The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

17. The Collision

How many seconds passed between Murdoch's commands and the collision?

Quartermaster Olliver:
"When I heard the report, I looked, but could not see anything, and I left that [compass] and came and was just entering on the bridge just as the shock came. I knew we had touched something." (Page 526) (Emphasis added)

Quartermaster Hichens:
"Mr. Murdock, the first officer, sir [gave the order]; the officer in charge. The sixth officer repeated the order, 'The helm is hard astarboard, sir.' But, during the time, she was crushing the ice, or we could hear the grinding noise along the ship's bottom." (Page 450) (Emphasis added)

Later, Hichens would be quoted by Philip Gibbs ("The Deathless Story of the Titanic"):

"As Officer Murdock's hand was on the lever [telegraph] to stop the engines the crash came."

Fourth Officer Boxhall:
"At the time of the impact I was just coming along the deck and almost abreast of the captain's quarters, and I heard the report of three bells. . . . Almost at the same time I heard the first officer give the order 'Hard astarboard,' and the engine telegraph rang." (Page 228)

Boxhall then felt a "slight impact", to which he paid little attention; he continued walking toward the bridge. (Page 229) At an ordinary, unhurried pace he reached the bridge in time to see Murdoch closing the watertight doors. (Page 230) Quartermaster Olliver also saw this:

Mr. Olliver: The first officer closed the water tight doors, sir.
Senator Burton: When?
Mr. Olliver: On the bridge, just after she struck; and reported to the captain that they were closed. I heard that myself.
Senator Burton: How do you know they were closed?
Mr. Olliver: Because Mr. Murdock reported, and as I entered the bridge I saw him about the lever." (Page 531, emphasis added)

The probability is that the time between Officer Murdoch's order to Quartermaster Hichens and the collision was 3 to 5 seconds.

But what of the 37 seconds that were believed to have elapsed between Fleet sighting the iceberg and the ship striking it the essence of motion picture recreations? This estimate was based upon subsequent trials with the Olympic, in which it was discovered that at the same speed she took 37 seconds to turn two degrees to port. This in turn was based upon two bits of testimony: Firstly, Quartermaster Hichens' later estimate that the compass registered a two degree port turn between Murdoch's order and the collision which would make nonsense of the remainder of his testimony and which does not appear anywhere in his evidence before the United States Senate. Secondly, Lookout Fleet:

Mr. Fleet. Well, she started to go to port while I was at the telephone.
Senator Smith. She started to go to port?
Mr. Fleet. Yes; the wheel was put to starboard.
Senator Smith. How do you know that?
Mr. Fleet. My mate [Lee] saw it and told me. He told me he could see the bow coming around.
. . . . .
Mr. Fleet. Before I reported, I said, 'There is ice ahead,' and then I put my hand over to the bell and rang it three times, and then I went to the phone.
Senator Smith. What did he [Lee] say?
Mr. Fleet. He said nothing much. He just started looking. He was looking ahead while I was at the phone and he seen [sic] the ship go to port." (Pages 320, 321, emphasis added)

Fleet does not say that he saw the port turn, only that he was told of it by Lee. Lee did not testify before the Senate committee. No one else was forward of the bridge. The port turn therefore rests solely on Lee, and is contradicted by the testimony of survivors from the bridge.

It is also nullified by the construction of the ship. John Maxtone Graham, in The Only Way to Cross, noted that throwing a helm hard over when a ship is at or even near full speed will produce an equally hard roll, yet no one remembered any movement by the ship before, or indeed after, the collision. Actually, while this would be true of a small vessel, even true of a destroyer, it is not necessarily correct for a ship the size and weight of the Titanic; 22 knots is not especially fast for a 46,000 ton, four block long liner, and throwing the helm hard over might not produce any particularly noticeable movement. Reversing the engines suddenly at that speed will, however, produce a loud rumbling noise; the strange sound variously reported by so many passengers might well have been the engines rather than the iceberg. It would not, however, be the noise reported by those on the bridge because that ominous grinding sound came just as or just after Murdoch threw the telegraph lever.

Possibly the iceberg the Titanic struck.

The clue seems to lie in the article by naval architect Sir William White in the London Times of May 14, 1912, in which he stated that the Titanic's rudder required 20 to 30 seconds to respond to the wheel. (If Murdoch did gave a counter command almost immediately after "hard astarboard", then he did so before the rudder could respond to his initial order.) During all this time, she was losing speed. Even if he did not give a counter command to Hichens, ship and iceberg collided well before the time required by the rudder. The probability is that the Titanic did nothing at all, except stop.

