smear of red paint along the base of the berg, indication that it had collided with a ship.

Colored version.

This can hardly have been the iceberg which the Titanic collided with: it is known that the Titanic ripped great chunks out of the iceberg and did not simply leave a few scars of red paint. The real origin of the red color cannot be said. Maybe it was from a ship, maybe it was a colored layer. Icebergs with layers in different colors (mostly brownish) are not scarce. But there is nothing in the Prinz Adalbert iceberg photograph which suggests the impact of violent forces.

Fig.3. The Rehorek Iceberg

An iceberg photographed April 20, from the German steamer "Bremen".

It took 88 years after the sinking of the Titanic for this photograph, taken by Stephan Rehorek on board the German steamer "Bremen", to be made public. Many believe it to be the actual iceberg that sank the legendary ship. The Breman sailed into the disaster area on April 20, discovering this iceberg, as well as wreckage and bodies. Unlike other suspected icebergs, this one not only has damage on the correct side that is consistent with a collision, but also matches the "Rock of Gibraltar" description by Scarrott.

Fig.4. The Minia Iceberg

Photography of an iceberg from the cable ship "Minia".

Another iceberg was photographed by he cable ship "Minia", one of the first ships to reach the area in search for debris and bodies. The crew found debris and bodies floating in the vicinity of the depicted iceberg and the captain assured that this was the only iceberg near the scene of the collision. This photo was taken by Captain De Carteret of the Minia. According to the Minia's records, it was the only iceberg in the area. He also noticed the red scar along the base – a clear sign it was the culprit for the Titanic's end.

Fig.5. The Carpathia Iceberg

Photograph taken from the "Carpathia".

The night of the disaster, the crew of the Titanic was well aware of ice dangers, in particular a massive icefield to the north. It may have been First Officer Murdoch's decision to avoid this ice field that inadvertently lined the ship up with the deadly iceberg. This photo, taken from the "Carpathia", shows the extent of the icefield (as well as a giant iceberg), observed by one individual as "one solid wall of ice, at least 16 feet high, as far as could be seen."

Journalist Colin Campbell, a passenger of the "Carpathia" - the first ship to approach the scene of the disaster and save the surviving passengers of the Titanic - described the iceberg for the New York Tribune.

Fig.6. The Birma Iceberg

Photography from the ship "Birma".

Both the Carpathia (4 a.m.) and the Russian vessel Birma (7 a.m.) were the first ships to arrive at the scene of the disaster. Both have singled out this particular iceberg as being the one that likely sank the Titanic. According to the Birma, its height was about 140 feet and length 200 feet and its depth, underwater, estimated at 980 feet.

Fig.7. The S. S. Etonian Iceberg

Photograph taken from the steamer "S. S. Etonian".

On April 12, 1912, Captain W. F. Wood aboard the steamer "S. S. Etonian" photographed a massive iceberg with a distinctive elliptical shape. Wood found the picture remarkable enough to print it out and annotate it with the current latitude and longitude.

Two days later, on April 14, the "unsinkable" Titanic struck an iceberg and sank to bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. That iceberg had the same elliptical shape, according to sketches made on the ship. Wood had captured the remarkable piece of ice.

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