Death and the Titanic
April 15, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It’s a tragic story that has been retold countless times. A well-known tale about the largest passenger steam ship of its time and its many famous and wealthy passengers. One of the most often repeated details of the tragedy is how it inspired changes in maritime laws because the ship didn’t have enough lifeboats for all of its passengers. It’s also common knowledge that the voyage ended in disaster when the Titanic stuck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, killing an estimated 1,500 people.
But one grim detail that is often overlooked in the recounting of the Titanic story is the fate of all those who never made it into a lifeboat. We know that they died. But how? And what happened to their bodies? Of the 1,496 who are known to have died, only about 330 bodies were pulled out of the water by ships sent to recover them in the days following the sinking. What happened to the other 1,166 bodies? And what horrors did they experience?
One reason why the specifics of these deaths are not often told is because there is no way of knowing for sure how each victim of the sinking died. But given the known circumstances, Luke Owens, a Titanic Research writer for encyclopedia-titanica.org, has compiled list detailing the most likely causes of their deaths and an explanation for what happened to their bodies.
Owens lists the possible causes of death for the known victims as drowning, hypothermia, natural causes, injury, crushing, compression, suicide, or gunshot.
As the Titanic sank, many passengers either jumped or fell into the water, and others found themselves plunged into the ocean as the Titanic foundered. Though no autopsies were performed on any of the 330 bodies pulled out of the water, it’s believed that the some of them could have died as a result of injuries sustained from falling off the ship, but the majority of them probably died from hypothermia.
The United States Search and Rescue Task Force (USSRTF) describes what happens when a body is suddenly plunged into cold water:
“The first hazards to contend with are panic and shock. The initial shock can place severe strain on the body, producing instant cardiac arrest. Survivors of cold water accidents have reported the breath driven from them on first impact with the water. Should your face be in the water during that first involuntary gasp for breath, it may well be water rather than air. Immersion in cold water can quickly numb the extremities to the point of uselessness. Cold hands cannot fasten the straps of a life jacket, grasp a thrown rescue line, or hold onto an over-turned boat. Within minutes, severe pain clouds rational thought. And, finally, hypothermia sets in, and without rescue and proper first aid treatment, unconsciousness and death.”
According to the USSRTF, unconsciousness can set in when the body temperature lowers to approximately 86, and death at approximately 79 degrees. The water temperature at the location of the Titanic’s sinking was said to be only 28 degrees Fahrenheit. At under 32 degrees, the USSRTF estimates that humans could only survive for 15-45 minutes. It was over an hour before any of the Titanic’s lifeboats returned to look for survivors, leaving no chance for anyone in the water to survive.
As horrifying as their experience must have been, in some ways, it was preferable to how some of the other passengers may have died. With only 330 bodies being pulled from the water, that leaves over 1,100 bodies unaccounted for. How did they most likely die and what happened to their bodies?
Without a doubt, many victims died as a result of drowning and their bodies went down with the ship. An unknown number of the third class passengers not only never made it into life boats, but they also never made it to the upper decks while the ship was sinking. Those that died likely drowned as their decks began to flood with water, or when the ship split in half. Those that were in the bow likely all drowned since the bow filled completely with water as it sank. Those that managed to survive in air pockets throughout the ship’s stern either drowned or were likely killed when the stern began imploding from compression, or after it violently smashed to the sea floor.
Of their deaths, Owens says, “In many ways, these people had the most horrific deaths. Some of them never received any explanation as to what was going on; they probably died wondering what all the fuss was about. Others knew, but thought they would be rescued by people in the higher classes.”
Another highly probable cause of death was injury. Because some of the bodies retrieved from the water by the recovery ships had been too badly damaged to preserve through embalming and consequently had to be buried at sea, it’s very likely that some passengers died as a result of catastrophic injuries.
“As the ship’s tilt became more increased,” writes Owen, “more people would have fallen, either against other people and/or parts of the ship, or into the water. The further the fall, the greater the injury. As the stern of the ship became closer to perpendicular, the likelihood increased of muscle strength failing and victims falling from up to 200 feet into the water. At this type of height, bones would break like match sticks when hitting the surface of the ocean.”
Some of the missing bodies are also believed to have been pushed under water when the Titanic’s funnel collapsed or when the stern rose out of the water, broke away from the bow, and then crashed back down, killing anyone underneath and pushing their bodies deeper into the water.
According to Owens, “This would have … forced water into any open body cavities, as well as possibly tearing away life belts or forcing water into the cork of the life belts. Whatever the reason, most of those thrust under water by the falling funnels and stern were unable to return to the surface. Fortunately for them, most of them were already dead by this time.”
Some passengers also wound up in the water without life jackets. After they died of injury or hypothermia, their bodies would have begun to slowly sink. By the time recovery ships came to look for them, they may not have been visible from the surface. And their slow decent combined with underwater currents would have made it likely that they were nowhere near the site of the sinking when their bodies finally reached the ocean floor.
“The ship took less than half an hour to settle to the ocean floor,” writes Owen. “The bodies that sank would have taken weeks. During this time, the bodies would have been dispersed over a wide area of the Atlantic.”
Reports of suicides aboard the Titanic are only rumors and, to date, none has ever been confirmed. However, it is known that gunshots were fired and many survivors claimed that people were shot, but an exact number is unknown.
209 of the 330 recovered bodies were taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where 59 were shipped out by train to their families and 150 were buried in three different cemeteries in Nova Scotia. The remaining recovered bodies were buried at sea.
Although there are some species of cold water sharks that are native to the region, such as the Greenland Shark, there is no evidence to suggest that any of the victims had been attacked or eaten by sharks. Although, the recovery ships made the decision to bury some of the recovered bodies at sea because they had been so severely disfigured by birds or sea life that identification was impossible. It’s also likely that some of the bodies that sank to the ocean floor were consumed by various forms of marine wildlife. Those that weren’t would have decomposed completely over time.
Several events are planned this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, including a 3D re-release of the 1997 film and a memorial cruise that will follow the same route as the Titanic, with a stop along the way at the site of the sinking for a memorial service for the victims, and another stop at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where passengers can visit the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where 121 victims of the disaster are buried.
Edward B. Abbott
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