by Eugene Nesmeyanov
On the frosty night of April 14, 1912, the fateful collision of the RMS Titanic with a drifting iceberg some 350 miles off Newfoundland has marked the beginning of the end for Titanic and, simultaneously, gave birth to the endless legends, debates and mysteries which surround the great ocean liner up to this day. One of them is the mystery of the nature of the impact itself (grounding of sideswipping?), the another is the configuration and structure of the berg, then the size and shape of the deadly hull breach is still not established with all the accuracy (as we know, the bottom of the bowpart and the bilge curve are covered deep in mud; the sonar scanning showed the approximate scale of the damage of not far from Wilding's hypothetical "12 square feet"). But it seems - on a basis of survivor accounts - that you can add one more tiny mystery to that list: it is very probable that the ancient Greenlandic ice had left much more surface marks and various traces on the steel body of Titanic, than just the underwater damage and the ice chunks scattered on the forward well deck (the newspaper mythology claimed those falling lumps of ice were so large that some people were even killed by them!)...
Below we will try to shed some possibly new light on how the collision with the iceberg occurred, in addition to all-known and widely described story and schemes. Studying the peculiarities of ice contact with the ship's side (not only below, but above the waterline, too) may help us to better understand and visualize the shape of the killer-berg, as well.
Murdoch's flanking maneuver - "Port around the berg" - was not completed successfully after all, as we know. He saved the stern, but the forward starboard part of the ship came into contact with the iceberg causing damage to the first 5 compartments, and they started to take water in. For a few moments the metallic and ice giants were moving parallel to each other, side by side, on a minimal distance. This movement should have lasted approx. to the level of the first funnel (after that the distance began to increase sharply). Nothing is known for sure about the collision damages in the Titanic's freeboard, but it can be assumed with a high degree of probability that the forward area under the main superstructure has, too, suffered from the multiple minor external wounds as the result of touching with ice. This may seem insignificant, but this has attracted the attention of many passengers.
What exactly did they notice, what did they hear and see?
Lady Duff Gordon (from the port side stateroom A-20) didn't recall "a tremendous crash", but something more like "someone had drawn a giant finger all along the side of the boat" (OASOG, p. 145).
Miss Helen Østby had "just dropped off to sleep" in stateroom B-36. Suddenly, she "was awakened by a jar that felt about as it would if you were in a car that scraped the side of a tree" (Ibid).
Charlotte Appleton (cabin C-101): in "A Night To Remember" it was said that she "...felt hardly any shock at all, but she noticed an unpleasant ripping sound... like someone tearing a long, long strip of calico"
Mr Isaac Frauenthal (cabin 40 almost in the midline of the forward D Deck): "I heard a noise that puzzled me. It was a long drawn out noise, much the same as you hear when a ferry boat bumps into her slip and rubs slowly along its walls. There was nothing specially alarming about it..." (Ibid)
Eleanor Cassebeer (D-31 cabin): "I had already prepared for the night and was brushing my hair before the mirror when I felt a slight vibration, and then I heard a long howl, just as if the "Titanic" was crying in pain. My wrist-watch indicated 11:44..." (Ibid)
Ice falling in through the portholes
Henry Stengel in cabin C-116: "I cannot repeat too often that we thought the ship absolutely unsinkable. When we struck the iceberg the portholes were open and some of the ice jammed through into the stateroom" [Although C-116 was an inner stateroom without the external portholes, so most likely Mr. Stengel's just repeating the detail heard from someone else's lips].
Emma Bucknell in cabin D-15: "l was awakened by the crash and made a foray along the corridor outside her cabin". There she found lumps of ice, which had crashed through an open porthole when the iceberg struck. A steward came along the corridor denying any danger, “but while his voice was calm and he delivered his message easily, his face belied the confidence of his words”.
