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Why did the Titanic sink?

Learn the circumstances behind the Titanic disaster.

The Titanic was traveling at 22 knots when it struck an iceberg. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
The Titanic was traveling at 22 knots when it struck an iceberg.

On its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, the British luxury liner, Titanic, sideswiped an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, 1912, and was badly damaged. The 882-foot-long (268.8-meter) liner, whose eight decks rose to the height of an 11-story building, sank two hours and forty minutes later. Of the 2,227 passengers and crew, 705 escaped in 20 lifeboats and rafts; 1,522 drowned.

Insufficient Precautions

Famous as the greatest disaster in transatlantic shipping history, circumstances made the loss of life in the sinking of the Titanic exceptionally high. Although Capt. E.J. Smith was warned of icebergs in shipping lanes, he maintained his speed of 22 knots, and did not post additional lookouts. Later inquiries revealed that the liner Californian was only 20 miles (32.18 kilometers) away and could have helped, had its radio operator been on duty. There were an insufficient number of lifeboats, and those available for use were badly managed, with some leaving only half-full. The only ship responding to distress signals was the ancient Carpathia, which saved 705 people.

A Ship's Destruction

Contrary to a long-held belief, the Titanic had not been sliced open by the iceberg. When Dr. Robert Ballard (b. 1942) from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution descended to the site of the sunken vessel in the research vessel Alvin in July 1986, he found that the ship's starboard bow plates had buckled under the impact of the collision. This caused the ship to be opened up to the sea.


Ballard found the bow and the stern more than 600 yards apart on the ocean's floor, and speculated on what happened after the collision with the iceberg. "Water entered six forward compartments after the ship struck the iceberg. As the liner nosed down, water flooded compartments one after another, and the ship's stern rose even higher out of the water, until the stress amidships was more then she could bear. She broke apart..." and the stern soon sank by itself.

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