When my son was three years-old, he came home from preschool obsessed with the Titanic disaster, thanks to The Magic Tree House series and a teacher who was reading the books aloud. I thought, like most things that interest three year-olds: Elmo, Thomas the Tank Engine and The Potty Book, he would eventually move on to bigger, more complex disasters. This was not the case. By the time he was eight, my son had read just about everything there was for children to read not only on the Titanic’s sinking, but on the boat itself. From there, he branched out to other boats. He discovered the golden age of ocean liner travel, and became a walking information dump for obscure ocean liner facts: “Mama, did you know that when the Aquatania made its last run, Grandpa Curt was in his twenties?” We joked that if an OceanLinerCon existed, my son would be the one dressed up as some little-known Italian boat from 1932. But most of all, he loved Titanic. Many ocean liners have sunk dramatically over the years (the Lusitania, anyone? How about the Britanic? Or the Oceanos?), but Titanic holds a special place in this infamous pantheon. What makes it so different is the fact that despite the many terrible injustices determined by class and the problems with the evacuation, so very many women and children managed to survive. It was a disaster with plenty of noble stories of heroism and sacrifice, and many of those stories were actually true. Eventually, we caved and let him watch the movie (only on the TV, however, as there are things in that movie –two things, really – that no nine year-old boy needs to see in 3D on a monster screen). He loved it, of course. But like everything my bright boy loves, he had questions about how it worked. One of those questions was this: Did they really lock the third class passengers down in the ship?
When you live with someone as inquisitive as my child, you quickly learn to say “I don’t know,” a lot. My son is relentlessly curious, and not generally willing to settle for my intellectual failings. On one very long car ride home when he was three, after forty minutes of non-stop queries, I said: “Honey, we’re almost home. Can we not ask any more ‘why’ questions until we get there?” He paused and then replied: “Okay, Mama, but how did…” Sometimes he just asks the question again, and again, until I’m shouting “I DON’T KNOW!” at the top of my lungs. Sometimes he goes off and looks it up himself, especially as he’s gotten older. And sometimes he waits patiently until a day or two has passed, and then starts the questioning again. He is nothing if not persistent. It was that way with the Titanic question. Over and over, he’d ask me: Did they really do that? Why would they do that? How could anyone do that? Were the people scared when that happened, do you think? Why didn’t they just break down the gates? Were the gates tall? Did they go all the way from the floor to the ceiling? Why were there gates in the first place? Who had the keys?
And so on. Until finally, one day when he was at his dad’s and couldn’t pester me, I gave in. I googled: “did they really lock third class passengers up in the Titanic?”
The answer might surprise you. I know it surprised me, because the truth is that there is no answer. No one actually knows.
Let me explain. When you go down the Titanic rabbit hole, information does strange things. It shifts, it alters, it expands and contracts. There are Titanic “experts,” who are so deep into the disaster that they follow little else. There are official reports, posthumous inquiries, first-person narratives (always, not just often, conflicting), bad translations, propaganda, and beautiful pieces of footage from deep-sea dives at the wreckage site. In fact, there’s so much information out there on Titanic and her sinking that a lifetime of study would scarcely allow one to read it all. And almost none of it seems to be “correct” in the strictest sense of the word. Like all history, it moves in its retelling.
At the time of the sinking, many of the survivors were interviewed or wrote their accounts of that night. A few of them relayed their information to the official inquiries (there were several). Most of these accounts came from first class passengers and surviving crew members, and often read more like guilty justifications than factual accounts. No one seems to agree on anything, even at the time. There is no accurate record of who was on board, or how many of those people died. No one can be sure in exactly what order the lifeboats were launched. Nobody knows precisely how many people were rescued from the water. Even the events in the actual lifeboats were disputed by the survivors. Over the years, more survivors recounted their stories. These were even less accurate. The fallibility of eyewitness accounts is well-known now, but we still like to believe that hey, they were there. They must know, right? Well, not as far as I could tell.
According to the testimony gathered from eyewitnesses like John Edward Hart (found at Encyclopedia Titanica), and corroborated by what has been found in the wreckage, there were gates on the Titanic. Whether there were floor-to-ceiling gates between third and other classes is in debate to this day, but the evidence points to no gates of this type in places where they would have mattered. There were shorter gates, waist high at most. These were kept closed because the immigration officials insisted on keeping the third class passengers (who were the only ones given extensive health checks upon arrival) cordoned off from the others. Still, even though it is probably a myth that the crew kept anyone officially locked down in the bowels of the ship, this story persists.