Alice Leader and her traveling companion Mrs. Frederick Joel Swift had gone to their stateroom D-17 when they felt a jar. "It was so slight, however, that we paid little heed to it until someone in the stateroom next to ours called out that we had struck an iceberg and pointed to bits of ice which had fallen on the ledge outside the porthole".
The Kenyons of D-21 had a similar experience of ice chunks tumbling in through their window, as did the Kimballs next door in D-19.
Norman Chambers: "On going out on the promenade deck I found nothing visible, but the air was extremely cold. I then returned to the state-room, passing on the way at each deck groups of passengers not at all frightened, but rather merely interested in what had occurred - even one man who laughingly exhibited a piece of ice which had come thru the porthole of his stateroom".
Kornelia Andrews (D-7): "It was 12 midnight when the crash came and we were all in bed. I rushed to my door and saw the ice crystals all over, they having come in through the porthole next to mine and I knew it was an iceberg, but they told us immediately that there was no danger..."
Edwin Kimball (D-19): "On Sunday evening I had just gone down from the smoke room to my stateroom and removed my coat and was standing in the middle of the room when the ship struck the iceberg. It seemed to me like scraping and tearing more than a shock. It was on the starboard side of the ship under where our room was located, and the ice from the iceberg poured in our porthole".
Henry Sleeper Harper (in D-33) sat up to look at his window and saw the iceberg scrape against the glass…
Analyzing these accounts led us to the conclusion that the minimal distance between the ship and the berg was in the forward quarter of the main superstructure at the level of D deck (plus perhaps slightly above and below). First class D deck cabins in that area were equipped with the large pivoting Utley sidelights (24" x 19" in diameter); many of them were left open in that evening, providing the direct access to the ice bites falling along the side of the ship in the closest proximity to it. The scratching, ripping and bumping sounds and the ice crystals coming in through the portholes speak clearly in favor of the shortest - even touching - distance between the Titanic's side and the berg. This touch could not have gone without a trace. It should have left some kind of scratches, stripes or even deeper dents on the surface of the shell plating, where the black hull paint was probably violently stripped off in the same manner as it was scraped on the corner pilings of the dock during the Olympic's debute arrival to New York on June 21, 1911.
Maiden arrival of Olympic to New York, June 21, 1911 (detail).
George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)
The closest to that scratched area was the emergency lifeboat 1 (though undamaged and even untouched during the collision, despite of its swing-out position; this proves that the top of the iceberg was not too close to it). By the time of its launch (01:05 AM) the new waterline has risen very near to the point of the alleged D–E deck damage - or maybe even started to cover it already, - so any observations from lifeboats had to be extremely hindered or more likely were impossible at all (taking the darkness into account).
Drawing diagram by the author, 2014
The way of ice chunks falling in the portholes and on the well deck also gives a hint of the possible shape of the iceberg's flank: it should have been rather straight, rising vertically to the level of Titanic's middle and upper decks, then gradually canted to the top, like a flattened pyramid on a massive and high basis, or pedestal. A.B. Scarrott's comparison with the Rock of Gibraltar basically corresponds to this description. George Behe and Samuel Halpern estimate the height of the berg as just a little higher than Titanic's Boat deck. Scarrott said he saw the ice fragments on the forward Boat deck – they should have come from the very tip of the berg, melted, weathered and therefore more fragile (especially weakened under the vibration of the contact with the ship).
Unfortunately, visual study of the wreck (the above-mentioned starboard zone of it) cannot be of much help in this particular issue: today the shell plating is almost completely covered with the growths of rusticles, hiding everything - hypothetical side scratches included - from our view. But, of course, this doesn't mean they are not there.
We hope that some closer exploration of the wreck in the future and / or the discovery of the previously unknown witness accounts may help to reveal that little mystery.
Special gratitude goes to George Behe, Alexey Shirokov, Jim Kalafus, Brigitte Saar
All of the survivor accounts came from George Behe collection
Ice falling in through the portholes (courtesy of George Behe)