By Bruce A. Trinque
The standard account of the last seconds before the Titanic collided with the fatal iceberg derives from “Shipping Casualties (Loss of the Steamship “Titanic”)”, the report of the investigators who conducted the British Enquiry into the sinking. Based upon testimony from surviving crewmembers, a conclusion was reached that the Titanic had turned about two points to port before the collision occurred. Based upon an experiment conducted with her sister ship Olympic, running at the same speed as the Titanic, it was determined that “about 37 seconds would be required for the ship to change her course to this extent after the helm had been put hard-a-starboard.”
Walter Lord in his classic “A Night to Remember” directly used the British Enquiry estimate in reconstructing the scene, stipulating a thirty-seven second interval between the lookout’s telephoned warning to the bridge and the actual impact. John Eaton and Charles Haas in “Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy” speak of “a little more than half a minute” between sighting the iceberg and the collision. Leo Marriott in “Titanic” estimates this same interval as being “a little more than 30 seconds.” While other authors may not be as specific in defining the length of time, almost always they communicate some sense of a protracted period before the impact while the Titanic slowly, too slowly turns. Nowhere is this more dramatically conveyed than in film versions of the event. In both “A Night to Remember” and James Cameron’s movie, the interval between the wheel being put hard over and the actual collision with the iceberg is portrayed in nearly agonizing detail as we watch, probably hoping subconsciously that THIS time the Titanic will slip past unscathed.
Such accounts inevitably raise questions of whether the ship could have escaped entirely if only a few seconds earlier warning have been received, and would the Titanic have faired better if it had not turned at all but instead had hit the iceberg straight on (and thus avoiding a long injury in her side)?
Recently, however, Charles Pellegrino in “Ghosts of the Titanic” has challenged the standard version of these last seconds before the collision. In that book, he contends that there was a much shorter time interval between warning and impact than the British Enquiry had concluded, and also that the ship turned to port not in response to the helm, but because the iceberg pushed the bow to the side. It may be worth noting that, according to Pellegrino, Walter Lord had also come to believe that the British Enquiry 37-second gap was in error, despite his earlier use of that estimated time interval in his book.
Pellegrino has been sharply criticized for factual errors and carelessness in the way he uses sources. As justified as this criticism may be, there is a danger in automatically dismissing all of his analysis and conclusions without further thought. To assume that Pellegrino is wholly wrong because his approach may have been partially flawed could lead to our failure to adequately explore a valid idea he raises. If we go too far in that direction, we will be as blindly smug as those who in 1912 were convinced of the Titanic’s invincibility.
I decided to examine Pellegrino’s conclusions in this particular matter for myself, working with accounts from surviving crew and officers as given at the American and British inquiries, when the experience was still fresh in their minds. I will quote the relevant excerpts from their accounts, making preliminary comments after each individual’s testimony, and then will draw their accounts together into a general conclusion at the end.
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