What I gleaned from hours reading testimony from the survivors is this: the unglamorous truth is that most of the third class passengers who drowned, did so because they didn’t get up to the boat deck on their own. This probably wasn’t because they were locked below by evil, elitist crew members, but because they were asked to wait, ignored in the chaos of the evacuation, or simply lost in the complicated corridors of the ship. Few of them would have ever been up to the boat decks before, as they were not generally allowed on that part of the ship. There were very few crew members capable of mustering people in the event of an evacuation, and those that were available were woefully untrained. There were only a handful of officers to maintain control of over 2,000 passengers and crew. No matter what was done, and obviously lots of mistakes were made, at least half the people on the ship were pretty much guaranteed death in the event of a sinking. It seems that being a third class passenger mostly meant that no one remembered to come check and see if you’d made it up to the boat deck (the first class passengers were loaded first, but there was certainly time for all the third class passengers to be escorted up, had anyone bothered to do it). The neglect wasn’t willful, particularly, but more to do with too many demands on too few people, and too many folks needing help who weren’t aware quickly enough that they needed it. The lifeboats were notoriously poorly loaded, and there are many reasons for that, but none of them seem to include a deliberate leaving of third class passengers to die in the hold.
So what to tell my son? Most of the victims of the Titanic disaster died because they weren’t prepared to get off that boat. Perhaps they were too overwhelmed. Perhaps they thought the ship was safer than the lifeboats. Perhaps it was too cold outside, so they went back inside to wait and were forgotten. Perhaps they spoke another language, and didn’t understand the instructions. Many people, mostly men, chose to stay behind so their families, and the families of other men, could get off the ship.
The men behind the evacuation of Titanic made many mistakes. Most of these were made early on in the evacuation, when the officers in charge were probably still processing the horror of the night themselves. I recently finished a book called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — And Why by Amanda Ripley. She explains that the majority of people caught in disasters take a very long time to process what is happening, often sitting helpless for hours until their deaths, when they could have simply escaped. We will never know if the men who loaded the lifeboats on Titanic “froze” in fear. I suspect many of them did, going through the motions of the evacuation, rather than thinking it through in a logical way. How else to explain the first lifeboat launching with just 12 people aboard (Captain-approved, at that), but the later lifeboats filled to capacity? It would seem the crew’s decisiveness, their sense of what to do in the disaster, grew more cohesive and organized as the night went on. Like everyone else, their first steps were tentative and woefully inadequate. Unfortunately, they couldn’t go back and correct those mistakes once their plans solidified. But does this mean they were deliberately negligent?
Reading through a 2012 Swedish study of evacuation behaviors on doomed ships, including the Titanic, I learned that in almost every case, women and children were not the main survivors of the disasters. In fact, they generally died in overwhelming proportion to the men on board. One of the only cases where this is not true is on the Titanic. Over 70% of the women and 50% of the children on board the ship were saved, as opposed to an average of less than 30% of women on board other sinking ships, and an even smaller proportion of children. So whatever their faults may have been, the men loading the lifeboats on the Titanic clearly took special pains to get as many of the women and children off the ship as possible in the chaos of that night, and they were largely successful (especially compared to other maritime disasters). Though we assume that “women and children” first is a cultural mainstay, it would seem that only the men of the Titanic actually came anywhere near achieving it.
For those of you who would argue that women do not especially deserve to be saved over men, remember that at the time, men had two distinct advantages: they knew how to swim in greater numbers, and their clothing was much less restrictive. So helping those least likely to be able to survive on their own seems to have been much more than simply sexist chivalry. It was an acknowledgment that women and children needed an advantage to survive at all. The numbers from the later shipwrecks, where this policy was not followed, bear this out. Women and children still take the brunt of the casualties (especially children, for obvious reasons), to the point where it becomes obvious that simply being an adult male is a ridiculous advantage in almost all disaster scenarios.
It has been strange to discover, through this need to answer my son’s question, that the men I had seen so vilified for so many years for their “failure” to get all the women and children off the ship were actually remarkably able in that respect. The testimony of Colonel Archibald Gracie speaks to this need to do the best that could be done, under the circumstances. Gracie was a first class passenger, and he spent most of the night helping with the evacuation. At last, thinking he had done all he could, he and a friend retired to the highest point they could and prepared to meet their deaths. He said: “… we decided to go toward the stern, still on the starboard side, and as we were going toward the stern, to our surprise and consternation up came from the decks below a mass of humanity, men and women, and we had thought that all the women were already loaded into the boats.” Clearly, he had believed that all the women who could be loaded into lifeboats, had been loaded into lifeboats, including those women and children in third class. It must have been a terrible moment when he realized he was wrong. Gracie survived by swimming out to one of the collapsibles that floated away as the ship sank, and went on to interview many of the survivors.
I had hoped for a simple answer for my son, but there isn’t one. The gates were there, but they didn’t stop people; class structure, panic, confusion, poor preparation, stubbornness, fear… all those things stopped people from evacuating. Those in charge did the best they could, and it wasn’t good enough, and they were haunted by that fact. It’s easy, in retrospect, to see the classism that truly was at work in this case. After all, all the first class women and children who wanted off that boat got off. Most of the second class women and children did, too. But in the end, history is complex. To say that the men who evacuated the Titanic deliberately let helpless passengers die would be misleading, yet it is true that many third-class passengers died who should have been on a lifeboat. Perhaps the greatest lesson my son can learn is the same one I learned: sometimes, we really don’t know why something happens the way it does, and we never, ever will.