There may be explanations for the port turn that Fleet said Lee observed, but the Titanic swinging under starboard helm cannot be one of them. Witnesses and design apart, for her to have done so William Murdoch would have had to order her to starboard those famous 37 seconds before Fleet turned back from warning the bridge, and this he did not do. There is uncontroverted testimony from everyone who lived to tell that Murdoch did not order "Hard astarboard" until after the lookout had reported and Moody had repeated the warning. Moreover, to have directed Titanic to port prior to Moody's shout of "Iceberg right ahead", Murdoch would have had to have seen it before Fleet, independently and he did not. There can be no question that Murdoch did not see the iceberg, because he admitted, forthwith and unevasively, that he had not done so:

Senator Smith: Did the captain seem to know what you had struck?
Mr. Boxhall: No.
Senator Smith: Did Mr. Murdock?
Mr. Boxhall: Mr. Murdock saw it when we struck it.
Senator Smith: Did he say what it was?
Mr. Boxhall: Yes, sir.
Senator Smith: What did he say it was?
Mr. Boxhall: He said it was an iceberg." (Page 231) (Emphasis added)

Boxhall could not know that Murdoch had only seen the iceberg when it struck the buff of the starboard bow unless he had been told as much by the only person who could say what the First Officer did or did not see: William Murdoch himself.

If the Titanic did not turn to port, then why did she not strike the iceberg stem on? Since that night, the argument, possible but not provable, has been made that Murdoch should not have tried to miss the berg but should have rammed it, in the belief that the bow would crumple and the ship thereafter remain afloat. Murdoch, however, did not have this choice: the collision on the buff of the starboard bow was inevitable, because the iceberg was not exactly ahead, but slightly to one side (which, in the darkness and in the terror of the moment, may help explain why Lee thought the ship was going to port.)

As he did not see the iceberg until the moment of collision, and could not therefore be certain of its size or precise location, why then did Murdoch order Titanic to port? The only logical answer is that he had been watching to port, and therefore knew it was clear.

Murdoch's choices were in hard fact non-existent. The essence of the Greek tragedy is that nothing the protagonist does or omits to do can thwart the end elected by the gods. The Titanic was unsaveable, because the concatenation of circumstances bringing her to 41°46'N, 50°14'W had made her so. Nothing William Murdoch did or omitted to do made any difference.

While Murdoch was still at the watertight door lever, and the ominous grinding noise could be distinctly heard, Captain Smith appeared on the bridge. Boxhall, just arrived, remembered the conversation:

Senator Smith: What, if anything, was said by the captain?
Mr. Boxhall: Yes, sir. The captain said, 'What have we struck?' Mr. Murdock, the first officer, said, 'We have struck an iceberg.'
Senator Smith: Then what was said?
Mr. Boxhall: He followed on to say Mr. Murdock followed on to say, 'I put her hard a starboard and run [sic] the engines full astern, but it was too close; she hit it.'
. . . . .
Mr. Boxhall: Mr. Murdock also said, 'I intended to port around it.'
Senator Smith: 'I intended to port around it?'
Mr. Boxhall: 'But she hit before I could do any more.'
Senator Smith: Did he say anything more?
Mr. Boxhall: 'The water tight doors are closed, sir.'
. . . . .
Mr. Boxhall: Yes, sir; and the captain asked him if he had rung the warning bell.
Senator Smith: What did he say?
Mr. Boxhall: He said, 'Yes, sir.'" (Pages 229, 230)

Note that Captain Smith had not automatically assumed that his ship had struck ice.

Quartermaster Hichens, listening from his wheel, recalled Murdoch's professional demeanor:

"That is all, sir. Then the first officer told the other quarter master standing by to take the time, and told one of the junior officers to make a note of that in the log book. That was at 20 minutes of 12, sir." (Pages 456, 457)

Captain Smith, Murdoch and Boxhall walked out onto the starboard bridge wing and looked aft for the iceberg. If the Captain and the First Officer could see anything they made no audible remark. Boxhall was not sure what he saw:

"Mr. Boxhall. I was not very sure of seeing it. It seemed to me to be just a small black mass not rising very high out of the water, just a little on the starboard quarter." (Page 230) He went on to say he "fancied seeing this long lying growler." (Page 231)

Fleet said it was a black mass, slightly higher than the forecastle head. (Page 320) Only Olliver and Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe, who was stationed on the stern, got a good look at the iceberg from the level of the boatdeck. Rowe thought it was 100 feet high, ordinary looking ice that slid by in total silence; by the time it loomed up beside him, contact with the ship had ended. (Page 521, 522) Olliver saw the iceberg directly off the starboard wing of the bridge:

Mr. Olliver: I tell you, sir, I saw the tip top of it.
Senator Burton: What color was it?
Mr. Olliver: It was not white, as I expected to see an iceberg. It was a kind of a dark blue hue. It was not white." (Page 528)

Olliver's surprise can be heard even in an impersonal legal transcript.

The black mass had gone away sternward; as in the case of the Trojan Horse, everyone who lived to bear witness to its effect differed over its appearance. With nothing to see, the Captain and his officers went back onto the bridge. The Titanic had now stopped, and curious heads were poking out of portholes and into corridors, wondering why. Samuel Hemming, in the crew quarters, assumed that another ship had collided with them; he looked out, expecting to see lights, only surmizing that it was ice when he saw none. (Page 663)